Todd Haynes has spent a significant chunk of his career making movies about long-suffering women. There’s the anorexic Karen Carpenter in Superstar, the suffocating Orange County housewife Carol Hicks in Safe, the betrayed and hopelessly lovesick Cathy Whitaker in Far From Heaven, and the famously shat-upon mother in Mildred Pierce who wants nothing but a little love and a place to bake pies.
In his book about the films of Todd Haynes, Rob White writes:
“There are moments in [his] films when someone is so unnerved that it is difficult to imagine that any good can come from the experience.”
And, in most cases, no good does. By the time the credits roll, all the women I just mentioned end up somewhere between emotionally wrecked and dead. These aren’t happy movies, or even very hopeful ones; they choose to present the world as a stunning tapestry made up of miserable thread.
But in Carol, Haynes tries something new—at least when it comes to romance. The man who began his feature career with Poison—a poetic, three-part meditation on the trials of gay life and horrors of AIDS—has, nearly a quarter century later, crafted something entirely different. In place of agony, there’s joy. In place of horror, hope. In Far From Heaven, Julianne Moore’s Cathy waves goodbye to the love of her life as his train takes him away from her forever; they didn’t even have the chance to have sex. But in Carol, we watch a relationship through all the stages of its early life, from meeting, to courting, to sex, to confusion, and—in an almost unbelievable surprise for a gay story set in the 1950s—to the promise of a happy future together.
An adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s somewhat groundbreaking (and semi-autobiographical) novel The Price of Salt, the film (beautifully written by Phyllis Nagy) tells the story of a wealthy soon-to-be divorcée Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who meet in a Manhattan department store when Carol approaches Therese’s counter to buy a Christmas gift for her daughter. The sparks that fly during their first meeting might have been tough to see by other patrons of Frankenberg’s—what with those heavy fur coats and all that sexual repression—but they’re very much there. Carol is interested, but can’t be too direct, and Therese is surprised and confused by her own interest, and eventually, they decide to meet for lunch. Their first few encounters feature the wonderfully written and photographed little dances that queer people often did (and, in many cases, still have to do) when trying to find out if they’re on the same level.
And, as you may have guessed, they are.
Once the two women begin spending more time together, Carol’s jealous husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and Therese’s willfully oblivious boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) become suspicious of their new friendship—Harge because he knows of Carol’s former relationship with Abby (Sarah Paulson), and Richard because of a conversation in which Therese asked if he’d ever been in love with another man. But though tensions between both couples raise as Carol and Therese’s love becomes increasingly undeniable, neither Haynes, Nagy, nor the actors (all of whom give stunning performances) allow Carol to drift into melodrama. Instead of collapsing under the weight of both their own desires and those of the men who love them, Carol and Therese keep going. They, and every character in the film, behave rationally. Thoughtfully. Even the most suspenseful scenes—such as a moment when Carol and Therese realized they’re being tailed by a Private Investigator hired by Harge—return to the film’s slow and steady heart rate quickly enough, because that’s what often tends to happen when you consider the repercussions of your actions, take a deep breath, and calm down.
“We’re not ugly people,” says Carol to Harge towards the end of the film. It’s Carol’s most powerful line because the audience knows exactly who she’s talking about, and so does Harge. The film presents Carol and Therese’s relationship not only as an act of love, but one of bravery. Here are two women who, in the 1950s, admit they feel no shame for their desires. And here are two angry little men who, confused as they are, will just have to deal with it.
But despite Carol’s surprising optimism regarding life and love, its final scene—a perfect adaptation of the novel’s ending—has left me in my own state of quiet desperation. Since that slow fade to black, all I’ve wanted is to watch it again. And again and again. How gorgeous and complex and unforgettable is the world Haynes has created in Carol, and how lovely it is to realize that it might just be our own.
Watch Jezebel’s Quickie with the producer of Carol, Christine Vachon, here:
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Image via TWC.