"Carol": Eyes Shut or Wide Open?
Updated: Feb 2, 2018
Haynes’s 2015 film Carol makes a case for love against all odds – but is that love blind?
Movie reviews are as old as cinema itself – for over a century now, they have gradually developed their own distinct genres and audiences. Still, most film reviews share some basic traits:
First, a review is almost always written by a single author. This makes sense; after all, each has his/her own take on the film. But in another sense, since we often experience movie and TV shows together, first physically then verbally, why not reflect upon them together?
We often experience movie and TV shows together, so why not reflect upon them together?
Second, film reviews typically prefer to discuss the merits of the film, without divulging too much of the plot. Again, this make sense; who wants spoilers? But here too, once we’ve watched the film, it’s spoilers that we often want to think, and talk, about.
With this in mind, Sapienism goes to the movies (and, in time, to TV). Our reviews are conversational, not confrontational, and do not shy away from spoilers – so you’re especially encouraged to read them, after watching the film. Finally, these are not exactly re-views, but more re-experiences: we do not aim to grade a film, but to contemplate our experiences of it, and perhaps tap into some of your experiences too.
Let’s begin – our first film re-experience is Carol…
Edward Hopper, Chop Suey (1929)
Todd Haynes’s 2015 Carol starts and nearly concludes with its best scene, and it’s the same scene, except it’s not. As the film begins, we see Carol chatting with Therese at a restaurant, a man, an acquaintance of Therese, appears, and Carol departs, not before she gently rests her ungloved hand on Therese’s right shoulder. It takes time to understand this touch, what it means for both, and where it might take them.
The film is based on Patricia Highsmith's 1952 novel The Price of Salt. Amidst her divorce, Carol, played by the always exquisite Cate Blanchett, falls for Therese, a shop-assistant would-be photographer, played by Rooney Mara. The socio-political setting, early 1950s US, doesn’t make it easy for either, especially for Carol, who stands to lose custody of her daughter to her husband, who invokes a “morality clause.” Carol is not deterred, at first, but later discovers how wide and deep the odds are against her, so she leaves Therese, only to realize she doesn’t want to.
Todd Haynes’s 2015 Carol starts and nearly concludes with its best scene, and it’s the same scene, except it’s not.
Back at the restaurant, as the film approaches its conclusion, Carol asks Therese to come live with her, but Therese, deadpan, says “no, I don’t think so.” Carol, still hopeful, suggests that she might change her mind, but Therese’s facial reaction seems to quench all such hope. “That’s that,” Carol concludes, adding “I love you,” but Therese will not budge, the man appears, and Carol leaves.
And again, the hand upon the shoulder – we see the same scene, now with the knowledge of what preceded it. But it’s not just knowledge, it’s the experience of it – us cast into that era, and into this story – which changes everything. So much so, in fact, that it changes the way Therese herself reacts. The two scenes seem the same, but they are not. In that second iteration of the scene, just before Carol pulls back her hand, the camera, and our gaze, lingers on Therese as she closes her eyes, in pain and longing.
This doesn’t happen in the first iteration – but now it’s different for her, and for us: the memory of what can be when they’re with each other affects Therese in ways we realize moments later. Therese goes to a party and is pursued by both men and women, but none of them is Carol. And so, she goes to see her.
Therese goes to see Carol, determined yet hesitant. Scrutinizing each table of the fancy restaurant in which Carol dines (actually, smokes and drinks), Therese finally catches sight of her lover from afar. And how could she not? Therese takes a breath and a moment, before she walks on toward Carol, her field of vision constantly interrupted as she progresses. In a moment, Therese’s look can finally focus. It reveals a smiling Carol, her eyes looking into Therese’s for a final gaze – a mix of silence and mutual comprehension.
This happy ending could almost make us forget what both Carol and Therese have been through, the end looking once again like the beginning: with the two (re)forging an instant bond that’s completely non-verbal. In an inner monologue, Therese falls in love and tries to figure out if her feelings are reciprocated. But in her search for herself, she clumsily makes her way without a visible destination. Perhaps, she wants to cherish what she already found without looking – loving someone unconditionally. She will even claim: “I just take everything, and I don’t know anything. And I don’t know what I want. How could I when all I ever do is say ‘Yes’ to everything?” That is in contrast to Carol, who is locked in a marriage she tries to end, constrained to say “no” to her husband and the way of life he wants to impose on her. In this complicated context, Therese appears passive, insecure, curious, and trying to help Carol, she can’t help feeling useless and powerless aggravating her feeling of “not knowing anything.” But within the passiveness, she might be making an active decision from the get go.
Therese wants to cherish what she already found without looking – loving someone unconditionally.
Does Therese truly say “yes” to everything? She does, of course, repeatedly say “yes” to Carol. But we also get plenty of “no” from her – to her boyfriend, to her friend/suitor, to people at the party, and of course, in that penultimate scene, to Carol too. Why then, does she have this sense, of now knowing what she wants? Perhaps because both her “yes” and “no” are far from courageous; they are largely passive, and responsive: others take the initiative, presenting her with crossroads, almost “forcing” her to make a choice. Therese never creates her own dilemma, never paves her own path. The same goes for her art – photography. Carol buys her a camera, friends help her get ahead, but Therese herself just trudges along. Spending a whole film mostly through Therese’s perspective, I still couldn’t fathom – not merely what she “knows” or “wants,” but who she is. I saw no distinct personality.
Hence my biggest frustration with Carol and Carol: I couldn’t figure out why on earth Carol would want to be with Therese. Sure, Therese is young, quite pretty, and quasi-witty, but why and how could that be enough for Carol, with her wholesome, maverick and spirited personality? Love works in mysterious ways, we know, but I wanted the film to decode a bit of that mystery. There must have been something there, that I couldn’t see, and that disturbed me – whence Therese’s appeal? Even her photographs seemed to me rather mundane. Why were everybody around Therese so taken by them, and by her?
Therese is young, quite pretty, and quasi-witty, but why and how could that be enough for Carol?
Perhaps, I started wondering, Therese’s appeal lies precisely in what she herself sensed, in that all-important line you cite – in her nearly blank personality. Perhaps Therese has become, for others, a canvas on which to paint, projecting their own hopes and desires. In that sense, I wonder if Carol truly liked Therese’s photos or rather liked her own image through Therese’s lens; I wonder if Carol truly fell for Therese, or rather fell for what she saw in Therese’s eyes when she looked at her, all the way to that final “yes” scene.
Perhaps Therese has become, for others, a canvas on which to paint, projecting their own hopes and desires.
Marc Chagall, The Fall of Icarus, 1975 - tweaked :-)
Therese’s saying “no” actually amounts to her saying “yes” to other options, apparently needing refusal before approbation. And that’s part of her way of discovering herself – an almost dialectical approach to a “no” dialoguing with, and containing, a “yes” that creates a choice. Looking at Carol’s life and the challenges she faces, Therese gets an exact vision of what her life might look like in the future, if she decides to choose and pursue her love for Carol over the usual things life offers – job, marriage, house, a loving husband (a vision that gets clearer as the movie – and their relationship – moves forward, and Carol loses her daughter). And even with the preview of her very possible future, what it can and cannot hold, Therese still chooses to follow her truth – a courageous choice in my opinion. Accordingly, I don’t think that Therese’s journey of self-exploration reflects a total lack of personality.
Therese still chooses to follow her truth – a courageous choice in my opinion.
Of course, the comparison between the two lovers is inevitable, and might lead us to conclusions that highlight an active Carol versus a passive Therese. But in fact, neither woman is extraordinary: except for the love they share, both are quite ordinary. And yet, both Carol and Therese are extraordinary because they are so in each other’s eyes, even when they have nothing much in common and little to talk. But maybe, what they do share, is the desire to help each other grow, and by doing so, help their own selves grow – Therese being there (even if only as a presence) for Carol who struggles to be who she is, and Carol encouraging Therese to express her art. With Carol’s encouragement, Therese, who lacks confidence in herself and her work, begins to realize if not her talent, her potential. And for Therese, this is where it all starts: asking herself, at the beginning of the movie, if this is the most exciting her life will get, she makes the choice of choosing it all when it comes to Carol.
Asking herself, at the beginning of the movie, if this is the most exciting her life will get, Therese chooses it all when it comes to Carol.
I think Shirley’s most beautiful reflection is the perfect place to conclude our first film re-experience. If you too watched Carol, and have it on your mind, you are very welcome to join the conversation – and comment…