By Ali Bush '19
Carol (2015) is a poem of a film, complete with forbidden passion, velvety, blurred shots, and a sense of melodramatic doom. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel “The Price of Salt,” the film tells the story of soon-to-be divorced, self-assured Carol Aird (Cate Blanchette) who is fighting off the tight grip of her abusive husband (Kyle Chandler) and is eventually thrust into a fight for the custody of her child. Her love interest is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a younger woman with aspirations of becoming a photographer, but unable to free herself of her overeager boyfriend (Jake lacy). When the two women miraculously manage to find each other among the bustle and commotion of Cold War era New York City, a story of passion, devastation, and hope ensues.
The two women’s story begins when Carol encounters a naïve, yet bold Therese, who works at a department store. What appears to be an unassuming conversation between saleswoman and customer about Christmas gifts and train sets, is revealed to be something much more for both characters. An electric moment occurs when the confident housewife turns to leave, looks over her mink-clad shoulder, and compliments Therese’s Santa hat. It’s a refreshing case of love at first sight, something that is often avoided in many contemporary films. Therese gives off the impression that she has never been looked at and understood in such a way before, and is entranced by Carol’s sense of confidence and elegance. The two are instantly absorbed with each other, and so begins a secret relationship of passion and tension. After various innocent visits together, the two aimlessly head out west in a dream-like search of peace and seclusion. Told through the perspective of Therese, we see a story of not only two star-crossed lovers, but the story of Therese coming to understand herself more and more in each scene. Set in the age of conformity, they of course encounter devastation and endless pain, but director Todd Haynes beautifully tells these women’s breathtaking story during a time when their love was unspeakable.
Set in the height of the Cold War, the beauty and glamour of their mid-century surroundings distracts from the inherent conformity of the 1950s to which both women are subjected, and makes their relationship hopelessly impossible. Both women are constantly (and admirably) at odds with their stifling expectations, not only because of their illicit love, but because of their thirst for independence and careers of their own. The film perfectly illustrates the two lives that the women must maintain: being passionately immersed in one another while innocently sipping cocktails together at fashionable New York lounges. This is a film in which its actors must act as characters who themselves are acting and wearing masks, and Blanchette and Mara are clearly capable of this demanding task.
Hayne’s talent as a director shines through in the first and last scenes of the film, which are essentially the same scene with the same dialogue, but with entirely different meaning. We first see the two lovers having lunch in a flashback. The women are seen from the perspective of an anonymous outsider and acquaintance of Therese, and although their relationship is ambiguous, it seems innocent and amiable. At the end of the film, after gaining context of the lovers’ passionately painful journey together, we return the exact same scene from the perspective of Therese, and finally understand the gravity of the situation and the women’s incredible ability to act composed while being inwardly devastated at the same time. These scenes masterfully give us insight to the agonizing charade that many queers had to maintain in this era and throughout nearly all of history to simply spend time in public with one another.
Though the film lacks action and may move too slowly for many, the subtly of the character’s glances are an art all of their own. The scarcity of the dialogue makes us cling to every word all the more. Although director Todd Haynes, like all great movie makers, doesn’t exactly give us the satisfaction of knowing the end of the lovers’ story, there is a tentative hint of a happy ending, which was revolutionary for lesbians during this time period. This film refuses to be simply a pitiful look at what queer life was like among the intolerance of the 1950’s; it is much more than that. It confirms the age-old cliché that love between two people (no matter what gender identity) can endure society’s disapproval.