Todd Haynes’ devastating Carol offers a portrait of impossible desire that’s revealed through glances, meaning-laden gestures, and little bits of dialogue, creating a subtext of sexual innuendo and need that’s brilliantly carried by Cate Blanchett, as Carol, and Rooney Mara, as Therese, the young shop girl she seduces.
The story—adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel (written under the pseudonym Claire Morgan), The Price of Salt—is set in mid-50s America, but it resonates across queer history, reminding spectators who celebrate an era of same-sex marriage and family-making that we’re really not that far from a time when the consequences of our desire were dire, if no less necessary. (For terrific discussions of Highsmith and the history of the novel, see Frank Rich’s “Loving Carol” in New York Magazine and Margaret Talbot’s “Forbidden Love” in The New Yorker.)
Carol is a film about falling in love, but as Patricia White points out in her very smart analysis of the film’s queerness (“A Lesbian ‘Carol’ for Christmas”), in their end-of-the-year awards-race rhetoric, too many critics have acclaimed Carol as a universal romance, when in fact, the film is deeply queer in its filmic and narrative choices. Carol evokes two women falling in love at a moment that required them to encode their desire in subterfuge and indirection. White points out that Haynes’ film quotes all the tropes of Hays Code-era films in which lesbianism could only be referenced obliquely. His achievement here is to embed these old referents in a new film that directly addresses lesbian desire. Blanchett and Mara capture the painful pleasure of feelings to which it’s impossible to put words, a desire you can barely even look at even while its charge and depth rock your world.
Haynes lets the camera linger on how Carol and Therese look at one another. Their scenes are sometimes wordless, but the two actors communicate with their bodies and faces in ways that speak volumes. Haynes frames scenes through doors and windows, looking at Carol and Therese askance as though he (and the spectator) can only see them through the dominant culture’s perspective, skewed, awry, and remote until they’re fully together. His camera tracks with the narrative, gradually moving closer to them, watching them watch one another, and then putting them fully together in two-shots as they become more physically intimate.
He shoots them in mirrors, too, in which they look at themselves and one another even when they’re alone together, as though something always mediates and frames their relationship. Even playwright Phyllis Nagy’s terrific screenplay begins at the story’s penultimate scene, then subtly flashes back to the beginning, only to lead us carefully back to the end. Nothing could be straightforward or linear about lesbian relationships in the 1950s.
Haynes tells the story with the touches of melodrama but thoughtful care that always mark his work. Blanchett’s stylized performance makes of Carol an out-sized figure, a mink-entombed, glamorous, rich suburbanite who first spots Therese selling toys at a department store counter and can’t keep herself from flirting with the girl.
Carol is a performance of herself, crafted from necessity, since she’s required to be married to a man named Harge (nicely played with requisite frustration, hurt, and anger by Kyle Chandler) who knows she prefers women. They’ve produced a daughter Carol adores, even as her husband uses the girl as a bargaining chip in his increasingly futile attempts to keep Carol in their marriage. The scenes between Blanchett and Chandler are purposefully overheated, as they both fumble through the social script dictated by the ideology of the moment.
When Carol and Therese meet and begin seeing one another, first across public tables in restaurants, and soon in Therese’s home, where Harge can predict the trajectory of their relationship even before Therese, the two women barely speak, as though there is no script for the increasingly palpable desire that sparks between them. Blanchett and Mara’s faces carry each scene, clouding and opening, communicating longing and lust in averted glances or full-on, daring gazes.
Played with raw vulnerability that’s contained by a kind of performative hauteur and grandeur, Blanchett’s Carol is older, and wise enough to know she’s trying hard to be something she’s absolutely not. She’s an adoring mother, which makes her sacrifice wrenching, but she’s a woman who can’t pretend any longer, who won’t reject the desire that’s formed her. Carol’s body, draped in dresses that accentuate Blanchett’s curves, and gilded with gestures that give her verve and flair and completely undo Therese in her company, is both irresistible and inauthentic. She’s packaging herself to be both alluring and unavailable, protecting herself against rejection should her instincts prove wrong.
By comparison, Therese is young but not naïve. She intuitively understands her attraction to Carol, even if she can’t quite name it, and she commits to it willingly, letting herself be lead but never fooled. Mara’s marvelous performance lets us watch Therese fall in love from the inside out, compared to Blanchett’s more outside-in performance. Mara’s huge violet eyes, set close in her angular, achingly open face, register every shock of feeling. The moments when Therese gives in to Carol, tilting her head against the older woman’s hand as she subtly but unmistakably caresses her neck, give Therese away, but also clarify that they both know the stakes in their flirtation, that neither one of them can afford to be wrong about what they read off one another.
Therese is a photographer, a familiar figure in lesbian narratives (so many of the characters in early lesbian plays were photographers, from Jane Chamber’s heroine in Quintessential Image to many others). As White points out, Haynes wrests his film away from the perniciously male gaze. Therese’s ownership of how she sees Carol literally through her own camera lens is part of how Therese frames her own story. Watching Carol and Therese watch one another is one of the principle pleasures of Haynes’s film; watching Therese come into her own as someone who can frame and narrate her own view of the world is another.
Haynes is a compassionate filmmaker. He knows this story from the inside, understanding what it means to be queer in the 1950s, when people with such “natures” could lose their children and their jobs. Bohemia could barely tolerate them, let alone the upper-crust culture from which Harge derives. The binaries of country-city, wealth-poverty, and heterosexual-queer mark the film everywhere. Even Carol and Therese are split by their differences from one another, which contribute to their chemistry and their desire.
Seeing Carol reminded me of what it felt like 30 years ago to see Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch’s 1985 film adaptation of Jane Rule’s novel, Desert of the Heart. That book and film aren’t as elegant or eloquent as The Price of Salt and Carol, but together they mark the change in my own affective experience of lesbian representation. I probably saw Desert Hearts three times the very week it came out in 1985. I cathected utterly, as I saw something of myself on the big screen for the first time. For those of us in my generation who grew up able to fathom our desire only through misdirection and spectatorial impersonation, to see something of our oceanic emotions on screen, in public, for the first time, felt cataclysmic. It didn’t matter that Desert Hearts was kind of ridiculous as a film; it mattered that it existed.
Carol reminds me of the power of that moment. It returns me to the time in my own history when my desire had to be coded and left unspoken, only signaled in the hopes that those watching would be able to understand and respond. Among its many visual, intellectual, and political pleasures, Carol offers an eloquent, moving reminder of the taboo but exhilarating, vulnerable but powerful, necessary if sometimes tragic requisites of lesbian desire before so many of us assimilated into legal marriage and domesticity. What a gift to be returned there by a savvy, smart, talented filmmaker, and two actors whose chemistry and intelligent, wrenching performances mean so much.
The Feminist Spectator