At first blush, Carol threatens to be another luxuriously indulgent, but dramatically inert, pastiche of 1950s melodrama from Todd Haynes.

Specifically, the story of a blossoming love between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a mother shackled by a socialite marriage she loathes, and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a wispy shopgirl-cum-photographer whose lens and life lack focus, would seem a distaff retread of the repressed homosexuality from Haynes’ Far From Heaven. It may be a minority opinion, but the meticulously stitched ’50s fabrics seemed to fit ill on the frame of that 2002 film.

“I want to ask you things, but I’m not sure that you want that,” Therese mutters with all the might of a mouse to Carol in language that’s coded less against violating social norms, more against her own arrested development. “Ask me things … please,” Carol replies, verbalizing a desire to understand and be understood. As is Therese and Carol’s affair, so too is Carol a film about excavating truth rather than resting on assumptions. Appropriately, it’s wise to cast off any preconceived notions you may have about Haynes going in.

Carol is easily his most rapturous, riveting film in two decades — a work of both gossamer beauty and gargantuan emotions. There is no need to manufacture tragedy amid the damnably tempestuous chaos of attraction, no room for stereotypically outsized social satire, no empty evocation of someone else’s style. Just an exquisite romance, propelled by two of 2015’s finest female performances, an intoxicating, near-synesthetic symbiosis between Ed Lachman’s cinematography and Carter Burwell’s score, and a vision of love as an inexplicable chemical reaction incalculable in both power and provenance.

Carol first catches Therese’s eye from across the showroom floor at the New York department store where Therese works — a shimmering ripple in a calm sea of comfortable conformity — and meets her gaze in full during a sale at her counter. After Carol leaves her gloves behind, Therese arranges to return them, and the two develop a burgeoning affection for each other — complicated by Carol’s marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s quasi-live-in situation with boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy).

Adapting from Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical, pseudonymously published 1952 novel The Price of Salt, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy expertly establishes the syntax of Carol and Therese’s flirtation. The former employs kiss-off aggression and dominance, the latter a coquettish curiosity. Because it’s Highsmith — she of the high-toned psychosexual Ripley novels — we expect mystery and, with the appearance of a gun, an unwelcome veer into melodrama. We also anticipate violence visiting itself upon Carol and Therese when they take a road trip through the heartland. Nagy deftly dupes us on all fronts in ways that serve the story she seeks to tell.

As the intensity heightens between Carol and Therese, there is no clear delineation of predator and prey, or pupil and student. Neither does Carol simply celebrate or lament a love that dare not speak its name. It explores how Carol and Therese wrestle internally, not socially, with the beauty and terror they feel over this passion — how they relate to each other rather than the world in which they live. And when this tension explodes physically, it’s in a tasteful, but erotically charged, tangle of limbs, hair and flesh.

Therese is a woman who agrees to everything only because she fears if she does not, she may miss the experience that will define her. But she has yet to say “yes” to anything without a giant asterisk attached. Mara’s flitting eyes, halting gestures and gradually accumulating confidence match the beautiful thematic symbolism of Therese’s photographic hobby: We sense she, too, will only develop into a clear image under the most carefully curated conditions.

And just as you think you’ve seen Blanchett do it all, she makes even a flexed hand muscle fraught with tension, ache and yearning. Through slight vocal tics, you sense Carol’s shame, however misplaced, that she is not the wizened seductress she presumes Therese wants, or needs, her to be. Carol struggles, too, to dictate the language of how she wishes her life to be while respecting her motherly obligations. It builds to a beautiful moment of negotiation with Harge in which Carol demands her words go on the record — if only to etch in stone her courage to summon them and convey to her daughter the usefulness of being unafraid to speak your mind.

As Harge, it would be easy for Chandler to coast on cartoonish jealousy. Instead, we see a man exerting control out of his own insecurities with howlife has gone askew from his expectations. At a key moment, Carol insists neither she nor Harge are ugly people, and Chandler makes us believe her. (Sarah Paulson also excels as Carol’s friend Abby, who later strikes an unexpectedly poignant bond with Therese.)

Pertinent to Therese and Carol’s fumbles toward ecstasy, Lachman’s cinematography feels blown out, overexposed, pointillist at times. He plays with focus and clarity to a point where images often acquire a fuzzy, tactile texture — as if evolving alongside Therese and Carol’s attraction as it strengthens. Blues crush deeply. Reds pop vibrantly. It’s in perfect rhythm with Burwell’s lush score, which deepens in complexity along with the characters.

Carol is less about the constriction of love by social necessity than finding the courage of individual expression — emotional, physical, romantic. Elegantly composed, impeccably acted and beautifully rendered, this love story is one of 2015’s best films.