How I wanted to love this film! But alas, I did not. I admired aspects of it, but the key relationship lacked passion. “Carol” is visually striking and emotionally flat.
My expectations were high. I have kept my eye on the director Todd Haynes since his difficult film about AIDS, “Poison” (1991), blew open the cinematic discussion of the pandemic. In Carol, the two lead actors Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet are saturated with talent. And most important, the movie is based on Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt (1952), which was the second lesbian novel (after Well of Loneliness) I ever read – way, way before Stonewall or the movement. I have my original paperback: it cost 35 cents.
The story begins with a mutual glance of attraction between a married fur-draped Carol and a younger, single salesgirl Therese. Their love affair is full of inequalities and risks. Neither Carol’s husband nor Therese can understand the closeness of Carol’s connection with her main-ex Abby (i.e., her previous most important lesbian lover), well-played by Sarah Paulson. Carol’s husband employs a private investigator who gathers enough ammunition that Carol capitulates to the husband’s insistence on having full custody of their child. The book itself was noted for being the first lesbian novel to avoid having a tragic ending.
In Haynes’ film, Carol and Therese are both exquisitely beautiful. Too beautiful. Carol is what we used to call an Ice Queen: regal, dripping with privilege, perfectly coiffed, highly made-up, and never getting mussed, god forbid, even in bed. Therese is like a lost lamb – ungrounded, darling, and unable to get a grip on her life or feelings.
Too much time is spent gazing through rain soaked car windows, especially by Therese, leaving us with a dripping barrier to the protagonists. The frames are lovely, the poses are dramatic, and the aesthetic is arresting – but where’s the emotion? Where’s the buzz, the heat, the lust, the humor? Because the spark at the center of the narrative is missing, the lovers remain two-dimensional.
In discussing the director’s work on “Carol” with a friend, she said. “It’s the male gaze. The gay male gaze on lesbians. It’s looking from the outside in, thrilled with the beauty, but missing the connection.” The initial look across the crowded store floor brought promise to the early scenes, but unfortunately that was more or less the last sexy vibe we were to feel. Affected elegance and mournful stares replace recognizable lesbian sexuality and drama.
I recommend “Carol” because of its potential and the talent involved in its production, but I warn viewers to look for the artistry and the scenery, since the sweaty, beating heart and the throbbing arousal are nowhere to be found.
Here's the trailer