When I left NewFest‘s screening of Carol — Todd Haynes’ adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s lesbian pulp novel, The Price of Salt, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara — I walked ten blocks past my train, and then three avenues past another stop in a different direction. I was drunk on it, on every aching look Mara and Blanchett shared, every pining line of dialogue that hung in the air between them like the threat of winter or the promise of spring, the swelling score, the immaculate costumes and set design, the way they touched when they finally touched, and how everyone in the theater had been holding their breath during the last five minutes of the film, collectively ready to jump through the screen to murder a man, and how everyone exhaled in unison when the credits rolled, and then chuckled because they didn’t realize everyone around them had been clawing at their own palms too.
I was so intoxicated by Carol I wanted to sit down in the middle of the sidewalk on the New York City street and close my eyes and relive every detail, over and over, until I could play it backwards and forwards on a loop in my own imagination for forever.
This is the story: Therese Belivet (Mara) is a young New York City department store clerk who crosses paths with Carol Aird (Blanchett) while Carol is doing some last-minute Christmas shopping. It’s 1952. Carol’s daughter wants a doll. Therese sells her a train set. Their chance meeting leads to on-purpose meetings — a lunch, a Sunday afternoon at Carol’s giant castle-like estate in New Jersey, an exchange of Christmas gifts. There are men in their lives who love them, who are jealous and greedy for their affection, a husband for Carol and a boyfriend for Therese. They’re not Bad Guys; it’s more complicated than that. For Carol there’s a best friend (and former lover) also: Abby Gerhard, played with fierce compassion by Sarah Paulson. Carol and Therese know what they’re doing when they get in the car to drive west near the New Year, as much as any woman knows what she’s doing when refusing to give a name to the kindling flame she’s yearning to engulf her.
But Carol isn’t only a sweeping film about the incandescent connection between two women. It’s also an exploration of the way those two women struggle to carve out a life of dignity and autonomy during the oppression of the 1950s. Everything is against them — their ages, their social standing, the prevailing attitudes about gay people, the dominion of men — but they refuse to be victims of their circumstance. They are consumed by their attraction, but their fledgling aspirations and the complications of their lives extend beyond each other.
By the time they have traded their separate hotel rooms for a shared one (and their own beds for each other’s), Carol’s life outside of Therese has completely unraveled and they are forced to confront the full reality of what it means to be in love with another woman in pre-Eisenhower America.
This, too, is the story: When Carol premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the audience was enraptured. They sprang to their feet when it was over, giving it a lengthy standing ovation, and the reviews that came out of the press screening were rhapsodic. The Guardian called it “creamily sensuous, richly observed.” Variety said it was “an exquisitely drawn, deeply felt love story … of breathtaking poise.” The Telegraph proclaimed it as Blanchett’s “career-best performance” and labeled the film “an exquisite work of American art.” IndieWire assured readers it was “masterful.”
None of that mattered to me. I mean, yes, of course, it mattered in the sense that a female-led film received such euphoric praise. I don’t experience lesbian-centric films in a vacuum, though. I can’t judge them on artistic merit alone because I don’t feel them that way. I feel them as a critic who has been observing and writing about queer media for almost a decade, plucking my way through over a hundred lesbian films and TV shows, tripping over tired tropes and damaging cliches, grading everything on a curve because something is better than nothing, and it’s not like most of the movies crafted about our lives have a budget that makes it fair to juxtapose them to mainstream films, even independent ones. I’ve sat across the table (and at the bar and on the phone and in the studio and over email) with the straight white men who write about us and direct the narratives of our lives, and have clenched my knuckles as they’ve condescended to me and mocked me and told me repeatedly that I just don’t get it. Lesbians die, they say. Don’t be disingenuous. And Lesbians sleep with men sometimes; it’s a valid story.
Yes, and sometimes lesbians hurl themselves off of rooftops like falcons. And sometimes they are attacked and killed by bigots in the street. And sometimes tragedy befalls them because they’re predators and they deserve it. Sometimes lesbians get cancer (sometimes right after they fall in love with another woman for the very first time). Sometimes girls kiss each other just to impress boys. Sometimes lesbians can’t be together because of their culture or their religion or the era in which they were alive, and trying to move on without the loves of their lives, it destroys them. But my god, if the totality of lesbian cinema is to be believed, we are all doomed to death or a life of unrelenting agony.
That’s how I came to Carol. You know, and critics adored The Kids Are All Right (and yes, it was a very fine piece of film-making — where the lesbian cheats on her wife with a man). And critics adored Blue Is the Warmest Color (and yes, it, too, was quite a cinematic accomplishment — where the director’s lecherous male gaze and willingness to exploit his actresses seeped into the film in a way that made me feel physically ill). I had my baggage, is what I am saying, when I sat down to watch Carol. My heart was wearing its armor.
I tend to analyze all queer media by wondering what it would have meant to me to have access to it when I was beginning my own (very, very long) journey toward embracing my sexuality. Would it have helped me accept my desires? Would it have helped me come out? Would it have comforted me in my isolation in rural America? Would it have given me hope? A way to reconcile my faith with my queerness? Would it have equipped me with the language I needed? Bolstered my bravery?
Carol is the very first piece of queer art I’m glad I didn’t engage with before right now, with all my lived experience tucked in my pocket, and years and years of doing this job under my belt. To grasp the uncommonness of the incomparable Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara inhabiting every centimeter of these fully realized queer female characters and pinging off of each other like electric pinballs. To understand what it means that Carol arrives in furs like a predator and abandons them before the movie’s end, what it means that Carol is in nothing but red in the first act and that it’s Therese who is dons it in the final scenes. To watch them watching each other through windows — endlessly, it seems, this movie is filmed through windows — and to feel it all the way down in my bones when Therese is ready to stop just looking. To appreciate that Haynes knows when to let the film breathe and when to pull the narrative so taut that it seems like your heart will hammer its bloody way right out of your chest. To value the rarity of seeing a lesbian film stitched together with such accomplished precision it makes me wish the word “epic” hadn’t been completely diluted so I could bring the full weight of its meaning to bear on this love story. Extraordinary? Singular? Remarkable? Yes, all of those things too.
Perhaps the best praise I can give Carol is that ten minutes into it, I forgot it was my job to be a critic. Twenty minutes in, I forgot I was watching a movie at all.