The Exquisite Exquisiteness of Carol


We got this piece seven months ago and shelved it because, at the time, it didn’t seem like it could be of any great relevance; the author just really, really likes a movie. And then we saw this piece in Wired on the rapid efflorescence of extreme Carol fandom online.  And we reconsidered. Go figure.

Seldom has a movie so moved me as Todd Haynes’s Carol. Haynes is an auteur’s auteur, a throwback to the heyday of Great Directors in the 1970s.  His 1995 film Safe nearly inspired me to write a book, and his 2007 I’m Not There–a riff on the identity and iconicity of Bob Dylan–almost made me stop hating biopics.

Indeed, the director’s versatility and willingness to play with issues of gender and sexuality have likely alienated him from mainstream or even many art-house audiences–a fact that was never clearer than the near shut-out of Carol at awards ceremonies last year.  Rooney Mara and the ever-effervescent Cate Blanchett both got Oscar nods as nominees for acting, but the cold reception of Hollywood eminence grises for the film was widely noted.  For a film that one critic described in a breathless, early review as “probably as close as I’ll ever come to knowing what it feels like to find Jesus,” this result seemed to be the essence of an anticlimax.

But what a film.  Haynes has a Wes-Andersonesque obsession with detail and texture, married to a commitment to realism that the other boy-wonder director does not countenance. The splendor of the Christmas-time department store where Carol and Therese first meet, the clothes, the interior design of the homes, New York in the snow, the records, everything–it’s all there.  The narrative unfurls a tale of sexual awakening that could easily be hokey and self-congratulatory, but Haynes tells it with great subtlety and care, as the demure, mousy Therese comes under the influence of the more mature and sophisticated Carol, and begins to come into command of her own desires and identity.

In fact, there’s an element of the film that almost feels predatory–Carol is so much more knowledgeable, affluent, and self-assured that she seems to exercise undue influence over the jejune Therese. But whatever the initial power dynamics between the two, the story of their romance is far tenderer than a simple calculus of age or experience or class; indeed, the film opens with an ambiguous scene of their meeting at a restaurant and loops back to it at the end, giving viewers a clear and bitterly ironic sense of the equivocal nature of the relationship between the two women.

mara in carol camera

Over the course of the film, the young Therese–a Manhattan shopgirl and aspiring photographer–falls into the orbit of Carol, an upper-class New Jerseyite with a complex past.  Therese is dating the guy from The Obvious Child and The Office, who typically plays a hunky good boyfriend but in this case is the unfulfilling guy that she is stuck with.  After a chance meeting, Therese and Carol become friends and enjoy a deepening connection over time. Soon, it is clear that Carol has had lesbian relationships in the past, notably with a character played by the wonderful Sarah Paulson, and she wants to become intimate with Therese. The younger partner is unsure of how to proceed, but she begins to move away from the normative heterosexuality that she (and the rest of the society around her) takes for granted.

Throughout, Haynes surrounds the women in his film with babies, babydolls, and all the superficial trappings of traditional domesticity, accentuating the contrast between the lives Carol and Therese want to lead and what’s expected of them. As their relationship deepens, Carol ultimately has to confront the implications of rebelling against social norms in the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s–particularly when her resentful and vengeful husband, played with superlative douchiness by Kyle Chandler, puts out a sting on Carol in order to document her sexual perversion and deny her access to their daughter.

Carol then dares to surprise in two ways. The original novel, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, avoided the cliches of typical gay and lesbian pulp fiction of the time by eschewing a tragic ending. Most such stories concluded with the LGBT character suffering a great loss in the end, as a kind of instructive parable, yet Highsmith allowed her protagonists to be happy–an unusual thing at the time.  Yet the story also sees Carol willfully forsaking her child in the custody battle, a steely acknowledgment that she could not win in a court fight by the standards of the time.  Our parenthood-worshipping culture can barely tolerate the idea of a mother relinquishing her child, but Carol made a brave and perhaps wise decision. Given an impossible situation, she made an impossible choice.

The line in the film that stands out to me the most came in the divorce proceeding between Carol and her estranged husband: “We’re not ugly people, Harge.” In a time when public discourse has coarsened and all manner of ugly, hateful speech has become widely tolerated, it is perhaps not surprising that viewers respond so strongly to a film about that’s fundamentally about beauty and dignity.  A strong and preternaturally self-contained woman, bearing the burden of being the wrong person in the wrong place, at the wrong time–Carol could still rise above it and plead for compassion and decency. That is the beauty of Carol, and Carol.