In most movies with a romance between a man and a woman, the man is older than the woman — sometimes by decades — and no one seems to mind. In “Carol,” a new movie directed by Todd Haynes, age makes all the difference, but there’s a gender twist.
The story takes place in New York around 1950, when same-sex relationships started out as furtive glances and carefully phrased questions. Therese, played by Rooney Mara in a performance that won her the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, is a twentysomething woman being courted for marriage by her boyfriend. Carol, played by Cate Blanchett in a performance that should have shared the Cannes award, has a daughter and is in the middle of a divorce. She’s 16 years older than Therese, in the movie and in real life (Blanchett is 46 and Mara is 30).
Because this is the middle of the 20th century, everyone’s still in the closet. Haynes never makes it clear whether Carol and Therese are bisexual or lesbian. He considers it beside the point: It is a romance between two women. When Therese becomes the subject of Carol’s advances, she doesn’t know what to do. She has not read Out magazine, she has not seen “Blue Is the Warmest Colour,” and she doesn’t have any gay friends to talk to. Carol, on the other hand, is experienced.
And so what follows is a story in which Carol brings Therese “of age,” so to speak, guiding her through new experiences, changing her perception of the world. Carol takes Therese on a road trip. They leave New York and have the vague plan of heading to Chicago, but their trip almost seems aimless. At the same time, it’s like Carol has done this before. She knows which coy gestures she needs to make to answer Therese’s curiosities, and she takes things at a careful pace.
Haynes is careful not to exploit their relationship on screen. When Carol and Therese finally have sex, it’s filmed in tasteful close-ups and doesn’t run for a second too long. By contrast, Abdellatif Kechiche, in 2013’s “Blue Is the Warmest Colour,” filmed those scenes immoderately. In “Carol,” every touch tells you about Carol and Therese’s tenderness, about how they behave. “Blue” told you that, and then wouldn’t shut up.
Carol is not just the older, experienced person in the relationship teaching the younger person how it’s done — she is the older, more experienced person teaching someone with no frame of reference, and teaching her to understand everything without shame. And she has no idea what she’s doing.
If the legendary French director Jean-Luc Godard said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun,” “Carol” provides two girls and a gun. On the road trip, Carol discovers that a private investigator has followed her and Therese. We should have seen it coming, given that the movie is based on a novel (“The Price of Salt”) by noir writer Patricia Highsmith, but Haynes’ gorgeous photography makes you forget. The detective is working for Carol’s husband, who threatens to use the evidence of her homosexuality to invoke a “morality clause” that would give him sole custody of their child. In 1950, homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and Carol sees a psychotherapist to ensure the court doesn’t take her daughter away from her. She stays away from Therese to try to prove her straightness.
In all this, Therese is left adrift. Because she has no one else to talk to about her newfound sexuality, she is dependent on Carol. Carol isn’t just her guide through a new world, she is the only person in that world. When Carol leaves, she is all alone. After two women hide away from the world, a man suddenly arrives, wielding power over both of them. Carol is at his mercy, and she can do nothing for Therese anymore.
When Carol first met Therese, she thought she had her own destiny — and Therese’s — under her own control. By the end, she’s watching powerlessly. In their first shared scene, Carol purchases a train set from Therese as a Christmas gift for her daughter. When it arrives at her home, she assembles it, lights a cigarette, flicks a few switches, and the train runs. It goes around the track in circles, and Carol just sits back and watches.
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