“Carol” Succeeds in Depicting Falling in Love

Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy succeed where many other movies fall short: depicting the exhilarating, aching process of falling in love, on screen. I loved this movie for many reasons, not the least of which is that it made me feel what the characters are experiencing.

Love and Sex On Screen

As my partner and I walked back from “Carol,” she articulated what I was still too (figuratively) intoxicated to make plain–they really showed what it’s like to fall in love. Yes, that was it! I was still somewhat lost in the emotions, colors, and sounds of the movie and thus was not able to crystallize my thoughts. But she hit the nail on the head: the essence of

Cate Blanchett in "Carol." Property of the Weinstein Company.
Cate Blanchett in “Carol.” Property of the Weinstein Company.

this movie is a love story, and “Carol” conveyed the anxiety, excitement, and longing of falling in love in a masterful way.

My partner and I have often discussed how difficult it is to find successful depictions of love and falling in love on screen. Too often, sex is used as a proxy for romantic love.

This is where I obligatorily mention “Blue is the Warmest Color.” Unlike many queer ladies, I liked this movie. I like realist art, which this mostly was, and for a 3 hour movie to hold my attention is impressive. It was a good movie, but it was not “Carol.” First off, yes, the sex scene was too long and not very realistic. My issue with that is that it was incongruous with the rest of the film. The other scenes are less idealized–there is snot with the tears, sloppy hair, less-than-ladylike food consumption. But then when it came to that sex scene, the two characters were suddenly choreographed porn stars.

But actually what bothered me more in this movie than the infamous sex scene (though it is related) is that I did not feel like I saw the characters falling in love. We saw them develop crushes, and, particularly later in the movie, I felt real emotion from the characters (especially when they are fighting) but, I did not feel like I had really seen their love adequately established. Like with so many other movies, the audience was supposed to take it as a given and go with it.

“Blue is the Warmest Color” is only one in a million movies that uses sex to convey love, however. Very often in movies of every genre, we see the couple in bed at the beginning to inform us that they are in love and everything is great. Then when things go south in the boudoir, we are meant to interpret that as the decline of the relationship. I think this strategy is a little simplistic and lazy.

(back to) “Carol” and Love

This movie made me go through the discovery of falling in love with the characters. That exciting, agonizing, hopefully rewarding process. Rooney Mara did a fantastic job of conveying the point of view of someone who is searching. For the most part, her character is understated (the whole move is beautifully understated), and not particularly forthcoming with her feelings or thoughts. However, her eyes are revealing. In scenes with Richard (the excellent Jake Lacey, “Pete” from “The Office”) or at the department store cafeteria–or anywhere where Carol is NOT, basically–she looks bored and a little sad, her eyes glossing over her surroundings with disinterest. But when Carol is in view, her eyes are wide, attentive, as if she’s trying to soak in as much of this other person as she can, as well as pick up clues as to who Carol is and what she is thinking and feeling.

Cate Blanchett is stellar, conveying such a range of emotion with merely facial expressions and glances. She has piercing eyes: the way she affixes her gaze, especially on Therese, makes the audience palpably feel what the recipient of that gaze must be feeling–excitement, nervousness, intrigue. Despite sporting furs, immaculate makeup and that captivating gaze, Blanchett’s “Carol,” is nuanced and vulnerable, and the two actresses, as well as the director, beautifully maneuver the two women’s roles so that agency and perhaps power move from Carol to Therese over the two hours.

I completely disagree with the (admittedly minimal) reviews that have described Carol is predatory. All she does is create opportunities  for she and Therese to spend time together. Therese, for her part, does not know how to categorize her feelings for Carol. But she knows she is intrigued, enchanted, and wants to be in Carol’s presence as much as possible (a position anyone who’s been in love can relate to). The use of the word “predatory” in this case is homophobic, so I won’t dignify it too much by devoting a lot of space to it. However, I will say that no one, even critics who complained about the main characters’ age difference, referred to  Bradley Cooper’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook” as “predatory.”

Subdued Expressions

This movie has no brawls, no screaming matches, no sobbing in pile on the floor. Yet it took me through highs and lows of emotion, without ever going over the top. When Harge drunkenly searches for Carol at Abby’s home, for example, I felt the tension and fear–is he going to force himself inside? Is he going to hit her? He really should not be driving! But all this was accomplished without crashing bottles, breaking furniture or grotesque facial expressions meant to connote rage. No, this movie rose above being overly dramatic, or truly villainizing anyone.

Another brilliant scene occurs when Abby has to pull the car over so Therese can run out to a field and vomit. I could feel her devastation, that gut-wrenching wave of descent when you feel like your true love is suddenly snatched away. It was quietly powerful.

As for the two women together,  their interest in and longing for each other was achingly intense, but always operating in some sort of liminal area of expression. I read an interview with Cate Blanchett wherein she attributes the movie’s subtlety to the time period: this was an era where people, in general, were not as loud about their internal life. Society expected more decorum and restraint in the 1950s than it does today. Fair enough, that’s probably true. Of course I have also read quite a few reviewers attributing the circumspect nature of the film to the fact that non-heterosexual relationships in 1950s America required codes and restraint.

My own thought is that during the initial stages, queer relationships in general operate with more subtlety, nuance and, yes, vagueness than heterosexual relationships (though this is certainly less true today than it was in the 1950s). In upper class mid-century America, a woman would not ask a man out to a friendly lunch. And if a man asked a woman out to lunch, this would likely be interpreted by all involved as a romantic overture. But a woman asking another woman out to lunch . . . well, it’s a bit more complicated. Which is why Carol’s line is so good in this scene. When Carol says she thought it was a man who returned her gloves, Therese apologizes (for not being a man). Carol tells her not to be sorry and then says she very much doubts she would have asked a man out to lunch. It’s an absolutely perfect line of dialogue, and delivered spot-on by Blanchett: neither Therese nor the audience knows whether Carol means she’s not interested in having lunch with the ski department men, or whether she is reacting simply to the inappropriateness of such a lunch.

I don’t know if queer men have the same experience, but for queer women, even today, not knowing whether you are on a friend date or a romantic date is a real thing. So real that there are memes and articles about it. And of course, it’s not just a question of not knowing how a person identifies–it’s not knowing what the other person is feeling. This is true for heterosexual people too, but I would argue heterosexual people operate in a world that still has more codified rules and guidelines of interaction.

The Immersive Experience

“Carol” was only two hours, but it was an immersive experience. My favorite movie for years has been Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” though now I believe the two are tied for first. Although “Nashville” is a very long movie, it draws me in to the sights and sounds so that I lose track of time. A 3-hour movie like “Batman” on the other hand–let’s just say it’s not the same experience for me. I’m not a film buff and I lack the cinema vocabulary of a proper critic. But one element of Altman films that I love, particularly “Nashville,” is that every single shot is so beautifully arranged and composed; every still would make a fantastic poster. The same is true for “Carol,” as well as all of Todd Haynes’ films.

As many reviewers have noted, the attention to detail in this movie is phenomenal. The windows, the fog, the rain, the beautiful toy store with so many glass cases–my eyes gulped it all in. The music too–the score was reminiscent of Moonlight Sonata, and the use of the song “You Belong to Me,” recorded most famously by Patsy Cline (though the movie used the Helen Foster and the Rovers version) during the drive to New Jersey perfectly expressed the tangled feelings of the main characters. This song has always struck me as generally hopeful, but twinged with sadness. The sadness of separation as well as the plaintive refrain “you belong to me”–it’s a statement, but also a plea.

I often come away from movies, even movies I like, thinking well, that was entertaining for two hours but I don’t really want to see it again. It’s taken me years to figure out that what makes the difference for me between an entertaining movie and a beloved movie is that my favorite movies stir some kind of emotion in me. This can be tricky territory to navigate safely. When I was in college the first time (at Brown, coincidentally, Haynes’ alma mater) I spent hours and hours enveloped in Robert Altman movies, Joan Baez records and eventually, alcohol. I mention this because even though I am now sober, for me, the best art has an intoxicating quality.

Romantic love itself is, of course, intoxicating and immersive. In an interview with IndieWire, Todd Haynes described how he tried to do just to Patricia Highsmith’s depiction of falling in love in The Price of Salt (which I have not read). Haynes is quoted as saying:”What I loved about the novel is that is describes love from that tunnel that you’re in when you’re first falling in love,” he said. “You think no one’s ever been there before you. You’re so impressed by the specificity of your desire finding its exact object in that person. Your life is a minefield of signs, things to be decoded. Every gesture, every phone call, every little pause in their breath means something . . .  it is like the criminal mind weaving intricate webs of possibility.”

This was absolutely true of Carol, a movie that made me continue to think and feel about it for quite some time. And unlike some movies or music that I may become infatuated with briefly, I know Carol is a film of substance that I will come back to again and again. I am thankful to Phyllis Nagy, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Todd Haynes for creating this masterpiece with which so many of us have fallen in love.

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