“Carol” is a Marvel (and Perfect Holiday Treat)

Carol

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

I have read two books by Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on a Train – both of which I found thoroughly unsettling (or, less formally, they creeped me out). Highsmith has a way with vivid detail that allows her to plunder the depths of human despair and depravity and make it accessible to those of us not inclined to unleash our inner psychopath.  Given his own creative output, it makes sense that Alfred Hitchcock would have been attracted to Highsmith’s writing, but though his screen version of Strangers on a Train is wickedly entertaining and a worthy homage to the novel, it cannot approach the source text’s sharp insights into the evil motivations that lurk within all of us. Highsmith truly was one of a kind, and a masterful writer of the macabre.

But not only of the macabre. In 1952, Highsmith published The Price of Salt, about a lesbian love affair between a young shop clerk (and aspiring artist) and a married sophisticate. Highsmith, herself, was gay, but not eager to announce this fact, given the times, and so the book came out under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. Sadly, I have not (yet) read the work, but imagine that it contains the same vibrant characters as her other books, with an equally powerful understanding of human desires (but without the violence). It certainly has given filmmaker Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, where he similarly explored 1950s sexual mores) an apparently rich blueprint for his latest film, adapted from the novel by screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (Mrs. Harris). Starring two fine actresses at the top of their game – Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – Carol is a brilliant meditation on passion and its repression, and the consequences of both. It’s also a beautiful love story. Transgressive in the 1950s, the tale it tells is especially timely today, given the recent Supreme Court decision on legalizing gay marriage. Opening nationally on Christmas, it’s the perfect carol for the season of peace and joy.

When we first we meet Carol (Blanchett) and Therese (Mara), they are sitting in a hotel bar, deep in conversation. A male friend of Therese’s comes up, thinking nothing of interrupting them, and whatever spell they were seemingly under is immediately broken. Carol excuses herself, and Therese leaves with the man. As the taxi drives through the streets of New York, we catch flashes of the past – and Carol’s and Therese’s first meeting – as the camera holds on the latter’s melancholy face. And then, just like that, with no announcement, we ease into that past. This is a film for adults, where nothing is spelled out, and we just have to keep up.

And so the story really begins. Carol is married – soon to be divorced, however – to Haige (Kyle Chandler, The Spectacular Now), a paragon of masculine virtues. They have a young daughter. Carol, it turns out, can never be made happy by a man, and has a previous history with at least one other female lover, “Aunt” Abby (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave). One day, she walks into a department store where young Therese is working, and the two women immediately connect, though Therese, completely inexperienced, is unsure of what that spark means. She has a beau (Jake Lacy, Obvious Child), but avoids physical contact with him as much as possible. Every moment she spends with Carol awakens something new in her, and when the older woman leaves her gloves in the store, this allows Therese the chance she needs to further their acquaintance.

As the film progresses, we watch the slow dance of seduction between the two, the one (Carol’s) knowing, the other (Therese’s) innocent … but maybe not so much. Mara gives Therese pursed lips and clenched shoulders, until the moment when Carol’s attentions finally allow her to be herself. In their first lunch date together, Haynes chooses to compose the over-the-shoulder conversation shots with the women at the extreme edges of the frame, showing not only how marginalized lesbians are in this world, but women, as well. As Carol and Therese each fight for control of their destiny, they more and more claim that center part of the frame. Blanchett is a commanding presence, as always, an actress capable of projecting simultaneous warmth and frigidity (though the latter is here a measure of the repression of that natural warmth). Mara is easily her match, and at the end of the film, after they have battled society’s (and men’s) expectations, they can finally exchange perfectly balanced gazes, equals in tragedy and love. With beautiful cinematography and top-notch period production design to complement the glorious acting and moving story, Carol is a marvel, and I highly recommend.

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