The heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care» Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter in 1862 and watching Carol reminded me of those words. Unfortunately it is not enough to want something; the means to get it must also be there.
Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, a wealthy middle-aged housewife, and Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young shop girl who wants to be a photographer. They meet at the department store where Therese works and the attraction is instantaneous. Soon they are having dry martinis, and Therese comes to visit Carol at her stately home. Things progress from there.
It has been mentioned in several reviews and comments about the film that it clearly shows how 1950s homophobia and such constrains these two women, but I was rather impressed by how little of that there was in the film. On the contrary, most seems to think that there is nothing particularly untoward about it. Carol’s husband Harge is of course unhappy, but she has left him and he still loves her and wants her back, so he has every reason to be upset. It is not until later when he uses her homosexuality as a reason to keep her daughter away from her that society’s general disquietude about homosexuality, or anything queer, comes forward in ugly detail. Richard, who loves Therese and wants to marry her, thinks that Therese’s infatuation with Carol is just a fling, and that she will soon come back to him. This does not suggest homophobia per se. It does however suggest something else. If Therese had said that she was seeing a man, and was going away with him, Richard had probably been more upset, and less understanding. It is as if he does not take it seriously when it is with a woman, something which he does not have to worry about. He is a man after all, and what could be more attractive for a woman? But he is wrong of course; Therese is not attracted to him. It is Carol she wants, and Carol whom she will fight for.
At least since Velvet Goldmine (1998) Todd Haynes’s work has been set in the past: the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1980s. Carol is adopted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s novel from 1952 and Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder 1950) is shown in the cinemas. But a key inspiration for Carol is clearly David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). The first time I saw Carol I was actually annoyed by how the first scene in the film is a colour version of Lean’s first scene. But the annoyment passed. Now the only thing annoying is the music by Carter Burwell, which sounds at times too much like the music of Philip Glass. There could have been less of that. There are also two scenes involving a gun which was unnecessary. The first scene shows the gun, as a bad omen, and in the other, later, scene the gun is used. The first scene was superfluous and although the later scene was needed, it should have been without the gun. That was a kind of drama that did not feel like it had a place in this particular film; an effort to suggest some kind of thriller-like violence but instead felt melodramatic and obvious.
But the rest of the film is tremendous, from the arrogance of the department store’s middle manager to the slightly hazy cinematography in subdued hues, often greenish; from Therese’s Christmas hat the first time she meets Carol («I like the hat. ») to the precise and emotional dialogue. Carol shivers and burns, it is cool and passionate, and it is immensely moving. These people in the film, they are real and so are their emotions. Haynes is also very good at letting the silence speak, where people look at each other or we look at them, from a slight distance, going about their business. These silent scenes give the film a heightened sensibility, almost an otherworldly quality, not least in the sequence where the two women meet for the first time. Carol is looking at a train set, first seen in a close-up so it is not obvious that it is a train set and not a real train. (The train might also be a conscious reference to David Lean.) Therese suddenly sees her, standing there, a calm centre surrounded by noisy kids and busy shoppers. Then Therese is interrupted and when she looks up Carol is gone. She looks around after her in vain. But suddenly a pair of gloves slaps down on the counter by Therese’s side, and there she is, Carol, appearing as out of nowhere. And there, as if it too appeared out of nowhere, is Therese’s love, possibly her first.
«Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking, doesn’t ease it – and nothing does – but just itself. » Dickinson continued in her letter, but this is not a problem for Therese and Carol, they both see what they love, and they go after it.