not in our stars, but in ourselves
It’s not a terribly original thing to say, but movies – especially those produced in Hollywood during its so-called Golden Age – have, in no small part, taught us how to love. They’ve shown us what romance is supposed to look and feel like, how to flirt and yearn, etc., etc. And yet very few movies – from the classical Hollywood era to the present day – have successfully captured what it’s like to fall in real, deep, life-shaking love. Is that because so many Hollywood movies default to the male perspective, and its suppression of all genuine feelings? Oh, maybe. Whatever the reason, it’s no surprise that the twenty-first century’s very own “women’s director,” Todd Haynes, has made a gorgeous, ardent, rapturous movie about love.
Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a slightly aimless young shopgirl at Frankenberg’s department store in midtown Manhattan. She has a perfectly nice boyfriend who wants to whisk her away to Europe and get married, but she’s simply not sure. While she’s trapped behind the sales counter in the toy department, she sees a glamorous woman across the floor: wrapped in a luxurious fur coat, accented with a jaunty red cap and Technicolor-red nails, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is eyeing the elaborate toy train set chugging around. Carol approaches Therese to buy a gift for her young daughter, and seems surprised by Therese’s wit and iconoclastic nature – so surprised that she leaves behind her gloves. Therese uses the sales slip Carol has just filled out, finds Carol’s address, and mails the gloves back to Mrs. Aird’s elaborate suburban home. All is not well in the Aird household: Carol’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), is reluctantly going through with a divorce. He still hopes to reconcile with her – a nice way to say he wants to continue to control her. Carol won’t budge, not even when he angrily brings up her former relationship with their daughter’s godmother, Abby (Sarah Paulson). In fact, Carol decides to thank Therese for the gloves by taking her out for lunch, and by inviting her to spend Christmas with her at her home. The sheer force of their immediate feelings for each other – feelings that Carol is able to identify and name, that Therese struggles to understand or act on – would be a beautiful thing if they weren’t two women in love in the 1950s. With the world as it was, they have some rough patches. The course of true love never did run smooth, or so they say.
Carol deliberately, obviously, and beautifully refers to another heartrending classic of illicit love: Brief Encounter. Haynes employs the same framing device that David Lean uses in his 1945 masterpiece. At the beginning of the film, on a rainy and dismal night, we slowly meander into the dining room of a hotel. Among the well-heeled patrons, we notice Carol (facing) and Therese (back to us). They’re evidently sharing a charged moment – when they’re interrupted by an acquaintance of Therese. As he prattles on, Carol stands up, grips Therese’s shoulder, and leaves. From there, we go back to the beginning, back to the department store, back to the first of several moments when the two will gaze at each other from across a crowded room. Of course, unlike Laura and Alec, Therese and Carol are facing not merely the taboo of an extramarital affair (since Carol and Harge are still technically married). If Laura and Alec weren’t so scrupulous, if they weren’t so middle-class, if they just gave into their feelings and consummated their relationship, they probably wouldn’t have been much worse for wear. Either they would have decided to throw away their respective spouses to be together, or their spouses would have decided it for them, or they would have grown weary of each other after the thrill of the chase – and that would have been that. Therese and Carol have a far tougher road ahead of them, because – as the Tumblr meme puts it – “Harold, they’re lesbians.”
This isn’t merely a gay rehash of Brief Encounter, however. It’s an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, first known as The Price of Salt and later simply as Carol, a semi-autobiographical account of a young girl like Highsmith who becomes infatuated with a sophisticated older woman. As Haynes put it in this magnificent interview by Nick Davis of Film Comment:
The novel and Phyllis [Nagy]’s beautiful adaptation are such powerful love stories, and raised questions for me about how “the love story” in movies differs from the domestic dramas or melodramas I’ve looked at in the past. Plus, I was interested in the isolation of the desiring subject, who’s more in love, who’s more liable to be hurt by the object of desire—in this case, Rooney’s character, Therese. In the novel, you’re placed entirely in her point of view. The first draft I read of Phyllis’s script opened it up, giving us somewhat equal access to Carol’s side, where all the most dramatic material really resides—whereas Therese is just this young woman coming into focus, even to herself. There was something so strong about the entrapment you felt in the book of being stuck with Therese inside her own consciousness. I was really moved by that and wanted to bring some of that feeling back into the film.
I also saw a direct line from the overproductive mental states of all the criminals in Highsmith’s other novels to the romantic imagination, in its constant state of hyperproduction, conjuring scenarios and outcomes, getting overwhelmed by all the signs it’s trying to read, trying to determine whether the person you love feels any need to be close to you. That craziness, that loneliness, that paranoia, but also the pleasure of reading everything—to the point of total distraction from everything else—I found to be such a great premise.
Love stories for “the straights” often have pursuer and pursued, with the pursuer more often a man and the pursued more often a woman. Carol presents its titular character as the aggressor, toying with all the signifiers of a predatory lesbian (all that red!), and Therese as the naïve young maiden. Even as it employs these pulp novel signposts, however, it undercuts them. Carol has had to play a role all her life, and part of that includes the society-wife glamour-queen look; here, finally, is someone who sees who she really is and loves her all the same. Therese, for her part, is the kind of wide-eyed gamine that every man in her orbit wants to protect (and possess) – at first glance. In truth, she’s a keen observer (hence her skill as a photographer), and reluctant to be protected or coddled by anyone. Their age difference and class difference isn’t exactly unimportant to their relationship, but Carol and Therese are – perhaps for the first time in their lives – on equal footing. They see each other as they really are, not as the men in their lives have seen them. Neither wants to possess the other; they simply want to be together. We straights seldom experience love like this, frankly, and it’s one of the most illuminating aspects of a positively gleaming film. There’s no sexualizing or pathologizing or sermonizing about these two gays trying to be with one another. There’s just a glorious movie honoring a life-changing love affair.
As a side note: I’ve seen more of the Best Picture nominees this year than I usually have. Obviously, Mad Max: Fury Road is the best film of 2015. The Martian and Spotlight were fine, even if I found them underwhelming. I’ll see The Revenant tomorrow, probably, so I’ll report back on that. Room seems interesting, but the other three nominees – Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies, and The Big Short – look like a trio of yawns. Someday I guess I’ll get around to seeing them so I can judge properly, but the point is this: Carol deserves, beyond the faintest shadow of a doubt, to be nominated for Best Picture. But why wasn’t it? Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson hits the nail on the head:
But let’s give the Academy the benefit of the doubt and assume that it’s not that. (It’s that.) Why else might Carol have been shut out of best picture? It may be that the film is just too still, too academic for enough Academy voters to really grab a hold of; Carol is no gushing melodrama. Which has certainly been an issue for other also-rans in previous years. Remember when Gladiator beat Traffic for best picture, or when A Beautiful Mind beat In the Bedroom? And just look at the other movies Crash also beat in its year. Loud and insisting tends to triumph over quiet and introspective, which is maybe just the way of the world. But at least those films mentioned above were nominated! Carol wasn’t even allowed a seat the table, while decidedly shallower fare was let in—rather tellingly, fare that featured men being tough (the pinnacle of all cinema) or women in peril (where women in movies belong, ideally).
Edited to add: a very good post-script. It’s the misogyny, stupid!