Carol a film by Todd Haynes
Carol is an almost unbelievably stylized, artful film. It isn’t just that the movie is a work of art, or that every scene is a work of art; every shot is a work of art. A shot of Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) riding away in a rain-sprinkled cab is full of beauty, mystery, allure. A gaze from one woman to another has more drama than a fistfight in most movies. And when the older woman makes a pass at the younger, and they finally make love, the sheer relief of that moment, the relaxation that happens, is like an orgasm for the audience.
The year—looked back on as a far-off, romantic, idealized period—is 1952, a year when I was four years old, when Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President (along with that hopeful young politician with a sweaty upper lip as his VP), when I Love Lucy and professional wrestling dominated the airwaves, and when the cars looked like bumper cars. There was nothing particularly romantic about living through that period, at least not for me—kindergarten was a bust—but I suppose any time can be seen through a romantic haze.
Carol Aird is what I think of as a society woman, a type of person who exists in every generation but flourished in the fifties. She went to the department store in her elegant outfit and mink coat to shop for Christmas presents, went out for lunch with a woman friend claiming that she was “famished,” then ordered poached eggs on spinach and a nice refreshing martini, settling back with an unfiltered cigarette to relax until the food appeared. Such women were portrayed by the famous actresses of the period, but none ever looked better than, or even half as good as, Cate Blanchett, who is almost impossibly beautiful.
There’s not a moment’s doubt from the start what her interest is in the young salesgirl who waits on her, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, who’s not exactly a slouch herself), but the intimidation of being approached by such a woman seems overwhelming. Therese is presented as an utter tabula rasa, who not only doesn’t know what a lesbian is (“Have you ever been in love with a boy?” she asks her boyfriend Richard, a dumb cluck played by Jake Lacy, and when he seems knowing about such folks, she says, “I don’t mean people like that. I mean people who just . . . fall in love. With each other”), but doesn’t know what to order for lunch, so she has the poached eggs on spinach and the martini too. She even tries a cigarette, though she doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. As for falling in love, of course you’d fall in love with Cate Blanchett, whether you’re a man, woman, or a four year old boy. You see her in a mink coat and want to fall into her arms.
Carol, alas, has a husband, a blocky alcoholic man whose primary problem is that his name is Harge (Kyle Chandler). They’re divorcing, and he doesn’t understand his wife, to say the very least, but he’s in there pitching; early in the film, he persuades her to attend a party, and utters that banality that must have been trite even in 1952, “You’re always the most beautiful woman in the room.” I took a gander around the room and thought, talk about damning with faint praise. She also has a daughter, whom she adores, and that’s the real problem; as long as she’s involved in the love that dare not speak its name, he can brand her as an immoral influence, and keep her from getting custody of her daughter. Why exactly he wants to do that I’m not sure. Does he think he can persuade his wife to give up women and come back to him? Or is he just trying to punish her? People back in the fifties who decided to divorce—a rare breed—were always trying to “win” the settlement. The win win situation was a concept that was far off in the future.
If people nowadays still have problems with gay relationships—at least people like Ted Cruz, who should change his name to Harge Cruz—the whole thing was unthinkable in 1952. That is the world Patricia Highsmith came of age in, and if this is the only novel she wrote with a pseudonym, we can see why. It’s also the only novel, as far as I know, where some violent crime doesn’t take place, though we are shocked when Carol and Therese take a trip “out West” to get away for Christmas, and Therese discovers a gun in Carol’s suitcase. I saw that and thought, uh oh, we’re in Patricia Highsmith territory now. But though Carol comes close to using it, she had fortunately not loaded it, which makes her unlike the typical Highsmith heroine. She looks good holding a gun, but has as little idea of what to do with it as Therese did with that cigarette.
I always wonder about crime writers, Why didn’t they try to write a “straight” novel? Didn’t Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett, or Dorothy Sayers, for that matter, have ample talent to have written a conventional novel? Patricia Highsmith, too: people say her books are psychological thrillers in which a crime happens to take place, but they’re crime novels, they’re genre books, of a very high order, of course, but the person who is pushed to an edge always commits a crime. This novel is the one exception for Highsmith; at least in the screenplay (I haven’t read the book), Carol defends herself not with violence, but with a marvelous speech, in a lawyer’s office. It isn’t what her lawyer would have her say—he’s having a conniption, in fact—but it’s from the heart. Even a guy named Harge has to acknowledge that.
I think that’s why this is such an artful, beautiful film. It’s essentially a dream. It’s actually, despite all its difficulties and wrenching emotions, a happy love story: that’s what’s revolutionary about it. Two human beings fall in love, period, just as Therese said to her boyfriend. I kept shaking my head as I watched this fantasy, thinking, 1952 wasn’t like this. It wasn’t. But it’s nice to imagine it could have been, for two people at least.
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