It is Christmas in New York, in the 50s. This is a time (and a place) where men were men, women were women, and Christmas really “meant something,” though who knows what that “something” was.
A beautiful, blonde, immaculately groomed customer walks into a department store, to buy a doll, and leaves having bought a very expensive train set instead, and with a pair of gloves left behind (on purpose?). The very young, pretty, brunette sales clerk returns them and the cool, confident customer invites her to a lunch as a thank you. They drink vodka martinis and eat creamed spinach and poached eggs and look at each other and with that look the scene is set for Carol, Todd Haynes’ lovely, gentle, but also slightly devious new movie.
Haynes has always been a lover of women and, so in an era during which Douglas Sirk style melodrama thrived (and which he first visited in 2002’s Far From Heaven, and then again in Mildred Pierce). Here he allows for his tale of forbidden love – and the trouble that comes with it – to have the pathos it simply wouldn’t have in the 2000s setting. Carol Aird, the touchably luxurious customer, you see, is married and with a child, but she is “one of those women” who fall for other women, “one of those women” who can’t be trusted, according to her husband. And Therese Belivet, the gamine (even her name is pronounced the French way) lost soul is well, lost, and therefore open to new everythings. In a movie set in the 90s she’d be the kid going off to Oberlin and developing a crush on a photography professor who just happens to be female, who will show her the ways of the world, and make her understand that “you fall in love with a person, not a sex.”
On the surface, they are both doing what the society expects from them: being beautiful, entangled with handsome men who are ready to provide and offer the kind of safety women in the 50s who looked like them deserved, and yet neither of them is satisfied. They are ready, and willing, to get in trouble.
As the two start their back-and-forth of unspoken advances we are drawn in, but not invited. Phyllis Nagy’s quiet, specific script does a gorgeous job of embracing the subtle, but also so-fun moments of courting, the moments that feel almost too private to witness. Haynes positions his camera always a little too close or a little too far, like an observer that was possibly (probably) never quite allowed to watch. We, as viewers, feel just as voyeuristic. This is a delicate time, and a delicate balance so what goes on between these two women is theirs, and theirs alone, and anyone who tries to make it not so, is not welcome.
Of course, the success of an approach like this hinges tremendeously on the casting. For all the road trips and family drama and holiday madness, the characters ARE the story. And the casting is a coup. Blanchett is so naturally languid and touchably luxurious as both a human body and an actress, that there is no taking your eyes off of her. Mara, on the other hand, is a compact, tiny speckle of strange in a sea of average (Carol tells Therese’s upon meeting here: “What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space” and the description feels a perfect fit). The two play off of each other well, a nice clicking chemistry of understanding that you will never truly understand the other person, but you truly do want to be there with them. They are in the mood for love and nothing else.
And Haynes, it turns out, is too. His camera caresses their every caress, almost too lovingly. He lingers on the lips and the eyes and the perfect waists and breasts (Mara, it seems, is always game to go topless, another very French ingenue thing of her), with a kind of decorum that feels almost old fashioned in its respect, so that feels a little stifling. But, kind of like those pangs of true love, you end up forgiving, and just go with it. I suspect the final product is EXACTLY what Haynes had in mind: a beautiful movie, about beautiful people, and we can take it or leave it. I suggest we take it.