Todd Haynes has built one of the best, most accomplished filmographies of just about any American independent filmmaker of the past three decades. He emerged in the early ’90s alongside the likes of the Coen brothers, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, David O. Russell, and a host of others. He always existed a little off to the side of those other mainstream filmmakers as his work has always had a more serious bite to it and regularly looks at the issue of homosexuality in the kind of dead on way that until recently would almost always limit the cultural reach of his work. Carol in some ways feels like his farthest reaching work to date and it still fell short of a best picture or best director nomination this year at the Oscars, indicating some anti-homosexual sentiment still lingers in Hollywood and across America.
Carol opens with one of the best shots committed to film in 2015. It is a long tracking shot that starts with sewer and keeps going until the credits are complete. It pulls back to reveal a New York City in the 1950s. It is evening and there is some snow falling. Shortly after we realize that Christmas is rapidly approaching. Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a married woman who goes to a department store to purchase a gift for her young daughter. There she encounters the charming young clerk, Therese (Rooney Mara). There is a tension between the two from the moment they engage. But there also is a clear division between them. They come from different worlds. Carol is a much older, well-to-do married woman. Therese is a relatively poor girl in her twenties.
This otherworldly quality is appealing to both of them though. Before encountering Carol, with whom sexual tensions quickly arise, Therese is casually dating a man who is eager to marry her. She doesn’t understand this guy’s conception of love and there is a palpable disconnect in their perception of where their relationship is headed. Therese’s primal doubts about marriage that may prevent her from finding traditional love align perfectly with Carol’s disenchantment with her own marriage, which has already significantly deteriorated by the time she first encounters Therese.
We learn through casual conversation that Carol has had past affairs with women, one in particular being a close friend named Abby. Their fling is one of the primary events that tore apart Carol’s marriage with Harge (Kyle Chandler). But it is clear that although the marriage is over, there is still a nasty fight going on. Harge cannot accept that he could lose his wife. He is a powerful man from a powerful family raised in an era where men and women alike are taught that if you pursue the American Dream, get a job, get a wife, and have a kid, that all will be fine and dandy. Now that this it isn’t panning out for Harge, he is ill-equipped to handle the situation, specifically the controversial and publicly humiliating way in which his wife is destroying their relationship.
I find all of this very compelling, specifically in how it is complemented by Therese’s confused and conflicted feelings towards her boyfriend. In every interaction we see between these two, he is pressuring her towards marriage and a trip to Europe, two things that seem like too big a commitment for a relationship that may have some genuine, but not too serious feelings on Therese’s side. This boyfriend, like Harge, believes that he has made all the right moves for succesfull marriage to be an inevitability. Unfortunately, love does not work like that.
Both Harge and the boyfriend try to win over their lovers not by seduction or romance, but by forcing circumstance so that their togetherness is the only option. In Harge’s case, even though they have formally split up and are meeting with lawyers to negotiate their child’s custody, he tries to pressure Carol into attending formal, public, and family gatherings in part to save face of his embarrassing ordeal, but also in part because he believes if he puts her in a place where she is wife-like, she will simply become his wife again.
Similarly, Therese’s boyfriend gets upset with her when she decides to not go to Europe and instead embark on a trip with her new friend, Carol. This does not compute. This is not part of the American Dream plan and there is no set of instructions or steps that he can follow to get what he feels he deserves based on what he has presented to Therese. He specifically brings up that he got a better job for her, something she never asked for. He believes that this is a way of securing a wife, just like taking her to Europe, or bringing her home to meet his family. He is trying to tie her down because that is what he understands is “supposed” to happen. He does not have much regard for her actual feelings. He just assumes her love.
Harge’s continual pressure of Carol to remain in their relationship is a tragic thing to witness. Because although Harge does some pretty despicable things in the film, including take measures to keep Carol from seeing her daughter, I think he is intentionally painted as a sympathetic opposition. At one point, frustrated with Carol, he drunkenly exclaims how unfair his situation is. And in a tender moment, Carol acknowledges this. It is not fair that he should be cheated on and publicly humiliated. In a later scene, Harge goes to Abby’s house in the middle of the night assuming that Carol is there. She is not. Harge exhibits similar frustration. The moment with Abby is cold, not tender. But I think there is again some acknowledgment that Harge is unfairly hurt by the situation. He says the he still loves Carol. Abby responds that she can’t help him with that.
While Harge and the boyfriend may feel something less sincere than real emotion towards Therese and Carol, I also believe that they don’t know any better. If they are capable of truly falling in love, they have repressed this ability in order to become what men were socially expected to become in the 1950s: cold and unfeeling businessmen that bring home the bacon. I think that in both cases when they tell their respective women that they love them, they aren’t talking about love, they are talking strictly about the institution of marriage. Does this mean their heartbreak isn’t real? Maybe. But their frustration is. And it makes the audience sympathize with these ignorant men who are not equipped to understand why they have been rejected.
What I love about Carol is how it is able to depict the “villains” of this film as sympathetic figures. This is particularly challenging in a film whose primary goal is to challenge the very social norms that these characters seek to uphold. This makes Carol one of the most well-rounded and relatable films I’ve ever seen about homosexuality.
And when it comes to making films about homosexuality, Todd Haynes is no stranger. In fact, it appears as a theme in almost all of his films. The two in particular (before Carol) that most blatantly address the issue of homosexuality are Far From Heaven and Velvet Goldmine. The latter of these works is a fictionalized account of the life and times of David Bowie and the glam movement. The former is about the wife of a wealthy businessman in the 1950s discovering that her husband has a little secret when it comes to his natural preferences in the bedroom. Carol feels like the lesbian counterpart in many ways to Far From Heaven. Together they look at the tragic ignorance of an era in which the fight for the American Dream guided many social prejudices and ill-fated marriages.
It’s funny now that I get to the end of this review and I realize that I haven’t commented on the actual love story that is the focus of the film, the two brilliant performances at the heart of the narrative, the beautiful 16mm film cinematography, or Carter Burwell’s score that frankly is the only one that came out last year worthy of rivaling Ennio Morricone’s achievement on The Hateful Eight. These elements are perhaps best not fleshed out by me so much as pointed to as things to look for when you watch or re-watch the film. On the whole, Todd Haynes’ Carol is a tour-de-force adaptation of The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith.
Carol is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is available in Redbox and through Amazon rental as well.