Carol is a film of unforgettable snapshots. Like a long-gone grandparent, Portland director Todd Haynes' newest feature is an experience that you remember mostly by token images—Cate Blanchett's lacquered nails, Rooney Mara developing film in her shabby apartment kitchen, Blanchett's lipstick stains on Mara's nipples.

A romance between a young salesgirl and older housewife set against the picture-book 1950s, Carol in many ways echoes Haynes' Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven. It's an almost painfully beautiful adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel, The Price of Salt, with Haynes' signature touches—magnetic actresses and gorgeous shots of them lighting slim cigarettes. But for all its soft shots of Mara's ingenue character, Therese, gazing through rain-speckled windows, Carol is trailblazing, too.

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett

This is the first Haynes feature with a lesbian couple front and center, and the first he didn't write.

"All of it was a new way 'round," he says. It's largely a women's project, fueled by a script that took screenwriter Phyllis Nagy 15 years to create, two female leads that you can't look away from and the scene-stealing costuming of Sandy Powell, who is also responsible for telling Haynes about the project when it was still a dream in producer Elizabeth Karlsen's head.

"Karlsen brought [the project] to me with Cate's name already attached," Haynes says. "But I hadn't read the book—to the horror of my lesbian friends—so, I went to the Oregon Coast with the book and screenplay." After one read, he dove in.

"I've never taken this on as a filmmaker before Carol—the love story as a predicament," he says.

In true Haynes form, this predicament is a gorgeous one. Mara and Blanchett (who Haynes calls "an incredibly stunning woman with a real nose") can say more with their fingertips and eyelashes than their words.

Framed to channel Vivian Maier's midcentury photography of Chicago, the film shows romance as tea sandwiches, abusive husbands and Lindy hops in equal measure. And it's a nostalgic ride: "We filmed on 60mm because it keeps that authentic, grainy content," Haynes says. The film's many scenes shot through store windows, car windows, rain-speckled windows, hotel widows—are an homage to female artists—like Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley and Helen Levitt—more than Highsmith. "Maier was an inspiration for Therese being a photographer, which isn't in the novel," Haynes explains. "The first window is a lens. That's the first act of looking in."

Rooney Mara as Therese
Rooney Mara as Therese

A sense of voyeurism does color the film. We sit in on the couple's first date—creamed spinach over eggs and two dry martinis in a mahogany booth. We watch Carol watch Therese, playing jazz on Carol's grand piano, in an intimate moment when the older woman slips off her pumps to pad around in nylons, seeming naked.

This isn't the anonymous peeping of cinema though, says Haynes; you are inside the women's heads. "It's not as if we're outside peering in. We're in the perspective of the more vulnerable of the two at the time," he says. "She is the locus of the point of view, anchoring it and looking at the other."

The real-life Thereses and Carols of the 1950s were invisible. "They were living in the pre-Stonewall reality, when lesbianism was unseen," he says. Until now, gay love in Haynes' films has been central to plot but mostly offscreen, like in Far From Heaven, one part of a gender-bending onslaught, like in I'm Not There and Velvet Goldmine.

"I like that [Carol is] a gay love story, of course I do!" Haynes says. "It imbues the story with something radical because we haven't seen it before."

Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett

Though the film will be released on Christmas Day in Portland, along with blockbusters, and features red-carpet names (Carrie Brownstein gets five minutes onscreen), it feels personal enough to prod you behind the sternum.

For the final scene, Haynes decided to film completely by hand—no dolly or track. "There's nothing like that in the rest of the film," he says. In closing, Haynes transplants our eyes into Therese's head and stares straight into Carol's. But Carol seduced you already, two hours back.

"We are inventing cinematic language for [gay love stories] as we go," he says. "It's a thrilling unknown, and that is how it feels to fall in love—like you're inventing it. But in this specific context, it's true."

Critic's Grade: A

See it: Carol is rated R. It opens Friday, Dec. 25, in most Portland-area theaters.