Carol

11/05/2024

   Carol feels both furtive and triumphant, liberated and oppressed. Todd Haynes’ film works this tension all the better to propose that there is no point making a film set at the beginning of the Eisenhower era about lesbian possibilities unless it passes through and strongly contains its impossibilities. In a Q and A, Rooney Mara, who plays the young lover of the titular character, reckons, “Therese doesn’t have the language to describe what she is feeling”, and Haynes purpose is to put that inarticulacy into the language of the film. The verbal language Therese would struggle to find is the film language Haynes works very hard at creating. He does this by absorbing the photographs of the period, speaking of Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley and Vivian Maier. But he also does so by modulating the gaze and wondering to whom it belongs. Early in the film, it seems chiefly Therese on Carol (Cate Blanchett). Therese first notices her while working in a New York department store and sees across the way a woman who instantly appears different. It might be the beige fur coat, the pink hat and matching scarf. But it would appear more that within this sartorial confidence, there is a distracted, even nervous aspect. It is the way Carol fiddles with the scarf and looks as though she isn’t shopping but wandering. While the other shoppers around her are busy looking and purchasing, Carol looks like she wondering why she is there. 

  Haynes offers this initial shot as a background blur that comes into sharper focus and then the film cuts to Therese looking in Carol’s direction, turning what initially looked like a documentative shot into a subjective one. The inattentiveness of Carol meets the immediate attentiveness of Therese, and for much of the film it is Therese’s point of view that matters. We see it after Carol takes Therese out for lunch and as Carol drives off with a friend we watch Therese looking on. It is there again when Therese is invited to Carol’s house in New Jersey and we see her in the kitchen and she watches as Carol arranges the Christmas tree with her daughter.  

   We should remember of course that Therese is interested in becoming a photographer, and will, by the end of the film, be working as a photojournalist with the New York Times. It makes sense that she would be observing people, and at one moment she photographs Carol when she buys the Christmas tree. But the film doesn’t make too much of her observing others; it is focused chiefly on watching her observe Carol. It suggests whatever feelings are evident, they are mainly this young woman’s. Carol is intrigued by Therese but Therese is fascinated by Carol. This makes sense at first. Carol is the sophisticated, wealthy woman with plenty time on her hands, while Therese is the young woman with a job who gets bossed around and has little time to herself. However, that air of distraction Therese first sees in Carol becomes a realisation we have that Carol may have time on her hands but that, too, her hands are tied. She isn’t in love with her husband Harge, has had gay affairs in the past, and that if she breaks from Harge he may get full custody of their daughter. It isn’t that she is indifferent to Therese; more that she has far more going on in her life than the impressionable shop assistant who works at Frankenberg. 

    Later in the film, though, on several occasions, it is Carol watching Therese. These moments come after on Carol’s instigation they have decided to part. Harge has sent a private detective to spy on the pair of them, has gathered evidence of an affair and will use it against Carol during the custody battle. “There must be no contact between us….please believe I would do anything to see you happy. So, I do the only thing I can. I release you.” The lines are offered in voiceover after Carol leaves a letter at the motel they have been staying in. Carter Burwell’s music swells, and we have a brief montage of Therese, in the back of a car travelling from Ohio, and returning to her apartment. It feels like a conclusion, that Haynes has offered us an impossible romance with an impressionable woman from a modest background falling for a troubled woman of great wealth. 

   However, this is closer to the end of the second act, as though the film isn’t only about the impossibility of romance but also about the possibility of emancipation. With Carol and Therese soon to break up, Therese says, “I should have said no to you but I never say no. And it’s selfish because…because I just take everything and I don’t know anything. I don’t know what I want and how could I when all I ever do is say yes to everything.” Carol placates her but Therese may be right — little in the film thus far has shown a woman knowing her own mind; only one beginning to know her own feelings. Though Jennifer M. Barker reckons Carol’s decision is a “…betrayal that will send the younger woman into a tailspin” (Mediaaesthetics), we might wonder if it is a betrayal and more especially whether Theresa takes it that badly. She is clearly devastated, as we sense when she vomits on that drive back, phones Carol and, getting an answer but also silence, says, after Carol hangs up: “I miss you.” It is there too when she is in the darkroom processing photographs and lingers over those of Carol. But she also develops further a friendship with a young man who helps her get a job at the New York Times, and who we see not long after the break-up helping her redecorate the apartment. Only several months have passed between the break-up and when Carol and Therese see each other again (the calendar in the New York Times office shows it is April 1953) after Therese receives another letter from Carol (dated 17th April), asking if she would meet her that evening at the Ritz Tower Hotel. 

   When they meet as the film folds back to its beginning where we saw them in this very same venue but were not yet aware of the nature of their affair. Therese seems poised, precise and herself. Whether the relationship will commence again, we cannot quite say, though Therese has gone to find her at the restaurant Carol was going to be dining in. The party Therese has been attending leaves her realising that she misses Carol far more than she enjoys the company she is in, and Haynes and his brilliant cinematographer Ed Lachmann, capture this vague alienation through specific framing. At one moment, Lachmann views the party from outside the windows and turns the shots into partial frames, with an image on the left-hand side met by a black space on the rightand then vice versa before a third shot shows the two windows and the black wall between. It echoes Warhol’s split-screen Chelsea Girls and anticipates Haynes’s film on the Velvet Underground (who were, of course, part of Warhol’s Factory) that made much of the device. 

     But it also more importantly echoes back to a scene much earlier in the film with Carol at a party. Carol’s is bourgeois while Therese’s is bohemian, but each suggests a distance the characters have from the events. At this earlier party, Carol is by the window and a friend comes over and chats, with Haynes splitting the screen in two with the narrow partition of the wall. The sequences are distinct in showing class but illustrate similarities in sensibility. There is nothing wrong with the woman Carol speaks to at the party, nor the guests Therese engages with at hers, but they are not intimates, and Haynes captures well the emotional craving through the most rigorous of frames. 

    Yet if Carol and Therese will be together again, we might assume it will be based on a social distinction less pronounced than it was at the beginning of their affair. If there will inevitably be age difference, this may now be less Carol as the grown-up and Therese the immature girl, and more Therese the maturing young woman and Carol no longer so young. There is perhaps a hint of it when the young man who bumps into Therese talks about the party and asks if Carol will be coming along as well. “No, no”, she says and justifies it by saying she has to make a few calls before dinner. However, we might also feel when we see the bohemian party that Carol may have been slightly out of place, or rather that she would have to find her place at such a gathering, just as she will be finding her way around the world of work after years as a housewife. The job is hardly serving at a counter at Frankenberg (she will be a buyer for a furniture company) but it does seem Carol is making her world anew. Therese is now more firmly ensconced professionally as she is employed in a job she loves. 

    Partly what makes Haynes’ film so good is that it doesn’t just propose that emancipation needs to take the form of societal oppression against personal liberation. It chiefly reckons that the oppressive is often interpersonal and emotionally nuanced. Harge isn’t just the white-collar man of entitlement, he is also the figure who still loves a wife who may never have had strong feelings towards him, and whose feelings become all the more strong, in a mixture of peevishness and bullying, the more he is rejected. It is when society looks like it is getting too involved (with the court case over parental rights) that Carol says that Harge can have custody of their daughter as long as she has regular visits, even if supervised. She doesn’t want to go to court: “If it goes to court, it will get ugly. And we’re not ugly people Harge.” In an emotional plea she wants to keep it personal, and Haynes insists on doing likewise in a film that uses the longs lens to propose an intimate world struggling against impersonality. Haynes' point isn’t that we need to liberate the sexual but that we need to find the intimate, and if intimacy is only to be found with a person of the same sex, then of course we must liberate sexuality to allow for such emotional needs to be met

  There is a passage near the end of Patricia Highsmith’s novel upon which th film is based where Therese remembers “walking in a certain street in the West Eighties once, the brownstone fronts, overlaid and overlaid with humanity, human lives, some beginning and some ending there, and she remembered the sense of oppression it had given her, and how she had hurried through it to get to the avenue.It was “only two or three months ago”. Now that she is about to see Carol again, “the same kind of street filled her with a tense excitement, made her want to plunge headlong into it, down the sidewalk with all the signs and theatre marquees and rushing, bumping people.” This mass remains a presence in Haynes’ film as a blur partly because of the lens he often uses but also for the purposes he wishes to use it: to propose that society is an abstraction but people are not, and to seek the most personal of encounters is what turns this mass into selves. 

   If the film moves us it is partly because emancipation takes many paths even if the biggest is the love that dare not speak its name but must find its form. As Highsmith says in the afterward: “Prior to this book, homosexuals, male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated) or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.” Haynes’s film could have been a scathing account of ignorance or a knowing take on a sexual choice that can now so easily be named, but he insists instead on hesitancy and elective affinities. The director explores the burgeoning thought aligned to the developing feeling, and sees in Therese who seems to begin to understand her own mind as she begins to understand her own body, a woman of her time and out of it simultaneously. The film may be named after Carol, but it might be Therese’s realisations that are the more significant. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Carol

Carol feels both furtive and triumphant, liberated and oppressed. Todd Haynes' film works this tension all the better to propose that there is no point making a film set at the beginning of the Eisenhower era about lesbian possibilities unless it passes through and strongly contains its impossibilities. In a Q and A, Rooney Mara, who plays the young lover of the titular character, reckons, "Therese doesn't have the language to describe what she is feeling", and Haynes purpose is to put that inarticulacy into the language of the film. The verbal language Therese would struggle to find is the film language Haynes works very hard at creating. He does this by absorbing the photographs of the period, speaking of Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley and Vivian Maier. But he also does so by modulating the gaze and wondering to whom it belongs. Early in the film, it seems chiefly Therese on Carol (Cate Blanchett). Therese first notices her while working in a New York department store and sees across the way a woman who instantly appears different. It might be the beige fur coat, the pink hat and matching scarf. But it would appear more that within this sartorial confidence, there is a distracted, even nervous aspect. It is the way Carol fiddles with the scarf and looks as though she isn't shopping but wandering. While the other shoppers around her are busy looking and purchasing, Carol looks like she wondering why she is there.

Haynes offers this initial shot as a background blur that comes into sharper focus and then the film cuts to Therese looking in Carol's direction, turning what initially looked like a documentative shot into a subjective one. The inattentiveness of Carol meets the immediate attentiveness of Therese, and for much of the film it is Therese's point of view that matters. We see it after Carol takes Therese out for lunch and as Carol drives off with a friend we watch Therese looking on. It is there again when Therese is invited to Carol's house in New Jersey and we see her in the kitchen and she watches as Carol arranges the Christmas tree with her daughter.

We should remember of course that Therese is interested in becoming a photographer, and will, by the end of the film, be working as a photojournalist with the New York Times. It makes sense that she would be observing people, and at one moment she photographs Carol when she buys the Christmas tree. But the film doesn't make too much of her observing others; it is focused chiefly on watching her observe Carol. It suggests whatever feelings are evident, they are mainly this young woman's. Carol is intrigued by Therese but Therese is fascinated by Carol. This makes sense at first. Carol is the sophisticated, wealthy woman with plenty time on her hands, while Therese is the young woman with a job who gets bossed around and has little time to herself. However, that air of distraction Therese first sees in Carol becomes a realisation we have that Carol may have time on her hands but that, too, her hands are tied. She isn't in love with her husband Harge, has had gay affairs in the past, and that if she breaks from Harge he may get full custody of their daughter. It isn't that she is indifferent to Therese; more that she has far more going on in her life than the impressionable shop assistant who works at Frankenberg.

Later in the film, though, on several occasions, it is Carol watching Therese. These moments come after on Carol's instigation they have decided to part. Harge has sent a private detective to spy on the pair of them, has gathered evidence of an affair and will use it against Carol during the custody battle. "There must be no contact between us....please believe I would do anything to see you happy. So, I do the only thing I can. I release you." The lines are offered in voiceover after Carol leaves a letter at the motel they have been staying in. Carter Burwell's music swells, and we have a brief montage of Therese, in the back of a car travelling from Ohio, and returning to her apartment. It feels like a conclusion, that Haynes has offered us an impossible romance with an impressionable woman from a modest background falling for a troubled woman of great wealth.

However, this is closer to the end of the second act, as though the film isn't only about the impossibility of romance but also about the possibility of emancipation. With Carol and Therese soon to break up, Therese says, "I should have said no to you but I never say no. And it's selfish because...because I just take everything and I don't know anything. I don't know what I want and how could I when all I ever do is say yes to everything." Carol placates her but Therese may be right little in the film thus far has shown a woman knowing her own mind; only one beginning to know her own feelings. Though Jennifer M. Barker reckons Carol's decision is a "...betrayal that will send the younger woman into a tailspin" (Mediaaesthetics), we might wonder if it is a betrayal and more especially whether Theresa takes it that badly. She is clearly devastated, as we sense when she vomits on that drive back, phones Carol and, getting an answer but also silence, says, after Carol hangs up: "I miss you." It is there too when she is in the darkroom processing photographs and lingers over those of Carol. But she also develops further a friendship with a young man who helps her get a job at the New York Times, and who we see not long after the break-up helping her redecorate the apartment. Only several months have passed between the break-up and when Carol and Therese see each other again (the calendar in the New York Times office shows it is April 1953) after Therese receives another letter from Carol (dated 17th April), asking if she would meet her that evening at the Ritz Tower Hotel.

When they meet as the film folds back to its beginning where we saw them in this very same venue but were not yet aware of the nature of their affair. Therese seems poised, precise and herself. Whether the relationship will commence again, we cannot quite say, though Therese has gone to find her at the restaurant Carol was going to be dining in. The party Therese has been attending leaves her realising that she misses Carol far more than she enjoys the company she is in, and Haynes and his brilliant cinematographer Ed Lachmann, capture this vague alienation through specific framing. At one moment, Lachmann views the party from outside the windows and turns the shots into partial frames, with an image on the left-hand side met by a black space on the right, and then vice versa before a third shot shows the two windows and the black wall between. It echoes Warhol's split-screen Chelsea Girls and anticipates Haynes's film on the Velvet Underground (who were, of course, part of Warhol's Factory) that made much of the device.

But it also more importantly echoes back to a scene much earlier in the film with Carol at a party. Carol's is bourgeois while Therese's is bohemian, but each suggests a distance the characters have from the events. At this earlier party, Carol is by the window and a friend comes over and chats, with Haynes splitting the screen in two with the narrow partition of the wall. The sequences are distinct in showing class but illustrate similarities in sensibility. There is nothing wrong with the woman Carol speaks to at the party, nor the guests Therese engages with at hers, but they are not intimates, and Haynes captures well the emotional craving through the most rigorous of frames.

Yet if Carol and Therese will be together again, we might assume it will be based on a social distinction less pronounced than it was at the beginning of their affair. If there will inevitably be age difference, this may now be less Carol as the grown-up and Therese the immature girl, and more Therese the maturing young woman and Carol no longer so young. There is perhaps a hint of it when the young man who bumps into Therese talks about the party and asks if Carol will be coming along as well. "No, no", she says and justifies it by saying she has to make a few calls before dinner. However, we might also feel when we see the bohemian party that Carol may have been slightly out of place, or rather that she would have to find her place at such a gathering, just as she will be finding her way around the world of work after years as a housewife. The job is hardly serving at a counter at Frankenberg (she will be a buyer for a furniture company) but it does seem Carol is making her world anew. Therese is now more firmly ensconced professionally as she is employed in a job she loves.

Partly what makes Haynes' film so good is that it doesn't just propose that emancipation needs to take the form of societal oppression against personal liberation. It chiefly reckons that the oppressive is often interpersonal and emotionally nuanced. Harge isn't just the white-collar man of entitlement, he is also the figure who still loves a wife who may never have had strong feelings towards him, and whose feelings become all the more strong, in a mixture of peevishness and bullying, the more he is rejected. It is when society looks like it is getting too involved (with the court case over parental rights) that Carol says that Harge can have custody of their daughter as long as she has regular visits, even if supervised. She doesn't want to go to court: "If it goes to court, it will get ugly. And we're not ugly people Harge." In an emotional plea she wants to keep it personal, and Haynes insists on doing likewise in a film that uses the longs lens to propose an intimate world struggling against impersonality. Haynes' point isn't that we need to liberate the sexual but that we need to find the intimate, and if intimacy is only to be found with a person of the same sex, then of course we must liberate sexuality to allow for such emotional needs to be met.

There is a passage near the end of Patricia Highsmith's novel upon which th film is based where Therese remembers "walking in a certain street in the West Eighties once, the brownstone fronts, overlaid and overlaid with humanity, human lives, some beginning and some ending there, and she remembered the sense of oppression it had given her, and how she had hurried through it to get to the avenue. It was "only two or three months ago". Now that she is about to see Carol again, "the same kind of street filled her with a tense excitement, made her want to plunge headlong into it, down the sidewalk with all the signs and theatre marquees and rushing, bumping people." This mass remains a presence in Haynes' film as a blur partly because of the lens he often uses but also for the purposes he wishes to use it: to propose that society is an abstraction but people are not, and to seek the most personal of encounters is what turns this mass into selves.

If the film moves us it is partly because emancipation takes many paths even if the biggest is the love that dare not speak its name but must find its form. As Highsmith says in the afterward: "Prior to this book, homosexuals, male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated) or by collapsing alone and miserable and shunned into a depression equal to hell." Haynes's film could have been a scathing account of ignorance or a knowing take on a sexual choice that can now so easily be named, but he insists instead on hesitancy and elective affinities. The director explores the burgeoning thought aligned to the developing feeling, and sees in Therese who seems to begin to understand her own mind as she begins to understand her own body, a woman of her time and out of it simultaneously. The film may be named after Carol, but it might be Therese's realisations that are the more significant.


© Tony McKibbin