Directed by Todd Haynes
True Romance. The essence of Carol, a film much lauded but low grossing (which has become the norm for prestige films at Oscar season) is that it is a lesbian love story as Eric Rohmer might have conceived it and Alfred Hitchcock might have photographed it. The plot is slender. At Christmas around 1950 Carol Aird, an unhappy housewife on the verge of divorce (Cate Blanchett), feels an immediate attraction to Therese Belivet, a much younger sales girl in a New York department store (Rooney Mara). Poised between upper-middle-class privilege of the period, swathed in mink, and her sexual loneliness, Carol initiates a love affair that quickly takes us into literary territory, with the visuals doing much of the poetic writing, in the “camera-pen“ tradition that French critics admired in great American movies.
The result is queer-cinema-meets-auteurism. Patricia Highsmith, whose 1952 lesbian novel, The Price of Salt, was adapted by director Todd Haynes, consciously set out to break down crudely simplistic stereotypes. In one touching reader’s review at Amazon, the liberating effect of the story changed the life of a 21-year-old girl in 1969, who tells us that before finding Highsmith’s book, written under the pen name of Claire Morgan, “the only [lesbian] literature I knew was The Well of Loneliness, prison studies, and pulp that either had the butch lesbian dying tragically or reforming into a femme.” Haynes remains true to Highsmith’s sexual politics. His Carol and Therese want an escape from social oppression, and when they go on a road trip as a journey of erotic discovery, feminism and GLBT studies inch a step further to a better world.
But the perversity and suspense of Strangers on a Train and the Ripley novels are suppressed in Haynes’ filmed version of the story, which is glamorized and occasionally seasoned with mordant humor, as when Carol says she can‘t stand another tomato aspic (I haven’t read the novel, however). Alfred Hitchcock’s ironic, morbid, and erotically skewed imagination made a cinematic match with Highsmith. Haynes may or may not have inserted veiled references to Hitchcock. Like Marnie and her symbolic phobia of the color red, the two women in Carol wear psychologically imbued red coats, most memorably in a pair of striking shots: first Carol as glimpsed through a doorway, almost slit-like, where red is the color of eros; later Therese as viewed through the windshield of Carol’s car crossing the street on a rainy day—here, the coat is a dismal purplish red, the color of love when it turns into a bruise. The culminating love scene in a motel room on the road is done with conventional caresses of soft, golden skin, not because Haynes couldn’t find a more unusual way to film it but because this is the orgasmic norm in movies where the sex scene is hetero. In other words, it’s a gesture of equality.
Carol is highly aestheticized, which gives it a dimensionality beyond sexual politics or sex for that matter. The theme of a “love that dare not speak its name” was considerably darker in Haynes’s masterful Far from Heaven (2002), whereas Blanchett’s Carol is barely closeted. Her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), knows about a previous affair with Abby (Sarah Paulson), a woman more or less Carol’s age, and his simmering resentment at his wife’s audaciousness fuels their bitter divorce.
In a tightly controlled portraiture, Carol, Therese, and Abby are an overlapping psychological ensemble, with Abby’s knowing, half-cynical “wisdom” about lesbian romance serving as a foil to Carol’s attempt to renew herself, and Therese’s unsure, innocent eroticism pulling Carol into the memory of her own younger self. The roué who needs to win his way back into self-respect was Cary Grant’s situation in North by Northwest, of course (wittily underlined by his monogrammed handkerchief turning the name Roger O. Thornhill into the initials ROT). Carol isn’t that far gone yet, perhaps not even close—we don’t know if her romance with Abby entangled her in disillusionment, but the tale of a middle-aged woman seeking a second chance with a young lover fits the pattern.
If Carol depended solely on aesthetic elegance, it would be a pendant to something like 2003’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which is also the tale of an older pursuer mesmerized by an innocent girl, set in 17th-century Delft. But where in that movie the painter Vermeer is captivated by a young servant who will become the centerpiece of a celebrated painting, the pursuer in Carol—absent from the story but quite apparent to the eye—is Haynes himself, hypnotized by the face of Cate Blanchett, which gets worshipped by the camera as lusciously as von Sternberg worshipping Marlene Dietrich. At 46, Blanchett’s presence dominates almost every shot, not simply because she’s so beautiful or because of her lonely, entrancing knowingness—a parallel to our fascination with Dietrich and Greta Garbo, too—although that is reason enough not to take your eyes off her.
Blanchett exists in the film as the conduit through which we view erotic hope and longing. Her face embodies her present thoughts and past history. Carol is sumptuously feminine, and you can see why, totally stripped of Hollywood lesbian vibes (as in the sleazy subgenre of women’s prison movies, culminating in the explicitly titled Women’s Prison (1955) with Ida Lupino), Blanchett stands for love beyond boundaries, love that transcends the wounded past. As a friend pointed out, the expression on Carol’s face toward the end of the movie, when, lunching at the Oak Room, she glances up to see that Therese has returned to her, is one of those heartbreaking, ecstatic looks like Charlie Chaplin’s at the end of City Lights or Giulietta Masina’s at the end of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.
The plot has an optimistic ending. Carol has been forced by Harge to drop Therese if she wants any hope of shared child custody after the divorce. She gets the custody—not that the child is seen very much in the film, and Carol’s motherly instincts are mostly implied—and this being an ideal romance, she gets Therese, too. But what lingered for me was the adoring quality of how Haynes treats Blanchett’s remarkable face, which can’t help but revive aching memories of Hollywood past.
Extraneous note: The movie business makes for strange bedfellows, and last year gave us the odd couple of Carol and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Spielberg’s mega-career has so studiously avoided the erotic that he can only signify it through stand-ins for sexual energy, chiefly male. He idolizes manliness, honor, heroism, patriotism, etc. in a way that M-G-M once coded into Errol Flynn but with even more circumspection. Of sexy women in Spielberg films there’s barely a trace. His beau ideal has been Tom Hanks, star of Saving Private Ryan, now much older in Bridge of Spies but still as graced with perfect integrity as in Ryan. The new movie updates Hanks’s WW II valor to 1959 and the Cold War fracas between the U.S. and the Soviet Union over the downing of spy pilot Francis Gary Powers. In both roles Hanks is a citizen reluctantly obeying his country’s call to duty, emerging ennobled by his steadfast sense of honor—he wants no other reward.
Ironically, the only flagrantly erotic character created by Spielberg was the psychotically sadistic Nazi prison commander Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, the role that secreted Ralph Fiennes into the same compartment of libido where women keep a thumb-worn copy of Fifty Shades of Gray. On the page the role of Goeth is repellent, and it says something for Spielberg’s theatrical acumen, and his liberalism, that he allowed Fiennes to sneakily sex it up (I assume it was the actor’s idea). Todd Haynes finds eroticism so compelling that Bridge of Spies couldn’t possibly be by him, just as Carol would be unthinkable in Spielberg’s universe, but Bridge of Spies studies an American movie star with the camera, creating a perfectly detailed portrait through visual craft in the great Hollywood tradition. Both films are also stately in pace and classically edited.
Without pushing the comparison too far, I wanted to celebrate Haynes’s impeccable craft, on a par with Spielberg’s. but coming from a very different ethos. Let’s face it, our greatest narrative filmmaker is a prude. Tom Hanks has almost zero interest in seeing himself eroticized, either. The gay lovers in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia don’t kiss, and the only real passion Hanks’s character shows is for Maria Callas’s opera recordings. Even the young Gary Cooper, chiseled icon of straight masculinity, allowed himself to be eroticized with the same swooniness as Dietrich in Sternberg’s Morocco.
Queer cinema has fairly fizzled out by now; it certainly hasn’t gotten general audiences to accept candidly sexual stars with a gay/lesbian bent. We’re stuck in much the same suggestiveness that made Marlon Brando an object of desire for anyone who cared to gaze at him—he didn’t give a flip. Gayness in real life still ruins an actor’s chances to be a leading man, as witness Rupert Everett after he played Julia Roberts’ gay confidant in My Best Friend’s Wedding. America isn’t big on sexual accommodation, and in the pimply protracted adolescence of the current Marvel Comics era, sex was taboo until it emerged explosively last fall in Netflix’s interracial sex scenes in Jessica Jones. Just as in the heyday of Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter, gay rumors swirl around certain leading men, especially the ones who take their mothers to the Oscars, and no doubt the studios are still protective of them as long as they have box office appeal. A funny online spoof promotes a paparazzo photo of Hugh Jackman—perpetually speculated over by wistful gay bloggers—romping in the surf with his boyfriend. When you open the photo, it shows Jackman cavorting with no one else except an inserted image of himself. At least they look happy together.