It's always been ironic that a writer as misogynistic and phallocentric as D.H. Lawrence, all brilliance aside, penned a novel called Women in Love. It tells the tale of the Brangwen sisters, Gudrun and Ursula; one looks for marriage while the other espouses a more cynical, anachronistic ideology. The twosome turns to a quartet when the sisters meet friends Gerald and Birkin and although I won't spoil the ending, it is not the feminist magnum opus of its titular implication. My favorite line, though, is this: "Every true artist is the salvation of every other. Only artists produce for each other a world that is fit to live in."
That line rings devastatingly true in Todd Hayne's new film Carol, which is actually about two women in love with one another, ostracized by a society that seems archaic today, attempting, at times futilely, to conjure up a world in which their high-voltage romance can exist. Set in New York City in the 1950s, the film, based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt, which was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan before Highsmith claimed it as her own 40 years later, shows two terrific actors at their most seductive. If dialogue takes a back seat, it is only because Carol (played by a gorgeous, hyperbolically epicurean Cate Blanchett) and Therese (the mega-talented, tepid Rooney Mara) share a connection so palpable that oftentimes just their reciprocal gaze is sufficient. Perhaps "high-voltage" sells it short; the electrical currents flowing between the actors -- currents of physical magnetism, of sexual repression, of peripheral longing -- reverberate intensely throughout the film.
Therese, a young and eager photographer who works at a Manhattan department store, catches sight of Carol, sybaritic-but-likeable, as she looks for a Christmas gift for her adolescent daughter. Although there dialogue is short and perfunctory, their energies are anything but; the love-at-first-sight narrative is remarkably believable because of the restraint and paucity with which the actors handle the scene. Carol conveniently leaves her leather glove, a sort of insignia of the socioeconomic differences between the two women, on the counter. She calls Therese at work, invites her to lunch and then to her New Jersey mansion, festooned in Christmas decor, and soon the two are "heading out West." Although much of the bigotry in the movie is implicit, the scenes of Carol and Therese escaping Manhattan by car, fleeing from more than just their male partners but a society that forbids their romance, invokes vaguely the atmosphere of a Bonnie & Clyde-esque getaway, lovers suffocated by their surroundings but resuscitated by one another.
Highsmith wrote two books firmly entrenched in the literary canon of twisted, sociopathic, spine-chillers: The Talented Mr. Ripley (adapted masterfully to film by Anthony Minghella) and Strangers on a Train (cinematized by he-who-trumps-even-Highsmith when it comes to thrill, Hitchcock). Except suspense is employed more carefully and in more sobering quantities here. It is less thrilling but still invigorating; overt, without Highsmithian mind games. Carol does away with the histrionics of Ripley (who can forget a young Matt Damon flying through cinematic Mongibello streets under the guise of Dickie Greenleaf), but it retains what is perhaps the greatest virtue of Highsmith's novels: their ability to capture the nuances of experience, to portray an endlessly complex humanity against the backdrop of prohibitive milieus.
Because of this -- the immutability of the film's characters and the brilliant reincarnation of a zeitgeist -- Carol operates simultaneously as character sketch, period piece and aesthetic marvel. The latter is worth dwelling on: the film is truly beautiful, shot in 16mm by cinematographer Edward Lachman, with a granular, coruscating vitality. There are a handful of moments in the film you want to pause just to immortalize the shot: Carol tousling her picturesque blonde hair as she buys a Christmas tree, the two women driving through Iowan backroads, Therese asleep in the passenger seat, Carol peering over at her, with a gaze that is all-at-once sweet, languishing and impassioned. In the film's final shot, the two trade glances yet again, their lips curving upwards ever-so-slightly, adorned in deep shades of red, suggesting the world.
What strikes me as Hayne's biggest achievement is his clever placement of the two leads: almost always in diametric opposition, sundered by society but connected in more substantial, cosmic ways. Until the two sleep together, in a touching motel sequence, one feels the weight of their distance; Therese playing piano, Carol watching her from the floor of the living room; the pair in charming hotel rooms, in opposite twin beds, facing one another with their heads resting on their wrists; in posh Manhattan restaurants, assuming the guise of the platonic, eating olives off toothpicks as the world around them blurs. As she tries to make sense of the young and abstruse Therese, Carol describes her as being "flung out of space." Soon after, their planets align.
Because the film is so strongly anchored by its two female leads, its other actors are far more limited in scope, although they too turn in first-rate performances. Sarah Paulson's Abby is particularly interesting; woeful undercurrents of unrequited love, of subjugation to and veneration of Carol, her childhood friend, give her character a small but important place in the film. Kyle Chandler of Friday Night Lights fame is Carol's mercurial, rageful estranged husband, one of three characters (although it's likely many more exist) lost in a trance of unmufflered affection for the dame. The wholly-justified, almost universal gravitation towards her speaks to both Blanchett's moviestar exuberance and Carol's complexly tragic pathos.
Carol is not a perfect movie. At times, the film's pacing is off, rushing Carol and Therese's relationship for the sake of expediency. At other times, actual dialogue plays second fiddle, made subsidiary to artful shots and a rising, symphonic Carter Burwell score. But at film's end, these are minor, if not unimportant notes, for it is a perfect romance, an elusive find in cinema today. This is because Carol, when stripped of its grandeur, reduced to the shared airtight gaze of its dual leads, is simply a story about women, women in love.