Director: Todd Haynes
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson
To mark the release of the new Cate Blanchett-Rooney Mara starrer Carol, The New Yorker came out with an excellent piece called “Forbidden Love”. It looked at the author of The Price Of Salt (on which Carol is based) Patricia Highsmith, and how her obsession/infatuation with two women fuelled this story, of a young woman in 1950s New York falling for an older, wealthier and sophisticated one. The piece delved into how Highsmith — who was known more for her Mr Ripley novels (The Talented Mr Ripley staring Matt Damon, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow was an adaptation of one of these) — tried to distance herself from The Price of Salt. It was among the most emotional novels she ever wrote, the only one that didn’t have a violent crime in it, the only one where she laid bare perhaps, her youthful longings for love/passion and her complicated relationship with her mother.
The Price of Salt followed real life events in Highsmith’s life. Just as Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet is working behind a toy store counter when she first happens to look across the room at Cate Blanchett’s character, Carol Aird, Highsmith too was entranced by a Mrs E.R. Senn, a “frosty blonde” she once sold a doll to. The nuances of Carol and Therese’s romance, however, borrowed liberally from Highsmith’s affair with another woman, Virginia Catherwood.
Unfortunately, the background to The Price of Salt seems to make for a far more interesting tale than Carol, the film, does. Carol traces the instant and fierce attraction that blazes between its namesake character and Therese when they encounter each other at the shop where the latter works. Carol “forgets” her gloves at the counter, Therese returns them, and thus the stage is set for the two women to explore the connection that seems to exist between them from the word go. Director Todd Haynes would have us believe that this connection is of the one-of-a-kind sort many of us spend our lifetimes seeking. Certainly, Carol (who is unhappily married and locked in a custody battle for her little daughter) and Therese trade several intense, meaningful looks that are intended to convey this impression. But what really draws these women to each other? The film does not offer convincing enough reasons.
How the women get into a relationship, romantic and then physical, makes for interesting viewing in one sense: We’re so used to seeing the mechanics of a man-woman romance play out on screen — the first look, the initial flirtation, the wooing, the conquest/surrender. But not so much with same sex relationships. While Rooney Mara tends to play Therese with not much variety in expression — she oscillates between pursed lips and a wide-eyed ingénue look — she does manage to make you feel all the despair and uncertainty that accompanies the initial stages of falling in love. When your lover does not respond in the way that you wished for, or when a much-looked-forward-to evening ends on a disappointing note, when you’re unsure of their depth of feeling for you, when you feel they have abandoned you. Cate Blanchett plays Carol with all the assurance the character requires, and which the actress can command. In scenes that require Carol to be overwrought, Blanchett is superb.
What draws us to another human being? Therese’s fascination with Carol is reasonable enough — Carol is flamboyant, self-assured; Therese is not. There is an air of tragedy to Carol’s life (the constant fights with her husband, the push and pull of an unhappy marriage, the sadness of being parted from her daughter) that adds to her considerable allure. She is beautiful, elegant, charming. In contrast (and you can see it even in the colours of the clothing that their characters chose; Carol wears vibrant hues and paints her lips and nails in shades of red and coral, Therese opts for drab shades like brown, grey and moss green) Therese is quiet, intense — and for all that she is shown to be attractive to various men — mousy. Is Carol attracted to Therese’s intensity? Her fervour? It’s a little bit of a mystery.
A lot of the dialogue between Carol and Therese can seem pointless, as though they’re talking in vague abstractions. So when one of the scenes has Therese’s boyfriend argue with her about why she’s going on a trip with Carol, her brush-off (“You know I have fun with anyone I can have a conversation with”) is funny because she never seems to have much of a conversation with Carol anyway. It is almost as though the background score and the luxuriant cinematography are being used to force us to believe that yes, there is this magical bond that exists between the two women, this is one of those “grand passions” we read/hear about.
There’s been a lot of furore over Carol not making it to the Best Picture nominations for the Oscars. And while several deserving movies do get left out of the nominations, Carol — one could argue — isn’t one of them. As a showcase for Cate Blanchett’s acting prowess, it is wonderful. As a meditation on a love that defies social norms, it leaves room for so much more....