“Carol” Is Even Better Than You’ve Heard, Is Maybe The Best Lesbian Movie Ever Made

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.


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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 519 articles for us.

72 Comments

  1. 0

    I was thinking of asking my mom to see this with me; she’s very religious and still doesn’t believe I’m gay (I’m very femme). I think if I saw this with her, she might understand my emotions/my life a bit more? But I think it would be awkward to ask her/have her go and to watch it with me, especially since there is a sex scene. I think she would be uncomfortable? What do you guys think?

  2. 0

    I havent watched the movie yet but I read the book and its odd that they aged up the characters each 10 years. One of the reasons Carol waits so long to get with Therese is because Therese is so young. And hilariously Therese learns her lesson so when the actress at the end flirts with her she says shes 22 (instead of the truth 19) and the womans response is basically thank god i was worried you might be underage.

  3. 0

    The fact that I live ina third-world country and have to wait until next year to se this film is KILLING ME…. I’m already reading the book for the 2nd time…. Watched every video and review in the world… This one just killed me a little more 😭😭😭😭

  4. 0

    I was already so excited to see this movie and now I’m freaking yearning for it! Count me in with those who who won’t get to see it in a theater and have to wait for it to be online unfortunately. :'( Absolutely beautiful review Heather.

  5. 0

    Heather, you describe this so beautifully and make me want to see it all the more, but now I am afraid that you may have placed it so high on the pedestal that it may not live up to it for me. None the less, I will screen this film the moment the opportunity is presented to me.

  6. 0

    I saw the trailer when I was going to see Crimson Peak, and I got goosebumps watching it. I’ve never seen a trailer for a movie, and wished with all my heart that I’d been there to see that movie, rather than the movie I was actually there to see. I was completely enraptured by it – and I’m glad to hear that it’s as good as it looks. I can’t wait to see it.

  7. 0

    this film sounds beautiful and I can’t wait to see it – I just have this wild suggestion that if a person experiences attraction towards more than one gender (and I am boldly going to assume that at least one of these women is attracted to her male partner) maybe they’re not lesbian? Maybe – gasp – they’re bisexual.

    of course lesbians ARE involved with men sometimes while still being lesbian, but can we at some point remember that bi/pansexuality is a thing?

    • 0

      Maybe they’re NOT bisexual, especially in 1952. If you’re mildly attracted to a man, whom you’re taught you must be attracted to, but so strongly attracted to a woman that you risk everything — that doesn’t sound bi to me. You don’t have to be pure to be a lesbian.

  8. 0

    **HUGE SPOILER ALERT**

    One of the things I noticed about Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation is that while in the novel Carol finally chooses to forego access to her daughter in order to live her life freely, in the film she simply accepts reduced access. This certainly takes a lot of the sting out of the original story’s ending. It was interesting to re-read the book after seeing the film, because it is widely recognised as being the first lesbian novel of its era to give readers a “happy ending”. I’m not even a mother, but I can’t read that brutal message that you have to choose between living openly and ever seeing your child again as “happy”, historically accurate though it certainly is. In a way I would have liked the film’s heterosexual audience to have seen the hideous choice forced on women like Carol, to think about the impact on their relationships of such a choice. I wonder whether a decision was taken to have Carol accept reduced access because to show her choosing her lover over her child would have rendered her less sympathetic as a character?

    • 0

      MEGA BOOK SPOILERS: in the book carol doesnt really have a choice, shes essentially outed by all the evidence against her which, as was stated early on in the book, she’d lose custody over her child anyway. the way i took the ending was that instead of choosing the lose-lose of both her child and therese, she makes peace with it and makes up with therese because it’s not like therese was vindictive or there was a choice for them to fall in love. she didnt choose to forego anything, the evidence was stacked against her and she couldnt win, goes back to therese to beg her forgiveness etc.

    • 0

      I would love to read all kinds of thinky things on Carol as a mother, so I hope that happens once the film’s out properly. For me, I thought of the book as having a hopeful ending, not a happy one. And that happy probably means, you know, they’re both alive & not evil. But I definitely felt the importance of her daughter to Carol more in the book than in the film (though I wouldn’t say she “simply accepts” anything.)

      Something else I thought about while watching the film is that The Price of Salt was a contemporary novel. It was published in ’52. And yet it took so long for the world to change enough for a film to be made that it’s a period movie. Anyway.

  9. 0

    So, your feelings for this movie are similar to those of every lesbian that read The Price of Salt back in 1952.

    Being 2015, I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. Because if it’s something good, it is totally sad and pathetic from the movie industry to have to wait to 2015 to have this kind of movie.

  10. 0

    I don’t get why ‘critics’ of lesbian genre-centered films always claim that ‘all’ lesbian films aren’t good or are seeped in melodrama or tainted with male intervention or dominance, where I have seen countless films that have none of these afflictions in their plots. The problem is (for Americans anyway) is that these films tend to be non-American. However, I have found of late (very lately) that the American lesbian cinema is finally catching up to the world! I would say to any lover of sapphic films, expand your horizons because it goes beyond the USA.

      • 0

        You want only the non-American films or all the good ones because in the last 4-5 years there have been a upsurge in good lesbian American films. But I’ll give you my top 10 English-speaking & Foreign films and of course the 2015 list. Bound, Better Than Chocolate, Room in Rome, Imagine You & Me, A Perfect Ending, Elena Undone, Anatomy of a Love Scene, Loving Annabelle, Fingersmith & Desert Hearts. Foreign – Kyss Mig, The Fish Child, The Summer of Sangaile, Summertime, Looking for Cheyenne, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Butterfly, Yes or No & A Family Affair! 2015 list: The Danish Girl, Carol, Freeheld, About Ray, Maragrita with a Straw, The Girl King, Stuff, All About E, Alto, To Here Knows When & Liz in September! There are many more but I can’t remember at the moment!

  11. 0

    Thank you for this very personal review, Heather. I just saw the movie last night. Can’t wait to see it again in wide release. I think it’s interesting that two of my other favorite lesbian movies are also set in the 1950’s: “Entre Nous” and “Desert Hearts.” Entre Nous is infused with sadness and Desert Hearts puts many obstacles in the way of the lovers, but neither ends in defeat.

  12. 0

    Wow! Excellent work, Heather! I just finished reading ‘The Price of Salt’ and thought, ‘hey, I bet autostraddle wrote a review for the movie’. When I finished the review and looked to see who wrote it I was so very pleased to see your name! I must admit, I haven’t been keeping up with the times these past few years, but I used to read your reviews and Skins recaps back in the day. It makes total sense to me that you wrote this. It’s beautiful and exactly what I was looking for. I’m so glad you enjoyed this movie because now I know I will, too. I’m delighted to see you’re still providing your words for all of us! Thanks!

  13. 0

    I just saw this today at the Denver Film Festival. It’s been almost 5 hours since I left the theatre and I still feel this incredible sense of longing and desire and I’ve never, ever felt that way about a movie where two women fell in love. I can’t wait until the larger theatrical release to see it again.

  14. 0

    WHY would you say these things to me. I’m already obsessed with this movie as it is, and i haven’t even seen more than a trailer. I know it’s going to be incredible; i feel like my whole life hinges on seeing this movie at the moment, and it doesn’t come out in the UK for a week and a half (IE eternity).

  15. 0

    Thank you for this review (now, I definitely have to see it) and thank you also for voicing precisely what it was that made me stop watching ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’. You’re the first I’ve heard to share my feelings about the grossness of the director, and I stopped watching mid-way through because I was disturbed and disgusted by it.

  16. 0

    My girlfriend and I saw it tonight. It was incredible and this review articulates everything we loved about it in actual words (my gf’s reaction was more like: “SQUEEEEEEEEE! AMAZING!!”). We saw “The Girl King” recently and my girlfriend was so deeply disappointed, it was heartbreaking.

    We both tried not to get our hopes up for this movie (we did see “Blue is the Warmest Color” after all, so we know disgust and disappointment well) but it surpassed not only our (low) expectations going in, but was everything we could have wished for.

  17. 0

    I saw CAROL at the London Film Festival red carpet premiere and had a similar experience of being completely intoxicated by the film. Never have I been more entranced by a film. I love movies, I aspire to make a career in making them, and never was I able to pick just one as my favorite film, until I saw CAROL.
    I made a video about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKhNgdYhqhc

  18. 0

    I’ve finally seen this movie just the other day, after months of anticipation, trailers, and reviews telling me it was the best thing to ever happen to lesbian film-making. I was prepared to ugly cry at this film but found I was only mildly uncomfortable.

    While I think it was a visually beautiful film, if it hadn’t been so well-made the actually storyline is just this:

    *SPOILERS*

    Carol stalks a woman fifteen years her junior and makes borderline creepy passes at her and then invites her to the middle-of-damn-nowhere New Jersey (also creepy).

    The only reason Carol is Not That Creepy is because she’s played by Cate Blanchett, so she’s smoking hot and talks in that sultry faux-American accent that also sounds like she’s constantly saying the words ‘I have so much more money than you do’.

    They finally decide to take a cross-country trip to Chicago together even though they barely know each other and have basically exchanged a total of about twenty sentences.

    They do it.

    MEANWHILE, Carol has all kinds of baggage that she didn’t take on this trip. And, oops, she didn’t deal with it before leaving. So she just up and leaves Therese in the hotel room and flies back to NJ, sending her best-friend-ex-lover to drive Therese home. No, I’m sure that won’t be uncomfortable for anyone.

    Therese does a lot of crying in various places. They do not speak for months.

    As a result, Therese actually turns into a more interesting character, gets her shit together, gets a better job, starts being creative, starts living a more honest life.

    Cue: Carol turns up out of nowhere to declare her love in a public place, never mind the dragging you several hundred miles across the country and leaving you in a hotel room nonsense, please forgive me and let’s be the lesbian power couple of 1953.

    I’m glad they got their happy ending. But really… I was kind of hoping Carrie Brownstein would sweep Therese off her feet at that party.

    • 0

      I definitely understand that some people won’t love this movie, but you’re sort of oversimplifying things here to be dramatic. The “stalking” that Carol does? She only ever offers Therese opportunities to see her again (which are all accepted) she never shows up out of the blue or does anything to manipulate Therese.

      Her “baggage” that she didn’t deal with didn’t *require* dealing with, she was told she couldn’t see her daughter for 3 months and there was nothing she could do about it, so she decided to go away instead of staying home and drinking herself to death. There was nothing she could do except try to stay busy. The fact that Harge decided to send someone to stalk her (literally) is hardly her own fault.

      Therese grows up while they’re apart, not *because* they’re apart but because she has new experiences. She never actually stops loving Carol even though she changes, just like the fact that Carol changes and still doesn’t stop loving Therese.

      Look idk, maybe it’s was disappointing to you, but you’re sort of implying it’s Twilight, when really it’s just a semi-beat, complex love story by a woman who didn’t believe in happy endings but wrote one anyway.

  19. 0

    I avoided reading this entire review purposely when it was posted so that I didn’t have too many expectations for Carol. I just watched the film and I am obsessed. After watching it, I read Heather’s review and it’s seriously spot on. Heather, are you in my brain?

    This was not only the best lesbian movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s now one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to watch it again. Oh my goodness, it was so good.

    Highly recommended.

  20. 0

    Watched this in theatres today. One of the best lesbian movies I’ve seen. Certainly up there with the period piece mini series by Sarah waters. It’s awesome to have a high quality high production value mainstream lesbian movie that is well written, not creepy and fetishizing, and is centred around the women and not the men.

  21. 0

    Heather, I hope you’re still reading these comments. I finally saw Carol today. About 30 minutes ago actually. I’m still buzzing. It’s barely above freezing in Toronto right now, but I feel lit from the inside. How can two people just LOOKING at each other generate that kind of heat? And why don’t the Oscars have a category for “Best On-Screen Chemistry”?! Forget Best or Supporting Actress nominations, THAT is the award these women deserve. Heather, I watch nearly everything you tell me to, and have yet to be disappointed, and Carol was no exception. I was a bit worried at the beginning, it started very slow, and every second Carol and Therese didn’t share the screen felt like wasted time in a film that was already much too short, but by the end…I just had the biggest smile on my face.

    Oh, and for everyone who has yet to see this film, seeing it alone was the best decision I have ever made. Unless you have a long-term significant other, this is a film you want to savour. Don’t let anyone ruin the experience for you.

    • 0

      I saw Carol alone yesterday and agree it really allowed me to turn it over in my mind/soul. To me, the story and the style reinforced the feeling of restraint throughout, coincidentally matching the way I currently express my sexuality. And so the moments of full expression (on both ends of the emotional spectrum) resonated. Like you, by the end, I could do nothing but smile.

  22. 0

    The thing I love best about this film is that Carol, the character, never, ever apologizes for who she is. She is frank with her husband, and not intimidated by the Lawyers in the final scene with him. That moved me more than anything: the way she moved beyond fear and owned who she was, and broke through that suicide/accident/tragedy wall that so often ends the love affair/movie, taking with it the dignity of the life that lived it. Weeks later, I’m still in awe of that aspect of the movie.

  23. 0

    So you are a beautiful writer. You express ideas, concepts, feelings, and that thing… that thing we all sense but can’t put into words, but yet you do. You completely captured how I and perhaps many others experienced this movie. Every so often I allow myself to watch it again and … just live in it for a while. Then, I reread this article and it puts into words just how I am feeling. I press play one last time in my mind and let go…until the next time.

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