BY Lucy Whiting
TODD Haynes’ touching tale of forbidden romance set in 1950s New York will undoubtedly stick with its viewers for decades to come. Delicately adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel THE PRICE OF SALT, CAROL is the painfully beautiful tale of the intoxicating romance between aspiring photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and sophisticated housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett).
From their very first glimpse of each other in the toy store where Therese works, there is an intensity that hangs in the air between them that feels both comforting and dangerous. Therese is naive and inexperienced compared to Carol. Carol knows what she wants; her intentions manifested in her direct dialogue and suggestive body language.
Every gesture in the film is full of sentiment, highlighted by Ed Lachman’s elegant 16mm cinematography that draws the viewer in with its grainy texture. The muted colour palette presents the film like a memory. The two women are often shot through windows, mirrors and doorframes, a reminder that it is a secret love that must live in the margins. Yet the eloquent performances reinforce that the romance bears as much weight as any other. Carter Burwell’s longing orchestral arrangement gracefully imitates the feeling of vulnerability that comes with falling in love, as well as a sense of imminent sorrow and isolation associated with the unheard-of same-sex love at the time. The closing scene, however, settles on a more hopeful note.
One of the most refreshing aspects of CAROL is that, instead of focusing on the controversies of a lesbian relationship at the time the film is set, Haynes centres on the gentle details of the women’s slow-burning affair. From the intimate glances that Carol and Therese give each other to the tender brushing of hands on shoulders, the film’s anticipation is built on the theme of yearning and the beauty of falling in love. In doing so, CAROL avoids the negative undertone that regrettably so many LGBTQ films possess. DISOBEDIENCE (Sebastián Lelio 2017), THE FAVOURITE (Yorgos Lanthimos 2018) and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Céline Sciamma 2019) are three recent films that portray queer women well to a degree, yet each film builds to an ending that sees the women forced apart, strengthening the recurring theme that lesbian characters are destined for misfortune.
In CAROL, the narrative is shown entirely from Carol and Therese’s point of view, therefore escaping the male gaze – another fault that many films involving queer women succumb to. An example of this is Abdellatif Kechiche’s infamous BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOUR (2013), one of the most recently criticised films regarding these issues. Described as “humiliating” by the lead actresses, the extended, graphic sex scenes were also scrutinised by critics who compared it to porn formed around the male fantasy. The criticism proved that merely seeing lesbian characters on screen is not enough to count as good representation; good representation must involve believable characters and action that accurately depicts the community without being exploitative and disrespectful.
Instead of exploiting lesbianism for the benefit of male viewers, Haynes’s film respectfully celebrates the relationship between two women in all its beauty. This is not to say that CAROL does not touch on the issue of homophobia at the time, nor does it brush over other characters’ disapproving views. Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is the main antagonist throughout the film, using Carol’s sexuality against her in an attempt to change her mind about the divorce that she fights for. When Carol stands her ground, Harge threatens to take full custody of their daughter, Rindy (Sadie Heim/Kk Heim), due to Carol's sexual preferences that her lawyer labels a “morality clause”. Harge's manipulative behaviour is not only driven by his possessive nature, but also by his blatant homophobia. Through the questioning of doctors' appointments and patronising remarks that imply Carol's sexuality is a mental illness, it appears that if it were a man Carol had left Harge for, he would have certainly taken her choices more sincerely.
Contrastingly, Therese’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) is more upset that Therese wants to be with someone else rather than himself, and not necessarily that it is another woman. However, Richard's uncomfortable body language and disapproving comments reveal that same-sex love is something he is against and, when Therese displays her interest in Carol, he does not take her feelings seriously, reducing it to a “schoolgirl crush”.
The film does not shy away from negativity and it does not deny that prejudice, pain and heartbreak all exist. There is a perfect balance between the beauty of the romance and the societal constraints that hold the characters back, confirming that it is entirely feasible for LGBTQ films to be authentic and not utterly soul-destroying at the same time. Carol and Therese are more than their sexualities, they are complex female characters with individual mannerisms and ambitions. This adds realistic depth to their relationship, something that is important to see more of going forward.
With its positive lesbian representation and stunning visuals, CAROL is so much more than its 200+ award nominations and 70+ awards. Between the longing stares through taxi windows and the wordless scenes that seem to speak louder than the lyrical dialogue ever could, this is a film that pulls you in and breaks your heart, only to mend it at the very end, leaving you feeling warm and whole again. CAROL is one of the most impactful films of the decade. It is perhaps the very definition of poignant.
more DECADE >>>