The name fills your mouth before your tongue flies up to your hard palate, trapping it. Like a secret.
Anyone who’s spoken to/crossed paths with/been in a building adjacent to me in recent weeks has been powerless to escape mention of the current love of my life. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name (originally The Price of Salt) and directed by Todd Haynes, Carol is possibly better known to you as “the new Cate Blanchett film” or “the one where she’s a lesbian”, depending on your news outlet of choice.
A friend of Highsmith’s, Nagy first began work on the adaptation in 2000, and struggled for years to get it made. Carol has now arrived to our screens with the welcome mat of equal marriage rolled out before it. Which is not to imply that the process of getting from 2000 to here suddenly became easy, nor that queer representation in Hollywood is all done and sorted, but that both Nagy and Haynes have a very different idea about why this was a difficult film to get off the ground.
Beautifully shot, impeccably scripted and filled with silences that you could pour your soul into, Carol is sumptuous, sparing and completely evocative, containing (or rather defined by) what may well be the performance of Blanchett’s life. Haynes dares you, compels you, to fall in love with Blanchett’s titular Carol, and by the time you’re finally allowed to draw breath at the end, you realise you are already far gone. Shot on a remarkably modest budget, it has the feel of an obvious awards contender and a project any producer should have been willing to fling at least a moderate amount of cash at.
“[It] is not so much about it being gay women, it’s about it being women. In film financing terms that’s very tricky.” Nagy told the Guardian a few weeks ago, when asked whether the unambiguous queer storyline at the heart of the film might have been the reason the script spent years circulating Hollywood, passing from director to director and remaining unproduced. “Cate and Rooney are in every frame. It has no lead men,” Haynes agrees, in a similar interview.
Hold up, you’re thinking, is this seriously another article about female underrepresentation in mainstream film? No offence, but we sort of know that a] that’s happening and b] it’s a problem. Yet we inhabit an era of cinema that we’re told is on the mend. “It’s getting better,” we’re constantly reminded. “They put women in the superhero films now!”
There are pretty specific and obvious problems with these fictional women and the way they tend to be written (/shoehorned in with an extra leg jammed on one of their chromosomes), which have thankfully been elucidated by the wildly clever Sophia McDougall in I Hate Strong Female Characters. But however they appear (usually at the back of the poster and definitely not in the toy boxsets, lest you mistake them for key characters) the singular issue is that these women are never front and centre in film. A lead female character is never allowed to be the everymanperson*. She is always a woman, first and foremost, starting out with a presumed disadvantage and needing either to earn her narrative testicles by proving she’s ‘one of the guys’, proceeding through/reacting to experiences that are coded as uniquely female or straightforwardly developing an extreme drinking problem and falling apart at the seams until she finds a relationship to patch her up.
Thus, so rarely do women get to hang about near the limelight, that in playing anything resembling a leading one you automatically end up being the manifest representation of all women. If you are playing a queer woman, you are definitely all queer women. Never just a person. Male characters are never burdened with this, as their narrative is the default – they are presumed to be complex and interesting without having to build up to it. There are multiple male characters to identify with, and they all have access to more varied descriptors than ‘strong’. They have the freedom to be (and literally are) the everyman, and we are both expected to and used to translating through the lens of their experience to our own; as Vinay Patel recently highlighted when writing about Aziz Ansari’s Master of None. The rest of us are niche – our concerns must relate intimately to gender, race, sexuality et al. Queer stories are subcategorised on Netflix and the rare leading women are either trying or failing to ‘have it all’, miserably earning their complexity through tattered lives.
Carol neatly defeats this in several ways, the most profound of which is by being a love story.
It does this so soundly and completely that it’s incredible to witness. Carol and Therese (Rooney Mara) are the entire focus of the film, from their meeting in a 1950’s New York Department store to the final shot; their male counterparts filling out the background. The only other significant adult character, Abby, is also a gay woman. This shifts the default, and their sexuality, while incredibly important within the context and constraints of the period in which it is set, is not an ‘issue’. No one is ashamed, guilt ridden or self-flagellating, and no need is felt to negatively distinguish their experience from that of equivalent straight characters, because there are none. The dominant presence is the dizzying, powerfully passionate intensity of having an immediate and binding connection with someone – which any of us can recognise.
Carol is not a ‘gay film’ (Haynes highlights that it is not an “issues film”) and you would have to challenge yourself to read it that way. Doubtless many will, and Cate Blanchett gets asked about “that sex scene” all the time. WHAT’S IT LIKE TO KISS A WOMAN? Probably (journalists, read: boringly) much the same as kissing any other person you’re starring opposite and not actually in a relationship with. The fascination with queer women as sexual beings is curiously at odds with an ignorance of their existence as people and characters who function in ways that aren’t coded by their sexuality. The idea that queer stories are well represented comes from a misunderstanding that they are correctly represented. The much feted Blue is the Warmest Colour started out as a tender exploration of first love, then descended into a disturbing, exploitative, durational sex scene that screamed male gaze within its first seconds, and which both actors found horrible and oppressive to shoot. Haynes clearly sets out that the relationship being between two women was never the problematic element of getting Carol financed; though he puts it more delicately and eloquently, what it boils down to is that for quite some time people(Hollywood) have figured that female relationships are hot. They are fascinating, their eroticism is Other. Tell us about kissing a woman, Cate. Did you like it? Was it weird? Were you turned on?
Blanchett has no truck with this in interviews, and Carol refuses to exploit its characters in this way, instead embracing a universality both beautiful and truly affecting. Carol and Therese’s long craved intimacy, when finally realised, is simply real and yearning and not too long dwelled upon. It is, in many ways, the crux of the film’s suspense, but there is no desire to exploit it as anything strange and fetishised. It is just allowed to be.
Carol works because it is, and is allowed to be, a love story. Between two women (two people), between the audience and Carol (who Blanchett skilfully keeps forever just beyond reach), and between the camera and a muddy, abstract early 1950s, perpetually half-glimpsed through windows and inspired by the photography of Saul Leiter, Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt and Esther Bubley. Sandy Powell’s costumes, Nagy’s script, the grainy Super 16 film stock – every aspect of the film feels like a love letter, and I have never wanted to so much to write back.
*come find me on Twitter if you want to have an argument about Katniss Everdeen
This has also been posted on the Huffington Post website.