This is technically a digression from my lesbian movie review series since it’s a new movie, but it fits well within the thematic questions. To recapitulate the series: these are reviews of lesbian-themed movies, originally drawn up in answer to a request for recommendations of "good movies involving lesbian romances that don't end up with the protagonists deeply unhappy, dead, or both." To this set of criteria I’ve added the question, “Is the story primarily about coming out?” This set of index questions will necessarily involve some spoilers. Although the movie is new, the book it’s based on (The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith) was published in 1952. If you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading, because the nature of my analysis will inherently involve talking about endings.
No buy link this time because it’s not out in video yet.
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Carol is based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt, by suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith (perhaps better known for titles like Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley). There were significant autobiographical aspects to The Price of Salt which was published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, and which Highsmith did not publicly acknowledge until late in life. Give the date of the book’s publication -- the height of the lesbian pulp era -- what stands out most about the story (and its current film adaptation) is its failure to have a tragic ending. I use that phrasing advisedly given the plot’s set-up, with the title character in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from a controlling and potentially violent man who knows about a prior affair she had with a woman and who is angling to use Carol’s personal life as leverage to get sole custody of their young daughter. (Alternatively, to use his ability to get sole custody as leverage to force Carol to remain in the marriage. He is presented at the type who believes that if everyone will agree to pretend that the marriage is successful and happy, it will become so.) This is a story that telegraphs in bright blinking lights: “This Will End In Tears!” The fact that it doesn’t (and that a story breaking that established trope was published) is revolutionary for its era.
That isn’t to say that this is a happy story. Carol is depressed, isolated, and trapped, in that “what has she got to complain about” way of a wealthy socialite. Her best friend Abby (her former lover) is supportive, but in a closeted, sneaking around sort of way. Then Carol encounters Therese, working at the toy counter in a department store, where Carol is shopping for a Christmas present for her daughter. Therese is drifting through life, as she puts it “saying yes to everyone” from lack of a clear understanding of what she wants. She has a boyfriend she doesn’t want who is badgering her to have sex, to marry him, to travel to Europe with him, or any combination thereof. She never directly tells him she doesn’t want any of those things, but neither does she actually “say yes” to any of them. She has vague artistic aspirations (in the book, as a set designer; in the movie, as a photographer) but lacks to the self-confidence to pursue them. And she’s bleakly contemplating an unending future that’s missing something she can’t even put her finger on.
What the movie depicts clearly is the sparks that fly between the two women at their first encounter. Therese takes advantage of having access to Carol’s mailing address to return a pair of gloves she left at the store, followed by a thank-you meal out where she desperately tries to imitate the sophistication she sees in Carol. Carol certainly knows the nature of her own attraction, but Therese is only slightly behind Carol in self-knowledge. Another thing the movie depicts realistically is the awkward dance of communication of that attraction and knowledge in an era when open lesbian relationships could lose you your job...or custody of your child.
When Carol’s husband puts the screws on her in the lead-up to the divorce settlement, she impulsively invites Therese to accompany her on a cross-country drive -- not so much to go anywhere in particular, but just to get away. What neither of them know is that Carol’s husband has hired a private eye to tail them and gather incontrovertible evidence of Carol’s “deviance” via tape recordings from the motel room next door, the night that the two women finally end up in bed together. When this is discovered, Carol leaves in the middle of the night and flies back to New York to try to do damage control, with BFF Abby flying in to break the news to Therese and drive her back to the city. There are psychiatrists and tense, brittle family get-togethers, and meetings with lawyers.
There are a lot of ways the story could have taken a left turn into tragedy. When Carol is holding a gun on the private eye after confronting him, she could have decided she had nothing to lose. The divorce proceedings could have gone in the most historically-prevalent direction with Carol being forbidden any further contact with her daughter and her life being turned into an open scandal in court. A more traditional lesbian-pulp ending (which often included contractual requirements that the characters be punished or converted) might have involved a suicide or fatal accident, a return by one or the other of the characters to the waiting male partner (probably Therese who plays the role of nearly-innocent ingenue in contrast to Carol’s experienced and world-weary character).
And none of that happens, although we are set up to expect it. This is what I mean by the movie “failing to have a tragic ending”. The mistily ambiguous ending at least strongly suggests that Carol and Therese have decided to return to their relationship, and that Carol may have succeeded in being granted occasional supervised access to her daughter, despite openly refusing to recant or reform. But this isn’t anything you could call a “happy” ending. The characters themselves have little expectation of more than a temporary fling, then moving on to similar affairs once the initial passion has cooled. (When Abby discusses her and Carol’s affair with Therese she says something to the effect of, “And then it changed and we moved on. It always changes.”) They have no models for stable, long-term relationships and absolutely no support from society. Therese has a couple of encounters with other characters that it is suggested are lesbian or bi: a “mannish” couple in a record store, a woman at a party who seems to be meant to ping our gaydar (and possibly to ping Therese's as well). But the characters have an overwhelming sense of being cut off from their social contexts, of needing to keep their romantic interests entirely apart from their day-to-day interactions with friends and co-workers. Because, of course, that was what life was like in the ‘50s if you were queer and were clinging to the illusion of a “respectable” life.
So how does this match up with the review questions? No death. Somewhat surprisingly for the genre, no recanting (though we’re kept on the edge of our seats on this point, particularly in the opening scene before we flash-back to the beginning of the story). I wouldn’t necessarily put this strongly in the category of a coming-out theme. Therese is experiencing her first relationship with a woman, but she accepts her attraction rather easily. (And nobody is technically “coming out” in this context since they're all solidly closeted.) Although the resolution can’t exactly be called “unhappy”, neither can it really be called “happy”. I think I’d have to settle for non-tragically dreary.
As noted above, in taking this route, the original novel was ground-breaking. But this isn’t the ‘50s. And while the movie is a gorgeous period piece of its setting (and one can’t deny that Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara act the hell out of their roles), one has to consider why this particular story was chosen to produce. Who is the audience for this film? What message is it intended to convey? To today's young queer people, it must seem as disconnected from their lives as…well, as a Victorian setting would have been for me. Despite the sympathetic and non-tragic depiction of the characters, it's hard not to see it as a costume-drama for the entertainment of straight audiences in the same way that the sanitized, white-washed Stonewall is. I'd like to have loved this movie, but it doesn't feel like I was the intended audience. That doesn't mean much, I suppose -- I so rarely am.