Carol: The Price of Love.
Carol is a delectably glamorous film that was over half a century in the making. It has amassed so many accolades that someone created a Wikipedia page to keep track of them all. Based on Patricia Highsmith's rg52 novel The Price of Salt, a lesbian romance that broke ground by ending with happiness, the story was adapted for the screen by Highsmith's friend Phyllis Nagy in 1996. It took the better part of a decade and the hard work of director Todd Haynes, a major player in the New Queer Cinema movement, to make Carol a reality. Like an early present, the film arrived before Christmas, in time for Oscar season. And this January, Carol received a total of six Oscar nominations: best actress, supporting actress, cinematography, costumes, adapted screenplay, and original score.
In the story, it is Christmastime in the 1950s, and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is a gamine shopgirl who works behind the counter selling dolls at a New York department store. Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is the older, richer housewife in the midst of divorce who is looking for a Christmas present for her young daughter. When they catch sight of each other across the toy department floor--Carol dazzling, Therese sporting a Santa Hat (compliments of the management)--the attraction is instantaneous. Carol approaches, makes a purchase, provides an address for delivery, and leaves the bait-her elegant leather gloves--behind on the counter.
Some celebrate Carol as a love story with a happy ending, but there is something like melancholy arising from the covert relationship. The connection between Carol and Therese is electrifying but far from equal, due to differences in age, wealth, and sexual experience. And so, what unfurls on camera is a lesbian coming-of-age drama that explores themes of loneliness and longing more than love.
DIRECTOR Todd Haynes takes his time with Carol. This is truly immersive and impeccably made work that showcases a perfectly reimagined era. Haynes lingers on the intimate period-specific details: winding a roll of black and white into a camera, watching a tin model train curving along its tracks, opening a can of beer with a church key. Production designer Judy Becker was robbed of an Oscar nomination--her attention to detail will truly transport you.
Sandy Powell's costuming is equally exquisite and presents Carol and Therese on opposing ends of several spectrums. If Carol is the predator draped in fur, Therese is her doe-eyed prey. Carol the Siren, Therese the enchanted. Carol has more years, money, and practice than the young, poor, and inexperienced Therese. Carol sashays around in blood red and mink, coiffed blond curls crowned with cocktail hats and cocooned in silk scarves, lipstick confidently bright and expertly applied, nails long and lacquered. Therese, on the other hand, sports a jaunty juvenile beret (complete with pompom), schoolgirl tartan, and youthful bangs.
The script makes more remarks on their differences. Carol supplies the cigarettes and, for the most part, makes the moves. She lives in the suburban stone mansion with a housekeeper. She has the daughter and difficult husband, the dinner plans, the devoted former lover Abby (Sarah Paulson). Therese doesn't know what she wants, never mind what to order for lunch, and says yes, unthinking, to everything. She lives alone--no family--in a cold, sparse walk-up. She has only a dead-end job selling dolls she resembles, a desperate boyfriend, and the dream of becoming a photographer. Carol further influences our view of Therese as innocent and almost otherworldly, calling her "my angel" and saying, "What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space."
There is not much dialogue in Carol or at least not very much conversation to nurture the budding relationship. Therese insists, "I am fond of anyone I can really talk to," but we don't see much talking. And when we do see Carol say something to Therese it often sounds like a command. Instead of words, wonderful cinematography and a magnificent musical score convey thoughts and emotions.
Edward Lachman's cinematography shows the couple as isolated and lonely. The film begins with the camera rising through a subway grating, which symbolizes how both Carol and Therese emerge from lives trapped underground, buried beneath ornate bars. Often, the camera confines or hides the women. It shows them boxed into small spaces (a restaurant booth, the department store counter), trapped behind rain-splattered windows, or turned away with backs facing the audience. We catch glimpses of them around corners and doorways, or we see them reflected in mirrors. And the grainy quality of the film itself works to further obscure the women from themselves, from us.
In the film, looks say more than words. Carol starts with a love-at-first-sight spark and builds longing through languid gazes. Therese seems to do most of the looking and even starts "capturing" Carol in photographs she takes, stealthily. Earlier, Therese says taking pictures of people feels like an "invasion of privacy," but it soon becomes the only way she can possess Carol.
Beyond the lingering looks of the characters and cinematography, the music, an original score by Carter Burwell, tells the story. Music playing over Carol's small talk shows the hypnotic effect she has on Therese. (She will deny she's in a trance, of course, but words mean little in Carol .) The low notes of a bowed instrument when Carol reads a ruinous telegram sound like keening. More, Carol and Therese listen to "Easy Living" by Billie Holiday, and the lyrics of this love song say more about how they are feeling than they ever do: "For you maybe I'm a fool / But it's fun / People say you rule me with one wave of your hand / Darling, it's grand / They just don't understand."
CATE BLANCHETT AND ROONEY MARA are really co-stars in this film, never mind the fact one is nominated for best actress and the other for best supporting actress. Although Carol has the title role, the film sees things mostly from Therese's perspective. And certainly, I worry more about Therese.
Carol, the main object of desire, is stifled, constrained by the strict, conservative era, but Blanchett doesn't do caged bird. She lights the screen on fire, dressed in red, "the most beautiful woman in the room." Indeed, Blanchett plays beautiful, well, beautifully. But I would have liked to see Carol as a little less immaculate: I was waiting for the slick veneer to crack. If hiding for years, suffering a patronizing husband, and losing someone precious isn't enough to make you break, I don't know what would be. I wanted to take a mallet to her thick carapace, split it open to see her soft, gooey centre. She stays at a cool distance, gorgeous enough to be admired, even adored, but almost unfeeling. Haynes has Carol so high on a pedestal that she almost becomes invulnerable.
Therese, on the other hand, is a plaything. Mara is so sympathetic she makes Blanchett harder. Therese calls herself useless and selfish; she tries to help but is consistently shut out. Carol chastises and then comforts her as she would a child: "Don't do this ... It's not your fault." When Carol abandons Therese, she leaves an unromantic note that demands, "There must be no contact between us ... I release you." In contrast, Carol tells her friend Abby everything, spilling her heart out in hushed teary whispers over the phone: "Oh, Abby. I don't know how to fix this, I haven't the strength."
For Carol, the relationship is about possession--she mentors Therese the way she mothers the daughter she is losing. For Therese, desire becomes an obsession that she navigates with childlike confusion: "I never say no ... I just take everything, and I don't know anything, and I don't know what I want, and how could I when all I ever do is say yes to everything." In the moments before the film's only sex scene, Therese brushes her hair at a vanity, and I couldn't help but see the image of Carol brushing her daughter Rindy's hair at the mirror, together counting the strokes.
Carol's husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese's boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) both give strong performances, but the film presents them as babysitters. Harge calls Carol his responsibility; Richard wants to make sure Therese is "safe and sound." Both seem to think they can make a woman love them by badgering or blackmail. (How many times will Richard say "I love you" to silent Therese before he gets the point?) Neither Harge nor Richard is a brute, just oblivious: they see Carol and Therese's relationship as more of a nuisance than a threat.
Dannie (John Magaro) offers a refreshing counterpoint to Richard and Harge. It is Dannie who champions Therese's dream, encouraging her photography before Carol does. And where Carol is muse and patron (she buys Therese a camera), Dannie's interest feels platonically selfless. Although Therese deflects his advances, he becomes a real friend, praising her work, cajoling her into getting a portfolio together, and then helping her land a job at the New York Times. What's more, he paints her apartment. (Performing unrewarded manual labour proves friendship.)
THE NOVEL at the heart of this film, The Price of Salt, is a romance, but screenwriter Phyllis Nagy takes several liberties that alter the love in the story. In the film, Carol makes the first move by leaving her gloves on the counter and continues to initiate contact with Therese: taking her to lunch, asking her out to the suburbs one Sunday, inviting her on a road trip, and reinitiating contact after silence. In the novel, Therese is less passive: she sends the unwitting Carol a Christmas card and says "I love you" first. In the film, Therese is virginal, but in the novel she sleeps with Richard. And in the film, Carol abandons Therese in a hotel room after learning bad news, but in the novel, Carol and Therese work to evade danger together on the road, like Thelma and Louise.
Of course, the film is a work of art in its own right. There's no reason it should be a clone of its inspiration. However, the changes that Nagy has made do significantly alter the nature of the relationship, tipping the balance in favour of Carol so that she wields more power in addition to more wealth, age, and experience. Regardless, Todd Haynes delivers a film that is as mesmerizing as it is confounding. Ultimately, Carol is so hypnotically pretty it will ensnare you. Like Therese, you'll become a dear in the headlights of Carol's gleaming eyes.
LEE MARSHALL is film reviewer for Queen's Quarterly.