illustration by Brianna Ashby
In Carol, director Todd Haynes tracks the unbidden attraction and inexorable romance between two women in the 1950s. The pair, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), are of different ages, classes and backgrounds, but the film’s drama centers on the conflict of their combined difference. In a period of postwar traditionalism, women are discouraged from considering desire or destiny because a woman’s life is a foregone conclusion. Marriage leads to procreation in order to buttress a husband’s career and home. Anything outside of that ambition is deemed a diversion or a pathology.

At the start, shop girl Therese seems to be an orphan, without parents or many confidantes, by default a self-authored creature unwittingly on the hunt for an ideal. Like anyone on the cusp of maturity, she proceeds by instinct, by intrigue, by chance encounter. The movie inhabits her point of view: Belivet’s last name is of Czech origin, and New York is cast with a central European kind of gloom, frosty and grey with intermittent bursts of luster and warmth. When Carol, glimmering and elegant, enters the children’s floor of the department store where Therese works, the younger woman cannot resist this captivating figure. Why and how could she? Carol is a creature as much as a woman, coated in golden waves, animal pelt and coral adornments. And Therese is willful but inexperienced; able to circumnavigate a dead end (a tour of Europe with her needy steady boyfriend becomes a cul de sac instead of a life expanding offer), eager to follow desire when she senses it. Carol, the woman, is a clue to Therese’s future—by engaging her curiosity, Carol captures Therese’s desire and her heart.

In the analogue 1950s, there are limited ways for lovers of any stripe to cross paths—through friends or through work (the way Therese meets the earnest boyfriend who can’t quite capture her imagination), in bars or by chance, which feels more fated when the meeting culminates in something passionate, as it does for Therese and for Carol. The characters’ interests and tendencies are telegraphed according to their tastes. “I never really had a favorite doll,” Therese responds to Carol’s query. Therese liked trains, and her childhood enthusiasms cue the audience to other possibly untraditional avidities. Carol purchases the toy train set at Therese’s suggestion and leaves behind a pair of gloves—a breadcrumb trail that allows Therese into Carol’s life and affections.

Under the name Claire Morgan, Patricia Highsmith composed the film’s source material, a novel called The Price of Salt, dreamt up after a fever and drawn from the experiences of a socialite lover who lost access to her family after involvement in a lesbian affair. The fictional story additionally follows a pattern evident elsewhere in Highsmith’s work (The Talented Mr. Ripley, for one) in which a fetishized acquaintance becomes the object of erotic fixation. In the author’s constructions, emotional energy keeps transfiguring and transposing from one enthusiasm to the next; and if thwarted, violence is the consequence. Here, however, the form is melodrama instead of thriller, and the tone is tormented rather than murderously desperate. Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation alters Therese’s professional aspirations from set designer to photographer, and the drama is established according to the young woman’s artistic values, dedicated to the totemic nature of gesture and composition.

In this codified world, the touch and the glance are weighted to convey everything that must remain unsaid. But if the conventions of melodrama are meant to elevate unvoiced feelings and illicit relationships by gesturing at their emotional weight, Carol instead gives us declarations and demonstrations. The dialogue is flatly explicative to let us know exactly how we are expected to view each scene. One of Therese’s Greenwich Village friends sits in a cinema’s projection booth jotting down notes on the film: “I’m writing down everything the characters say they feel that’s in contrast with their gestures.” The visual metaphors, for all the fuzzy filters and grainy resolution, are very clearly read.

The story is curiously spare on the reasons for the women’s attraction, but then, as an authorial standin explains, attraction is unprompted and inexplicable. “It’s either there or it’s not.” Therese is curious, Carol is knowing. After Therese returns the gloves, Carol takes her to a martini lunch, and Therese echoes the older woman’s entire order. Carol is a figure of desire, as an object to obtain and as a subject to be. “What a strange girl you are,” Carol murmurs as she vamps across the table. “Flung out of space.” Perhaps the remark is meant to demonstrate the sudden shock of her feelings. But it’s also an assessment of the pair of them, as women and as actors.

As Carol, Blanchett is both boldly assured and covertly lost. Her voice is deepened and authoritative, her body language at once contained and careless. Blanchett is the seducer in this story, which makes her behaviors sound faintly malevolent and aggressive. In fact, her Carol is spoiled and impetuous but as confused, perhaps, as Therese despite the difference in experience. She’s more an image than a person, an embodiment of the second sex whose life has been tailored to fit the male world.

In Haynes’ conception, Blanchett exists to be spied upon. The actress remains an odd mixture of elfin, alien and movie star that makes her endlessly watchable. In cinema, we can detect two styles of cinematic acting: in the first, personal charm and energy allow an audience to feel they know the actor. Inversely, there is a style of trace and detection, in which a performer’s skills and intelligence are poured into a character but never directed at an audience. It’s the difference between seeing someone through a camera’s lens and glancing at someone in a mirror, between direct address and eavesdropping. Perhaps it’s part of her face or part of her psychology, but Blanchett reflexively withholds; she is in the character’s circumstances but not in ours.

The performance connects with a larger question of cinema—is an audience meant to identify with a movie’s character through recognition or dissonance; and if not, what does a more abstract approach do for a story’s conflict and resolution? If the dramatic question is whether a woman’s romance, where no one is in search of man, is worthy of screen time—naturally the answer is yes. But the film is perhaps too beautiful despite the graininess of its images. The question about Carol is perhaps, why now, why this story told in this way in the context of comparable stories?

In Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013), Adele (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a young French student, crosses glances at an intersection with a blue haired artist Emma (Lea Seydoux). Adele is compelled—by Emma’s style, her attitude, and her artwork—and seeks out the artist, initiating a romance despite the social inequities between the two. For Adele, Emma is an initiation to everything: to culture, socialization, ideas, and independence along with a newly broadened sexual identity. When her lover removes her affections and refuses her embraces, Adele loses everything. She is inconsolable, and the film follows the morbid grief that burdens Adele for the rest of the story and, one senses, beyond the narrative into subsequent chapters of her life. You have the sense she’ll remain marked by this experience for the duration of her life, that it will be not only a lens but a presence in every future relationship. Here is modernity: where every love story becomes the ghost story of other love affairs.

Like Carol, the film adaptation of Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn is set in the same simplistic moral codes and unquestioned gender roles of the 1950s. Brooklyn’s heroine Eilís emigrates because Ireland offers neither husband nor a job. What she finds in America is crippling loneliness, a New Yorker’s sense of anonymity that is closer to death than to liberation. She’s rescued from isolation by a working class Italian plumber who attends local Irish dances. Eilís reciprocates the Italian’s attention, and we sense both genuine pleasure at finding kindness and decency; also, perhaps, a more pragmatic grasp at an emotional lifeline. In the romance, we witness the slow build of a reasonable commitment. When Eilís is called back to Ireland, her American life is unknown to everyone at home, and she finds herself offered a second chance to stay in her much missed homeland at the price of concealing a life she’s already committed to. Brooklyn doesn’t offer its heroine a greater emotional dilemma than Carol’s but it does a more complete job in dramatizing the conflicted feelings that its heroine suffers.

When Vladimir Nabokov wrote his tale of passionate pedophilia Lolita, he allegedly lifted the novel’s road trip structure from Highsmith’s novel about Carol. The anonymity of the journey suited his story; other transitory figures wouldn’t notice or couldn’t object to such a perverse pairing. The love stories aren’t equivalent, of course—what we see in Carol are characters punished for an outdated moral transgression and medical judgment. But while Lolita and its adaptation challenge us with a wry sophisticate of a narrator, the Haynes film loses Highsmith’s edge. As a point of departure, the film’s authors use characters who are broadly relatable—one for her beauty and glamor, the other for her innocence. The gateway to tolerance is through the eyes of two women who are traditionally straight, who’ve slept with or dated men.

Carol’s husband Harg knows his wife’s past and proclivities—her attraction to and involvement with women—and tolerates it. He’s part of that unlucky club of those helplessly controlled by an attachment to and need for Carol. Is she otherwise the perfect wife, or just a perfect image that he holds on to? It’s unclear, in part because the decade’s priorities make it so. On the advice of a journalist friend, Therese addresses her lens to people. Carol proves to be the perfect subject—she is always being viewed, appraised, approved or disapproved, valued or devalued. She is magnetic but a victim to her own appeal. It feels like she’s never been asked to be anything more than exquisite, and is surprised to discover the hidden hitches connected to that task. When Therese witnesses Harg’s undignified feelings and cruel outbursts, of which she is a collateral victim (“what are you doing with that shop girl?” he shouts with venom), Carol throws Therese out of the house. Here is the cruel pattern of their love triangle—Therese is attracted and repudiated; Carol is compelled and punished; Harg throws tantrums and then reasons.

Haynes has emulated the lush Technicolor of classic melodrama in other love stories (Far From Heaven). Here New York and Chicago are grainy and gray, as if filmed on a long lense in low light—as if the characters are being surveilled, to underscore the illicit nature of their intimacy. The culmination of the relationship is also the culmination of the jealous husband’s plot against his wife. He enlists a private detective, who follows the women as they travel to Chicago and persuades them to stop at a motel along the way, where he makes an audio recording of their lovemaking. In order to remain on good terms with her husband and to see her daughter, Carol is forced to choose between being a mother and being herself, that is to say to choose a role that negates her romantic and emotional affinities.

But Carol proceeds in controlled dramatic turns. A loss is compensated by a gain. Indignities are discussed but not shown. When Carol agrees to give up her child to maintain her emotional integrity, we’re not quite sure what this loss means because the girl has been onscreen in such limited interaction. We must take Carol’s loss on faith, since she remains so beautifully dressed and well positioned. Suffering is assured but also, it seems, rewarded: good careers and a rich cadre of friends are a beautiful indemnity. Therese begins as an impoverished spirit but matures with wisdom and poise. Carol gives her a camera and serves as a muse, but she doesn’t provide Therese with an eye. Therese does that for herself; Carol isn’t, luckily enough, everything to her. Perhaps the film fails its audience by endowing its heroines with too many strengths.