Aside from being a cool drink of female perspective in the scorched desert of male-dominated American cinema, the adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, Carol, stands on its own as a triumph of storytelling through filmmaking. (That it was snubbed in the 2016 Best Picture and Best Director Oscar nominations is truly a disgrace.) Set in charmingly chic 1950s New York, Carol is a seductive dive into the forbidden world of love and friendship between women.
While working in a department store at Christmas time, mousey Therese Bellevit, played by Mara Rooney, catches sight of a striking femme fatale decked out in red and furs across the room. Their gaze meets, but is broken by an outside annoyance. Therese looks back to where the woman stood, but she is gone. Luckily, Carol, masterfully played by Cate Blanchett, is not one to shy away from an intriguing encounter, and the two make a connection. (Both Blanchett and Rooney were, at least, offered Best Actress Oscar nominations for their spectacular performances.)
Purposefully directed by Todd Haynes, the film’s gentle pace invites us to savor the fleeting moments between two women, minus boorish intrusions by men. A delicate palpability is brought to the textures of the scenery: sweaters and furs and crisp jackets, sumptuous drapery and brown crinkled packages — as if our senses are heightened to a potential ecstasy previously unknown. That is, if only men would stop interfering…
The male characters are presented as a constant invasive bother, always butting in when they’re not wanted, but, hilariously true to life, being too self-important to realize they’re interrupting. Herein lies the genius of Carol and the way the audience’s well-trained inclination to identify with male characters is made conspicuous by its absence. This is achieved not by making every male character a villain, but through a subtle tonal layer in which they are shown from an outside, unsympathetic perspective. Men’s feelings and actions, which usually would inform the core of the film, are cast in a new light. For example, the boyfriend monologuing about his dreams of marriage to Therese, which would usually be dramatically heartfelt, instead comes off as obliviously self-centered. During another scene, when the music would usually swell with intensity as the husband passionately grabs his estranged wife and demands she return to him, the soundtrack remains totally silent, and his grabbing comes off as a ham-fisted bumble: “Go home, Harge, you’re drunk.”
Carol and Therese take their time allowing a friendship to flourish — a friendship, though, that is also an overt courtship, building with anticipation. The reserved Therese grows bolder, indicated by the film’s visual language — swapping the women’s colour-coded bright reds and subdued blues as they exchange positions of flirtatiousness.
***WARNING: THE REST OF THIS PIECE INCLUDES SPOILERS. WATCH THE FILM AND COME BACK. SERIOUSLY***
Then there’s the sex scene. Given that the directing style is periodically dreamy and abstract during intimate moments, the sex scene is an explicit contrast. Of course it’s fantastically acted and gorgeously shot, but there was something that bothered me.
“So, how do women have sex with each other?” Men rudely like to ask. Somewhere deep down they know that “girl-on-girl” porn is a total farce, and they feel incensed by the fact that lesbianism is a realm of female sexuality they can never access. While watching the sex scene, which could have easily been more artfully suggestive, I felt acutely aware that the audience’s male gaze was being satisfied as they saw exactly what these women were getting up to. Though perhaps the explicitness of the scene served well to make the feeling of shock and horror even more intense as Carol and Therese learn, the next day, that their love-making had been literally observed the entire time by the male gaze — their sacred space invaded by male technology.
Due to this event, Carol and Therese’ affair is broken off. Therese is violently jarred by this loss, vomiting by the side of the road. Carol laments in a farewell letter, wishing their lives could stretch out before them “in an endless sunrise.”
Therese returns home and tries to get her life back on track, working towards becoming a professional photographer. Earlier in the film, it is established that she might land a position as a photographer for the New York Times, if only she can become “more interested in humans” as her subject matter. She took many photos of Carol during their time together and as we watch Therese develop them in her dark room, we wonder: had she found her muse?
“Therese, these are seriously good,” her male friend comments on the photos of Carol. “They were just practice,” she retorts in order to divert him. She scoops up the photos and secures them away from him in a box under her bed. Later when Therese is choosing shots for her portfolio, she holds a photo of Carol pensively. In that moment, the audience assumes the expected storyline will play out — that because of her relationship, Therese will become a great photographer, her photos of Carol heralded as great art. But refreshingly, the film subverts this expectation. Instead, Therese thwarts the male gaze by excluding the photo of Carol from her portfolio, placing the shot in the “no” pile. The love of their relationship, apparent in the photos, is for no one’s viewing pleasure.
The closing scene shows Therese slowly approaching Carol as she sits at a table, smoking in a crowded dining room. Carol’s gaze moves lazily from one end of the room to the other in what feels like an eternity, before finally setting her eyes on Therese and smiling. All the prying eyes of jilted boyfriends, controlling ex-husbands, and the oppressive state won’t faze them, as long as they can be together.