Carol is the most recent film of Todd Haynes, a darling of the higher end independent film world. Haynes seems fascinated with the suburban housewife who “seems to have it all” but in fact lives a life that is either crumbling around her, crumbling inside her, or both. Safe (1995), the first of a trilogy of films about this character, begins with Carol (yes, Haynes names his protagonist “Carol” in two of the three films; Cathy is the name of the main character in Far From Heaven), a wealthy and “safe” suburban housewife, experiencing allergic reactions to almost everything in her environment—creams, exhaust fumes, even drinking water. She flees to a commune with dire consequences. Far From Heaven (2002) is set in the suburban world of the later 1950’s, where Cathy discovers her husband making love to another man, then falls for Raymond, her gardener, an African-American man, who is her soul-mate. The twin social problems of the treatment of homosexuals and of minorities are clearly central to Haynes’s story, though the focus here is on race.

Carol is the third movie in which a suburban housewife with social/personal problems appears, but this time the central theme is lesbian love in the context of marital and parental responsibilities. Carol, played by the inimitable Cate Blanchett, is wealthy and well-married, living in what appears to be Westchester County in the late 40’s or early 50’s. The only thing wrong with her life is her apparent boredom with it, though she loves her daughter and the movie intimates that her marital dissatisfaction stems from her husband’s obsession with his work and the frequent travelling associated with it. Carol becomes attracted to Therese, a shop girl played by Rooney Mara, and their affair results in a brief attempt to escape, Thelma and Louise style, from both their meaningless lives. In the end, circumstances push them back together, and the viewer is expected to think that they will find some resolution to the problems of their lives since “love conquers all.”though both are such complex, unhappy characters, the viewer is not really given hope that they have found any real.

Critics have loved Carol; Rotten Tomatoes gave it a Tomatometer score of 93%. I am less enthusiastic. Blanchett and Mara are very good and the venerable Sarah Paulson does a good job in a small role as Carol’s friend and one-time lover. Similarly, Kyle Chandler performs admirably as Harge, Carol’s husband. But while there are flashes of a realistic love, the chemistry between the two main characters simply isn’t there for most of the film. They both seem to be acting out roles in their own spaces, rather than plowing into the other as red-hot, sexual attraction would seem to demand. One could argue that this is a function of the shared nature of the two because they are both so fearful of losing the little they have—Therese her psychological health, her job and her meagre place in society, and Carol her daughter, her wealth and her quite elevated place in the world. They simply can’t commit to the totality that love demands.

But I’m not sure that answer is adequate. I believe the script has made the women two wandering souls, but without the hunger for intimacy, which the human being needs in order to be real. They explore their relationship, especially early on, in tones too cold and analytical, and the two actresses never really get over that, when later they are freer to commit to each other. An explicit, highly erotically-charged sex scene doesn’t help either; an event that should display the greatest emotional intimacy privately between the two women ends up involving the audience too much as voyeurs (Is that really Cate Blanchett really doing that?) and breaking the fourth wall just when it needs to be kept secure.

Apart from the two women and the nature of their forbidden love, there really isn’t anything more to the movie. Unlike Far From Heaven where the social tension between the races contributed an interesting dimension to the story, here there is little exploration of the mores of the times and the public disdain for same sex relationships that prevailed then. What could have been more interestingly and more deeply examined, Carol’s marriage to Harge, and the ambivalence that seems to be there in her, was really only hinted at. Perhaps the movie needed another ten minutes of them together to answer the questions about the marriage’s viability more satisfyingly. Suggestions like that often fail to take account of the pace of a movie, but it did not seem overlong, even though it was a character movie, so I don’t think adding an additional scene or two would have harmed its length.

Of course, one thing—unsurprisingly—that is not commented upon in Carol is the question of whether their attraction to one another is something that it might have been healthy for them to resist. No, we can’t even explore a question like that.

Drew Trotter

January 15, 2016

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