These days, with gay marriage legal in most of the United States, it’s difficult to imagine what life must have been like for Therese Belivet, a woman in her 20s struggling to come to terms with her homosexuality in the 1950s. I grew up during the Reagan years, where homophobia was openly expressed and socially acceptable, but which also presupposed that you knew what gay men and lesbians were. For Therese Belivet, however, who one day during the Eisenhower administration looked across a shop counter at Carol Aird, a tall, commanding, ruling-class blond in her 40s, and fell in love at first sight, it must have felt a little bit like getting transmissions from outer space.
Cate Blanchett plays Carol, and it’s difficult to imagine anybody else in the same role. Director Todd Haynes had originally intended to cast Mia Wasikowska as Therese, but settled on Rooney Mara after she dropped out of the project because of a scheduling conflict. It turned out to have been a happy accident. Wasikowska would have been wrong for the part, but, Mara nails it cold, skillfully creating the body language and manner of a young woman who knows she wants something out of life, but until she sees Carol, isn’t exactly sure what it is. In a little under two hours, Mara, who got the best line in The Social Network — “You think girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd but it’s really because your an asshole.” — goes from an irritable, fidgety, mousy little girl into a self-confident woman who manages to snatch a happy ending from a film so clearly indebted to Douglas Sirk almost every frame shouts out “this movie will end in tears.”
Based on a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith opens at a swank restaurant with two women sitting down to dinner, the above mentioned Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. After being interrupted by a man named “Jack,” who knows Therese from work, they part. Therese goes off with Jack, and the film switches over to the recent past. Therese works as a temporary shop clerk at a Macy’s like department store. She has a boyfriend named Richard, who constantly badgers her to go on a trip to Europe, so the pair can get married. Therese doesn’t love Richard. It’s probably one of Carol’s few weak points that she probably wouldn’t love him if she were straight either. He’s a fairly transparent asshole, an arrogant preppy who thinks he’s entitled to her affection because he’s spent money on her, and gotten her a better job. When Carol walks into the store, Therese is instantly smitten, and it’s easy to see why. Cate Blanchett is a strikingly beautiful actress, but I personally couldn’t help but think of her role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, where she plays an oddly similar character, a ruling-class woman who outwardly looks like a goddess, but inwardly is falling apart.
Like Richard, Carol’s husband “Harge” — it sounds like “hard” — is a transparent asshole. In fact, all the men in Carol are unlikable to the point where the main theme of the film becomes female longing for escape from the world of the masculine. It’s a theme that’s established early on after Carol invites Therese to her mansion in New Jersey to spend Christmas with her and her daughter. Everything is going fine, with both women slowly and carefully feeling each other out, until Harge barges in to take the little girl away with him to Florida. After the two women meet against in Therese’s apartment in Manhattan, and we learn that Harge and Carol are in the middle of a particularly nasty divorce, partly because of an earlier lesbian affair Carol had had with a woman named Abby, and more importantly that Harge is willing to use their daughter as a weapon, threatening to sue for sole custody based on a “morality clause” that had been inserted into their marriage contract. Apparently, in the 1950s, homosexual adultery carried more legal weight than simple adultery.
Therese meanwhile is very quickly coming to terms wit the fact that she’s gay. Remember, Therese, who’s in her 20s, and Carol, who’s in her 40s, are at different stages in life. For Carol, the affair is partly a means to escape unhappy marriage. For Therese, it’s both a coming of age and a coming out process, a struggle to come to terms with who she is as much as it her first passionate love affair. She and her boyfriend Richard haven’t slept together and its strongly hinted that she’s a virgin. I think part of the strength, as well as the weakness, of Carol is that while we really want to see them end up together, we really can’t imagine it. Haynes has put us into the mind of a 1950s gay man or lesbian, someone who falls in love with a member of the same sex, but who’s trapped in a society where there is no way to transform that initial infatuation into a long-term relationship. The road trip west the two women take, while not about pedophilia, is nevertheless clearly resonant of the road trip Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert take in Lolita. It is an escape, partly into consumption, partly into the car culture, from the mundane reality of everyday life. Claire Quality, in Carol, takes the form of Tommy Tucker, a private detective hired by Harge to spy on his wife and traveling incognito as a nebbishy traveling salesman. Just at the moment the film finally manages to give Carol and Therese a moment of release — they consummate their relationship in a motel in Waterloo, Iowa — we find out that Tommy Tucker was in the next room all along, complete with electronic eavesdropping equipment like an FBI man out to find dirt on Martin Luther King. Harge is not only an asshole. He’s the fucking surveillance state.
At this moment, the viewer is almost certain the movie is going to end tragically, or at the very least unhappily. Carol threatens Tommy Tucker with an unloaded gun before flying back east to go into a court ordered “gay aversion” therapy. Therese drives back home with Abby, Carol’s old lover, and back into the straight world, a job in the photo processing lab at the New York Times — she’s an aspiring photographer — and a quasi beatnik social life in the West Village. So as not to give Harge any material to use in the divorce case, Carol has forbidden Therese to make any more contact after they return to New York. Then the film reverses itself, and Carol comes out publicly at the divorce hearing, disavowing the gay aversion therapy, affirming that, yes, she’s a lesbian, and offering to give Harge sole custody of their daughter in exchange for regular visitation rights. At this point, the decision falls onto Therese’s shoulders. After Carol asks her to move into her apartment — she and Harge have sold the mansion and she’s taken a job — Therese hesitates. Unlike the mature Carol, of course, Therese is still a callow 20-something, not yet fully come into her own. After she turns Carol down, we find ourselves back at the point where the film began, at the dinner interrupted by Therese’s colleague. “I love you,” Carol says, only to be interrupted by a harshly chipper male voice. Haynes really plays the idea of female escape from masculinity right out until the end. Therese briefly returns to the straight world, a party in Greenwich Village with her colleagues from the New York Times, but after she gets hit on by Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia, she finally realizes who she is, and the film ends, if not happily, than at least ambiguously with the promise of happiness.
Final Note: Carol is easily the best film of the year. Todd Haynes, an established filmmaker with a distinguished career that goes back to the 1980s, has made his masterpiece, and deserves recognition. The Big Short is a fine movie with a great message politically but it’s a “TV movie of the week” compared to Carol. In the long tradition of Hollywood, where the best movie never wins Best Picture, Carol will join Raging Bull, In the Name of the Father, Pulp Fiction, and Citizen Kane as genuinely great films snubbed in favor of mediocrity.