CANNES, France (AP) -- Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are sitting in a bright room, with the Mediterranean all around, atop the Palais des Festival, the hub of the Cannes Film Festival. As the stars of Todd Haynes' '50s lesbian romance "Carol," they've been at the very center of Cannes both because "Carol" epitomizes the positive female focus of this year's festival and because few films have been more lauded here.
The megawatt attention for the pair is ironic, in a way. In "Carol," Blanchett and Mara play women drawn irresistibly together, but who must cloak their surging affection for one another in subtle, hidden gestures, keeping their love unseen to a conservative, male-dominated world.
"There's something 'Romeo and Juliet'-esque about it," Blanchett says of the film. "There's a universality to the love story that moves it out of the niche. It's about the perspective or the feeling of being in love for the first time. And, yes, it's not immaterial that there are two women at the center of it. But at certain moments, it kind of is."
The long-in-development "Carol" is finally out in the open after more than a decade of attempts to adapt the 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," ''Strangers on a Train"). The book, originally published under a pseudonym, has long been a classic of gay literature.
By the reception at Cannes, "Carol" seems sure to be in the Oscar hunt this year after it opens Dec. 18, particularly for its sumptuous period production and the raved-about performances of its two stars.
Chemistry between Mara and Blanchett is essential for the film to work, but the production schedule didn't allow any time for rehearsals. It was either going to be there, or not.
"A lot of people ask me: what did you do to get the chemistry?" says Mara. "But chemistry, I don't think is something you can create. You either have it or you don't."
As a couple, they are seemingly quite different. Blanchett, who plays a married but separating woman with a child, is a regal, 46-year-old Australian, a hugely respected force of theater and film. Mara, who plays a timid department store clerk infatuated with Blanchett's Carol, is a petit but tough 30-year-old who broke through in David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."
But Blanchett says their chemistry came from their firm faith in the project and a shared seriousness.
"I feel we're both quite practical and pragmatic about the work," she says. "We're both pretty unshockable. There was a little: 'Don't worry, don't be embarrassed.'"
Mara, though, initially turned down the film before Haynes and Blanchett came aboard. The script, by Phyllis Nagy, first came to Mara while she was recovering from the attention of "Dragon Tattoo."
"Everything I read, I was like, 'Oh I can't do that. I'll be terrible in that. I don't know how to do that. I don't know who that is.' I felt like I couldn't play anyone," says Mara. "Now looking back on it, I must have really hated myself to turn it down."
For Haynes, Blanchett and Mara add to a filmography littered with powerful female performances: Kate Winslet in "Mildred Pierce," Julianne Moore in the also '50s-set "Far From Heaven" and Blanchett, herself, as Bob Dylan in "I'm Not There."
"I'm very lucky to be able to have had some great chances working with women and on stories about women's lives that I think are under-represented in independent film and Hollywood," Haynes said in an earlier interview. "I'm proud of that mantle, if that's what I'm slowly earning."
"Carol" may have taken years to finally arrive, but at its world premiere at Cannes, its timeliness was obvious.
"There's no point making these things if they're just museum pieces," Blanchett says. "Todd is able to have one foot in that time frame and then be so ahead of what we feel is contemporary."
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