You don’t have to be a woman who falls in love with women to get swept off your feet by Carol. Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt and directed by Todd Haynes, one of cinema’s most empathetic storytellers, it is certainly a satisfying and necessary addition to a lesbian film canon that remains alarmingly small. But just as striking as its delicately told love story is the simple achievement of building two multidimensional female characters and giving them an entire movie’s worth of space to sprawl out across together.
Carol opens with a telling shift of perspective, the first and perhaps most crucial transition in a film that, as Haynes has said, makes point of view paramount. The camera initially follows a young man in a coat and hat through the dark, early-evening streets of 1950s New York, into a crowded, softly lit dining room where he recognizes his friend Therese (Rooney Mara) sitting across from a beautiful, significantly older woman (Cate Blanchett, every bit Highsmith’s regal Carol) and interrupts their tea. During the awkward conversation that follows, Jack (Trent Rowland) fades into the background as Therese and Carol’s discomfort suddenly hijacks the scene.
Within minutes, Haynes, Mara, Blanchett, and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy have wrenched the story from the default male perspective that defined the period in which it’s set — and still dominates cinema — and placed it firmly in the hands of Therese and Carol, two lovers whose connection is as immediately palpable to the viewer as it is invisible to Jack. For the remainder of the two-hour film, we never see their experiences filtered through a man’s eyes again. And so they become more than just a glamorous blonde and a gamine brunette.
At about 20 years old, Therese Belivet lives a life of acquiescence. She works the doll counter at Frankenberg’s department store in Manhattan, despite preferring toy trains, and nods along with her nice boyfriend Richard’s (Jake Lacy) plans for a trip to Europe. But underneath the oversize cardigans of a girl with bohemian friends who hasn’t quite found her place in the adult world, there’s a restless intelligence, and the penetrating eye of an aspiring photographer. If she seems to be sleepwalking through her days, it’s not because she’s dull or jaded; it’s because she hasn’t yet activated her ravenous appetite for genuine experiences and emotion.
Carol Aird is in some ways Therese’s opposite, gliding into Frankenberg’s for Christmas shopping on a wave of unshakable poise, her shiny mink coat frothing behind her. A soon-to-be-divorced mother, she has already lived out the drab future that seems the likely outcome of Therese’s passivity: the marriage, the little daughter, the suburban home — and the tragically delayed realization that she isn’t built to play housewife to a red-faced, breadwinning man named Harge (Kyle Chandler). By the time Carol appears at Therese’s counter, the self-knowledge she has gained through the dissolution of two relationships, one with Harge and the other with her friend turned lover Abby (Sarah Paulson), has crystallized into self-possession. She radiates an unusual combination of femininity and dominance, though what’s lurking under them is loneliness and melancholy.
The Bechdel test conjures up visions of female characters debating politics and literature, but it’s worth remembering that while it dictates that women discuss something other than men, it never says anything about love or sex. Not for nothing did the idea originate in a lesbian cartoonist’s comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Out For.” And, particularly in the case of Carol, it isn’t just a Sapphic loophole, because it’s in watching these women fall in love that we discover who they are.
At their first meal together, when Therese nervously asks for the same creamed spinach and martini as Carol, then flat-out confesses that even a lunch order is beyond her decision-making power, we learn she’s both confused about who she is and deeply self-aware about that uncertainty. In the same conversation, Carol muses over what a “strange girl” Therese is, “flung out of space,” as though the younger woman has been sent as a sign that she shouldn’t give up yet. There is only one sex scene in Carol, but it exposes just about every onscreen encounter in which a man takes a woman’s virginity for the cliché it is.
Films about heterosexual love too often make the woman the object of the man’s desire, his quest to possess her catalyzing either his growth (the Manic Pixie Dream Girl canon) or his dissolution (the femme fatale canon, not to mention Love). This does more than create the impression that women are passive in matters of love: In the context of a film industry that prefers to tell exclusively male stories in all genres except romance, it results in an overall lack of female characters who want or need or desire anything at all.
Carol doesn’t just correct this misapprehension when it comes to romance; it’s also a young artist’s coming-of-age story. It’s in taking pictures of Carol that Therese develops from a cautious amateur into a real photographer, confident in the way she frames the city and its people. It’s in deciding that she wants Carol rather than acquiescing to Richard that she becomes a subject rather an object. And it was in watching two fully realized women really see each other, in Carol, that it occurred to me how rare a sight that still is.