This is the new film by Todd Haynes, the fellow who made his name with his film of the Karen Carpenter story told with Barbie dolls [which Mattel shut down and is still officially unavailable (it’s on YouTube)] and went on to make Far From Heaven and an HBO miniseries of Mildred Pierce. So he’s openly gay and smart and is apparently specializing in period pieces about repressed women… and making them really well [I guess I need to watch that Mildred Pierce now…]. This is adapted by a 1952 book by Patricia Highsmith, of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, as well as other wonderful Ripley novels, and was notable at the time for simply showing a lesbian relationship that had a happy ending. So let’s evaluate!
We open with a guy coming in and interrupting Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, and Therese, played by Rooney Mara, while they’re having drinks. He invites Therese to a party, and she leaves, having flashbacks on the way that become the whole movie, leading back to the opening moment. Already we can see that the movie has a gorgeous production design that vividly evokes the 50s [much more on this later, but it's by Judy Becker] and has a lot of beautiful shots of lights through a steamy car window, people on 50s New York streets, characters out of focus, textures of the department store where Therese works and the textures of fabrics the people are wearing, easing us into the movie with languid, dreamlike visions that fade into and out of each other. Therese meets Carol when she comes in to buy a doll for her daughter. They don’t exactly flirt, but they seem very enchanted with each other. Carol leaves her gloves on the counter, and Therese returns them by mail. Carol calls and invites Therese to lunch. In truth, the story was inspired by a blonde woman Highsmith saw while working at a department store like this one, and later [after the novel was completed] went out to her address in New Jersey to essentially stalk her.
As they have lunch, you start to notice Hayne’s interesting framings—like initially, Carol is way over in the lower right third of the screen. You start to notice that a lot of space is given to silent gestures, lingering glances and other nonverbal communication. Carol invites Therese out to her house in New Jersey, and the film’s drive through the Holland tunnel is a particular highlight, as Haynes goes into a dreamlike reverie of images reflected in windows, passing lights, shots of Carol’s gloved hand, Carol’s face slowly coming into focus… and it conveys Therese being slowly enveloped in a romantic swoon by the elegant, older woman. After a pleasant day buying a Christmas tree, they are hanging at home, wrapping presents and listening to music, when they are interrupted by Carol’s ex-husband, Harge, who is horrified to find Therese there [their marriage broke up over one of Carol’s previous lesbian relationships] and takes their daughter away, insisting, unsuccessfully, that Carol come with them. Haynes effectively gets across the discomfort of being in someone else’s house while they have a family fight, and the awkwardness and upset of being dumped alone on a commuter train home.
So Harge takes the daughter with him for Christmas, and Carol decides to go away as well, asking Therese if she’d like to come. Therese goes, over the loud protests of her boyfriend, who cannot understand this friendship at all, and seems to feel that the fact that he has feelings for Therese is enough reason for her to give serious consideration to marrying him, although it’s clear that she has no feelings for him at all. The trip makes up the bulk of the film, although it flies by without much of anything seeming to “happen.” Therese gives Carol a jazz album. They sightsee and have small talk while driving through the wintery Midwest. They stop at various hotels, never sleeping in the same bed. They're mildly amused at a salesman flirting with Therese at a hotel restaurant. The film maintains its visual fascination with Carol, her hair, her nails, her furs…. Meanwhile, we see that Harge is now looking for her.
SPOILERS > > >
It’s all going along okay, until they stop in the town of Waterloo, the name of which should clue you in that something bad will go down. They finally get it on, which is tastefully done but explicit enough to let people like my mother [who still insists that the women in Fried Green Tomatoes were just good friends] understand that some carpet did indeed get munched. Well, turns out that the salesman was a private investigator sent by Harge, and he recorded their Sapphic slurping, made a remix of it, and uploaded it to YouTube, where it went viral. Carol vanishes, and Therese wakes to find Carol’s ex Abby, who gives her a “I just can’t right now” note and takes her back home. These scenes introduce a new electricity, as we see Abby sizing Therese up, Therese feeling bitter and judged like a foolish child, and much more definition to the older-younger dynamic of Carol and Therese’s relationship, which is subtly done to the point where it can go unnoticed.
The challenge is that Harge is charging Carol with moral transgressions and using it to take full possession of their daughter. For these reasons, Carol has to stay away from Therese. Then, in a scene that comes as a bit of a shock, Carol simply gives Harge custody of their daughter, as long as she has visitation rights. This pretty much frees her up, and she asks Therese to meet with her. Therese has come into her own, becoming a photographer for the New York Times, and building up her defenses against Carol. She goes to meet her, and Carol proposes that they live together. They are interrupted [we have returned to the frame that opened the movie] and Therese leaves, going to a party that makes heterosexuality look about as dreary as it possibly could, although it’s clear that she’ll have several women to choose from, should she wish to.
Before we leave the spoiler zone, let's just note that one subtle thing that makes this film not straight in a way that makes the story very modern and may have been one straw in it not being nominated for best picture, is precisely that lack of interest in the motherly bond. In pretty much all other movies, the maternal bond is supposed to be the most fierce of all, and here Carol chucks it for love. Just sayin'.
Therese goes to the club where Carol said she’d be [having dinner with a group of all men] and thus begins the most romantic sequence of the year, as well as a real nail-biter. Therese crosses the room and we simply wait for Carol to look up, but the tension is unbearable and Haynes brilliantly keeps the emotion of the whole piece on a slow burn, only to let it all out here. You have to give it up to Cate Blanchett’s acting throughout, but the way she settles into the perfect facial expression of recognition and love is another reason she’s the big deal she is.
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So again, something brilliant is happening here, which I'm not sure I’ll have the words to fully express. Haynes is ingeniously letting his production design become a major player in the movie, and using it to tell his story in a way you wouldn’t think cars, rooms and costumes could. There’s a layer of fetishism here [hello, it’s Patricia Highsmith] as well as a sheen of exploitation [older woman preying on younger naïve ingénue?], and he let’s that come through in fetishistic shots of Carol’s gloves, her furs, her lips, her blonde hair, her dresses, all of which receive much coverage but no explicit call-outs. But it’s also the city itself, and the time period, all of which receive so much loving attention that they suffuse the story with an air of heady but forbidden romance and the ever-present stifling of tradition and respectability. It helps if you remember some of the trappings on display here from your own life—one shot of a thank you note brought back such vivid memories of my grandmother’s things—because you’ll have that extra emotional connection.
There's also something about this that gives the film its gay sensibility. It's hard to define, but in most straight romances it's about how they share something verging on spiritual, and are "soulmates," mean to be together on some sort of spiritual plane. The importance of the production design shows us that this is about THOSE women, in THOSE times, in THOSE clothes. It gives ample time to the importance of gestures, nonverbal communication, and shows us Therese fetishizing Carol's gloves and nail polish. As mentioned, the maternal bond is not presented as the most important, and in addition, sex is shown as important to them. So its not just about a lesbian story, it also has a strong gay sensibility.
The other function the production design [and the dreamlike quality of many scenes] is to position the action in the past, separate from where we are now, which allows us to feel the moral strictures of the time more strongly… in a way, by saying “that was a different time, far away from where we are now” [as opposed to striving for “relevance,” as most films do] we are more able to really soak in the change of atmosphere and the attendant difference of morality and the place of men and women in that time. I’m thinking of how crystal clear it is that Harge sees himself as the aggrieved party, and can’t see where Carol has a side at all, although we see little development of that relationship. Ditto Therese’s boyfriend’s obliviousness to her affection for Carol, and the clear sense of the dynamics of the Carol-Therese-Abby triangle. These relationships aren’t belabored, but they are absolutely clear. And is all that really in the costumes and sets? Yeah—in addition to the wonderful script and impeccable acting—I kind of think it is.
As for the fetishism and possible exploitive nature of the relationship [it seems no accident that there’s a sign behind Therese when Carol first sees her that reads something like “Mommy's Babydoll”], Haynes follows the novel and just lets it hang there. It is what it is, and if Therese is being exploited, she seems to be having the time of her life. That aspect is allowed to just provide texture and nuance to the relationship, instead of everything being sanitized and focus-group approved.
And as for this film being left out of best picture consideration and Haynes not nominated for best director? Total fucking bullshit.