by Kathie Smith
The art of seduction is at the fore in Todd Hayne’s Carol. Cultivated right from the opening shot, the strings of the soundtrack swoop you off your feet and carry you into a gritty 1950’s New York City that feels nostalgic regardless of your familiarity with time and or place. Introducing us to the streets, the people, and the hidden spaces found behind windows and through reflections, every detail is manicured and every image is softened with a warm hue. The movie’s éclat is the result of the creative choices and artistic talent behind the production—a multilayered effort inherent in filmmaking, though it is rarely so elevated and pronounced. Production design and art direction by Judy Becker and Jesse Rosenthal, costume design by Sandy Powell, and cinematography by Ed Lachman (wielding a 16mm camera) all contribute to a tactile atmosphere of period perfection. In a word, it’s seductive. And we haven’t even taken the narrative into account.
Director: Todd Haynes
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Tessa Ross, Christine Vachon, Stephen Woolley
Writer: Phyllis Nagy, Patricia Highsmith (novel)
Cinematographer: Edward Lachman
Editor: Affonso Gonçalves
Music: Carter Burwell
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith
Premiere: May 17, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 20, 2015
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Cocooned in this ambience is the story of Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), who, after a mutual experience of sparks at first sight, dive into each other’s presence, fostering a romance that is only forbidden outside of their bubble. Therese is like an island floating in New York City—a young, aspiring photographer with an armchair boyfriend and a seasonal job at Frankenberg’s department store behind the toy counter. It’s in this exact spot that Therese meets Carol, who is searching for a gift for her daughter (Carol initially wants a doll but Therese convinces her to get a train set). Glances are exchanged, gloves are left on the counter, and Therese, armed with Carol’s address for the train set delivery, decides to return the gloves by mail with a note, leaving the opportunity open for another meeting. As their friendship slowly evolves, the undercurrent between them builds with every allusive conversation, furtive touch, and suggestive invitation—the most audacious being Therese joining Coral on an undefined road trip to escape the drama of her failed marriage and custody battle.
Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, Carol, taking the lead on the best aspects of the novel, turns Highsmith’s fiery words into elegant curls of smoke. Written in 1953, The Price of Salt had the pluck to tell a story about two women falling in love, completely disregarding the unspoken rule that lesbian love find resolution with “the right man,” insufferable guilt, mental illness or a catastrophic combination of the three. (It’s surprising how many lesbian films have felt the need to patronize these tropes, even today.) Instead, Therese is portrayed as a savvy young woman with an eager and open heart who is ready to embrace whatever life delivers. Phyllis Nagy, who wrote the screenplay, makes good on the novel’s bravery to strip away the weight of social anxiety from the women and place it on others, notably on Carol’s belligerent husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s jealous boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy).
Highsmith’s richly drawn story (originally written under a pseudonym and incorporating autobiographical elements) seems poised for Haynes to translate with his knack for tempered melodrama and unapologetic candor, falling in line with his film Far From Heaven and recent mini-series Mildred Pierce. What Highsmith does with prose, Haynes orchestrates with Nagy’s charged dialogue and with Mara and Blanchett’s combined aplomb. While the script provides a perfect lattice to this love story, it’s the spaces between in which Mara and Blanchett are able to stimulate the emotional components of falling in love—tension, excitement, fear and blissful isolation from the rest of the world. Their differences in class and age seem to disappear under the feverish influences of their mutual attraction. Therese is exploring unknown territory, and her gaze is either wide-eyed and eager to engage with Carol or cast aside, contemplating what she is unable to vocalize or act upon. And when the women finally succumb to their desires, it’s done with a gesture and a line that, out of context, would read like a children’s book.
As with most movies, Carol finds propulsion in conflict—specifically the divorce Carol’s husband, Harge, is unwilling to acquiesce to without a fight. Believing he is “the right man” and unwilling to take his wife’s sexual preference as anything more than childish, Harge wields their daughter as bait while dangling moral impropriety as a weapon to force Carol to return to him. His attitude is one of clichéd (but believable) patriarchal privilege circa ‘50s America, but his cruel legal tactics build to one of the best scenes in the film. Carol and Therese’s road trip is brought to an abrupt end due to Harge’s threats and tactics, and, in and attempt to appease the courts and gain access to her daughter, Carol distances herself from Therese. But right at the moment that Carol has officially broken Therese’s heart (and ours), she stands up for herself in a brilliant soliloquy for life and civility as she lashes out at three men—Harge, his lawyer and her lawyer—who want to micromanage her every action.
Referencing David Lean’s Brief Encounter, Carol begins in the final act, opening with Carol and Therese having coffee under an unspoken tempestuous cloud and then, in flashback, depicting their blossoming romance. When we return to that initial sequence, everything—the coffee, the conversation, Carol’s hand on Therese’s shoulder, and Therese’s eyes on Carol’s hand—holds the weight of the drama we’ve just witnessed. It’s a dazzling machination that is initially disorienting as you attempt to read the situation, and eventually very potent (and heartbreaking) in its emotional endgame.
Both Carol and The Price of Salt spiral into a tail spin when Carol is forced to choose between her daughter and Therese, the outcome wavering between predictable tragedy and conciliatory purgatory. Thank Highsmith, perhaps best known for her novels Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, for being neither predictable nor conciliatory and instead being fearless and contemporary in her approach to love under the umbrella of so-called “deviancy.” The final paragraph and even the very simple final line pack a punch of elation that straight readers might take for granted in a fictional romance. Highsmith, who died in 1995, was 60 years—if not more—ahead of her time, honing her wicked talent for writing and willfully projecting her own principles regardless (or perhaps in spite of) the world around her. In 2015, representing an unapologetic romance between two women does not face nearly the same risks as it did in 1953, but Haynes paints it with a graceful masterstroke, faithful to Highsmith’s bravado while making it his own—a precise and opulent seduction.