Love Is the Plot

Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet in Todd Haynes’s Carol, 2015
Number 9 Films/The Weinstein Company
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet in Todd Haynes’s Carol, 2015

Among the virtues of Todd Haynes’s new film, Carol, is the delicacy, the patience, and the sheer amount of screen time that it lavishes on the experience of falling in love: the hesitations and doubts, the seemingly casual exchanges freighted with meaning and suppressed emotion, the simple happiness of being together. In so many films, especially Hollywood films, love either sets the plot in motion (Bonnie and Clyde meet and rob banks) or provides the punch line: after ignoring the obvious for two hours, the contentious pair finally embrace just as the credits roll.

But in Carol, which tells the story of how Carol, a wealthy married woman, meets and then falls in love with a younger woman in 1950s Manhattan, love is the plot. The narrative takes its time, inching its lovers toward a mutual recognition of the passion that thrums beneath the surface without fully declaring itself until late in the film. It’s not as if we are waiting to find out whether Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) will have sex, which we assume they will. What engages us is the fact that neither is entirely certain that the other loves her back, and that Carol has important reasons for not wanting to fall in love with the much younger sales clerk and would-be photographer, Therese. Ramping up the drama is the fact that we are never permitted to forget the social pressures and restrictive mores of the mid-twentieth century.

In one scene, the bewildered Therese asks her even more clueless boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) if he’s ever heard of a woman falling in love with another woman. It’s an innocent, almost comical moment, as it is in the novel on which the film is based: The Price of Salt, which Patricia Highsmith, the marvelous writer of literary thrillers, published in 1952 under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan. What makes the scene work so well is the hapless clumsiness with which Therese interrogates the well-meaning Richard, who wants to marry her and take her to Europe; he’s the sort of man Virginia Woolf so uncharitably called “such dead, though excellent, mutton.” In the novel, Therese asks if he’s ever heard of “two people who fall in love suddenly with each other, out of the blue. Say two men or two girls.” Has he ever been in love with a boy? Of course not, says straight-arrow Richard. In any case, his response hardly matters, because Therese doesn’t love him, and she already knows and doesn’t know the answer to her question.

In the film—which has just been nominated for five Golden Globe awards—we learn early on that Carol has had an affair with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson); in the book, Therese doesn’t discover this until much later. Thus the film audience is more likely than the novel’s protagonist to imagine that Carol’s interest in Therese might be erotic; this is in part because we know something about Carol’s history, and in part because we are watching the film in 2015, when the idea of a lesbian relationship no longer seems aberrant or exotic. In Highsmith’s book, Therese can think rhapsodically about Carol and want only to be with her—and still wonder whether she is in love.

The novel is written from Therese’s point of view, so it is easier for Highsmith (and her readers) to regard events through the prism of the young woman’s genuine confusion and warring emotions. During her first lunch with Carol, Therese is at once aroused and baffled by the older woman’s presence:

Once the backs of their hands brushed on the table, and Therese’s skin there felt separately alive now, and rather burning. Therese could not understand it, but it was so. Therese glanced at her face that was somewhat turned away, and again she knew that instant of half-recognition. And knew, too, that it was not to be believed.

The voice of the novel tells us everything that Therese thinks, which we cannot know in a film. But the talented Rooney Mara makes us feel as if we do, playing Therese as young, intelligent, hopeful, inexperienced, but not entirely naive. At their first lunch together—in theory, a friendly occasion, but shimmering with yearning—Carol asks Therese what she wants to do with her life, and Therese replies that she can’t even decide what to order for lunch. Carol orders spinach with eggs on top and a martini, a (we may feel) unappetizing combination that Blanchett/Carol manages to make sound like the most delicious, sophisticated lunch in the world. Unsurprisingly, Therese tells the waiter that she’ll have what Carol’s having.

Todd Haynes—whose previous films include the brilliant Safe, in which Julianne Moore played a woman deathly allergic to nearly every chemical substance common in modern life, and Far From Heaven, with its lush 1950s beauty and its Douglas Sirk-like focus on the snakes lurking in the gardens of the Edenic suburbs—knows how effective it can be to set a scene in a milieu that is at once attractive, inviting, and creepy. Therese and Carol first meet in the toy section of Frankenberg’s, a Manhattan department store where Therese works as a temporary Christmas-season sales girl, and where Carol has come to buy a gift for her daughter Rindy. It’s pleasant to be guided by the camera through the glittering holiday paradise, even as Frankenberg’s toy department reveals itself as a hive buzzing with female anxiety, and as a place of enslavement for Therese.

As Therese labors anxiously under the watchful eye of her supervisor, we realize just how stressful selling dolls can be. No wonder she focuses on the deceptively placid, radiantly beautiful Carol, swirling through aisles in her mink, so confident, so entitled, so rich that she doesn’t have to deliberate or, heaven forbid, ask a price. With Therese’s help, Carol requires only a few moments to decide what to get for her young, school-age daughter. (In the film, Therese suggests a train set.) Carol arranges to have the gifts sent to her home in New Jersey and uses the time she has left at the sales counter to seduce Therese forever with a look, a few words, a brief expression of interest, and a fleeting smile.

Wisely, on the part of the writer—Phyllis Nagy has done an excellent job of adapting the novel for the screen—it’s Therese who makes the next move. (In the book she sends Carol a card; in the film, she has a “better” reason for communicating, returning the gloves that Carol has left on the counter.) The seduction is mutual, as it will be throughout. One of the women is older, one younger, but neither is a child—or a predator. Surely, Carol has lot more to lose from following her desires. Contrary to what one might expect, it’s Carol, not the waiflike Therese, who is the princess in the tower; her house in New Jersey, to which Therese pays several chaste but desire-saturated visits, resembles a medieval castle.

Cate Blanchett as Carol and Kyle Chandler as her husband Harge Aird in Carol, 2015
Number 9 Films/The Weinstein Company
Cate Blanchett as Carol and Kyle Chandler as her husband Harge Aird in Carol, 2015

What’s at stake is Carol’s beloved daughter, Rindy, the subject of a fierce custody dispute in Carol’s divorce from her wealthy, powerful husband, Harge. Setting the film (like the novel) in the 1950s means that Therese and Carol’s forbidden love must be kept secret in ways that would be unnecessary now, at least for American women of their class, race, and region; one can imagine a contemporary judge awarding Rindy to the two loving moms rather than the bullying, homophobic Harge, who reveals his bad character by hiring a seedy private detective to follow his wife and Therese on a cross-country road trip and record their private motel-room conversations. Harge (Kyle Chandler) is something of a monster, so enraged at having lost control of his beautiful wife that he will stop at nothing to cause her pain, even if it means that their daughter will suffer.

Cate Blachett’s astonishing skill in creating a woman who is so nuanced, intense, and full of contradictions (controlled and helpless, anguished and amused) raises this admirable film to an even higher level. We may not know Therese’s every thought, as we do in Highsmith’s novel, but we do see what Therese sees: the troubled, appealing, nearly irresistible Carol. In a distressing sequence that shows off the range of Blanchett’s gifts, Carol, undergoing psychotherapy for Rindy’s sake and trying to fit back into the role of Harge’s wife, endures a family meal with Harge’s parents. It’s alarming in much the same way as the homecoming scene in John Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence, though Carol is more decorous and repressed than the woman played by Gena Rowlands. Still, the tension we feel is the same: the building pressure of the authentic self about to erupt from behind the ill-fitting mask of propriety and good behavior.

The Price of Salt was the only one of Highsmith’s books that appeared under a pseudonym, apparently because the lesbian writer was warned away from putting her name on a novel about lesbians. Like Haynes’s film, the novel’s depiction of sexuality is at once romantic and perfectly clear (it’s impossible not to understand what the woman are doing) without being graphic. “Her arms were tight around Carol, and she was conscious of Carol and nothing else, of Carol’s hand that slid along her ribs, Carol’s hair that brushed her bare breasts, and then her body too seemed to vanish in widening circles that leaped further and further, beyond where thought could follow.” Of course, a passage such as this would have seemed far more scandalous in the 1950s than it does today.

Often the film suggests an homage to the movie stars of the period. Mara has a gamine-like quality reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn. At one moment, Carol may remind us of Kim Novak as Madeleine in Vertigo, at others of Grace Kelly or any of the frosty blondes of whom Alfred Hitchcock was so fond.

It’s no wonder that Alfred Hitchcock was the first to make a film out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. Both artists shared, among other things, an uncanny ability to evoke the panic of being falsely accused—and cornered. In Hitchcock’s 1951 adaptation of Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, its hero (Farley Granger) is undone by a pact he’s made with a sociopathic stranger (Robert Walker). Most often Highsmith’s heroes are trapped by the consequences of quasi-accidental but convenient murders, by their own impulse crimes, by their warped obsessions, and by the suspicions of others. In Carol, the threat is not that someone will be found guilty of murder, but that intolerance may keep the lovers apart. The crime of which they stand accused is that of having found one another and wanting to be happy.

One can also understand why the ferociously private Highsmith might have hesitated to publish, under her own name, the most personal of her novels. It’s the only one of her books in which her protagonist is ensnared, obsessed, and ultimately freed not by murder or paranoia but by the equally risky and suspenseful awakening of love—a process that Todd Haynes and his marvelous cast capture so movingly on screen.


Todd Haynes’s Carol is playing in select theaters.