Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: The Beautiful Ache of “Carol”

Chemistry, we are told, is the study of matter and the way it interacts. How the composition of one thing can combine with another thing to form something altogether new. In short, it’s the science of change.

Yet no microscope has yet been invented that can truly understand the chemical reaction that is falling in love. The elusive biology of the human heart, the hungry physics of desire – these remain as inexplicable to us today as they were at the beginning of time. Yet, time and time again, we find ourselves engulfed in the sweet and far too often cruel mystery of our emotions.

But where science fails us, art steps in. And, in those most rare and most special instances, it helps us understand what no equation, no formula, no theorem ever could. “Carol” is one of those moments.

You see this is a film all about chemistry. But not the kind that bubbles up in beakers. Instead it’s a study of the spark of attraction, the smolder of longing, the sear of passion. “Carol” is perhaps the most beautiful ache you will ever experience in the cinema.

Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy (who are both, it should be noted, out artists), have adapted the 1952 lesbian classic “The Price of Salt” by author Patricia Highsmith into something altogether extraordinary. When paired with the exquisite performances by Cate Blanchett (as housewife Carol Aird) and Rooney Mara (as shopgirl Therese Belivet), it becomes something truly transcendent.

This is, quite simply, the lesbian movie we’ve been waiting for.

“Carol” is at once set in a very specific period, early 1950s New York, yet also able to break free from the petty restrictions of space and time. It is Christmas in fastidiously recreated Manhattan and Carol breezes into a department store where Therese is working behind the doll counter.

Carol is impossibly sophisticated in her glamorous mink coat and Therese is dewy with youth in her store-mandated Santa hat. Yet from the moment their eyes meet across the crowded store floor, it’s there – chemistry.

That mutual magnetism drives “Carol” in a way few films allow us to see women in love. While it would be easy to understand why someone, anyone with eyes really, would swoon over the allure of Blanchett’s Carol (her low, measured tone alone is the very definition of ravishing), the story also allows us to see clearly what Carol sees in Therese. It would be too cheap to say it is just the bloom of youth.

In Therese we see a curiosity about the world and a dissatisfaction with the prescribed order of things. Where Blanchett has been made to look like an iconic, cool blond goddess of the silver screen, Mara recalls an unadorned Audrey Hepburn – but with a yearning behind her inquisitive eyes that belies her age.

When Carol absentmindedly, or on purpose, leaves her gloves on Therese’s counter, it sets in motion a slow burn that will consume both women. But fire – with its penchant to destroy – also brings about rebirth. What rises from it is often more magnificent in its resilience and strength.

As the women embark on a road trip together out west over the holiday break, their unspoken courtship continues at a measured – almost unbearable – pace. Carol’s big Packard probably never breaks 50 mph, yet at times your heart will pound as if they’re racing together in a grand prix. Such is the power of the tension, the delicious anticipation, Haynes and company have built between these two.

We hang on every touch, we luxuriate in each glance, we watch them watch each other through windows – so many windows.

On the home front, both women have impatient men waiting for them – for Carol a husband angered and bewildered by their pending divorce (played by Kyle Chandler, the good guy from “Friday Nigh Lights”), for Therese a boyfriend angered and bewildered by her refusal to run off to Europe with him (played by Jake Lacy, the good guy from “Obvious Child”). Carol also has a true and knowing friend, and former lover, to confide in with Abby (played by the always good Sarah Paulson).

Over the course of quiet lunches and aphoristic visits, we – both us watching and the characters on the screen – come to the understanding that these two women simply cannot stay away from each other.

Of course, there is also the understanding that two women who simply cannot stay away from each other in 1950s America is not a thing people comprehend, let alone accept. Yet this is not a film that strives to retell a hushed history of the love that dare not speak its name in the pre-Eisenhower era. Nor is it the sort of standard-issue coming out story we’ve been accustomed to seeing on the screen. Neither woman is shown struggling against her sexuality. In fact the word “lesbian” isn’t even uttered once.

Still, while this is not a film interested in explicitly showcasing a movement or protesting injustices, this is very much a political film. It has to be. The act of showing two women in love, two women in lust (however restrained and tastefully shot) who refuse to apologize for their feelings remains a fundamentally revolutionary act in this world.

So the seriousness with which this film approaches our love, the reverence which it displays for these women’s attraction, the universality which it reflects in their undeniable chemistry – all that matters. The process of expanding people’s minds, opening their hearts through nothing more than moving pictures projected two-stories high – that’s the true art of change.


Helena said...

Can only say thank you for this brilliant review.

Anonymous said...

Dear DS, you never dissapoint! Beautiful, Thanks you.

Carmen SanDiego said...

You write so beautifully, Thank you for your review
I have to watch this movie again
Hoping it wins many awards for Blanchett

Anonymous said...

Beautiful review. I still can't wait to see it. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

Your review is as beautiful as the movie itself. Brilliantly and beautifully said. I still don't have words to express how much I loved it but you summed it up perfectly. I hope both women are recognized for their performance.

Anonymous said...

Their encounter with the Riddler was a surprise, too.

Heather Anne Hogan said...

I have been waiting for this for so long, and it was everything I wanted and more! Thank you, Snarker.

Kate said...

Beautiful review as always but the one thing I would say is we've had and continue to have the movie we'd all been waiting for. Since 1985, thanks to Donna Deitch and Desert Hearts. At a time when there was no lesbian chic and people weren't falling over themselves to get in on the current wave, Ms. Deitch and an amazing cast did a breathtaking job of creating a beautiful portrayal of falling in love. Not falling in lesbian love, just two people falling in love. Hats off to the folks in Carol, but we should never forget that we see the distance because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Thank you for all of your wonderful reviews, some of which have made me laugh so hard I venture toward the land of the incontinent.

Anonymous said...

If I hadn't already seen this film, this review would've made me *ache* to see it.

Yes, yes, yes. Well said, well written. And hey, you managed to write this awesome review without major spoilers! You win teh internets today, Miz Snarker.

Briony said...

I have to be honest, this is the first movie starring Cate Blanchett that i've ever watched, and after seeing this movie i regret that hugely, because what a stunning being she is. (If ever anyone wants to know my "type", she's my answer.)
Lovely review, and you're absolutely right that the chemistry between them is off the charts. Rooney plays the blind devotion and subsequent heartbreak with acute sensitivity and raw emotion, and Cate somehow manages to play two different Carols at the same time; one where she's holding herself back, and one where she's letting herself go. It's incredible.
The best thing about this movie to me is that a lot of little things could be changed to make the movie even better, but if it *was* better, viewers would come out blinded because it's already impossibly good. I love this movie so much i could name a child after one of them, and i *despise* people that do that.
What a relief to finally live in a world where this type of movie exists.

linster said...

Thank you, DS. You beautifully captured the spirit of this beautiful move.

Anonymous said...

Hyperbole. Doesn't hold a candle to Desert Hearts & even more so the original novel.

COG said...

Lovely review that sums up my feelings too. I went to see this three times at the cinema and each time saw something new in the interactions between Carol and Therese. Beautifully acted by both actresses - Blanchett captures the elegant glamour of the period while Mara is adorable in her instant fascination with Carol.

BTW film reviewing isn't a competition - you can love Carol AND Desert Hearts!

Panty Buns said...

Now that I've read your review of "Carol" I'll be looking for "The Price of Salt" on NetFlix in addition to being eager to see Cate Blanchett and Roonney Mara in "Carol".

Anonymous said...

How do you do it? I’ve read you’re blog over the years when I want a have a little fun and relaxing time after a day of work. I can’t related to all the posts but I would scroll down the archive and read about my favorite ladies and you’ve always got my full attention and laughter. You just seem to know to write what I’m thinking.
I love these posts as well, so well said and beatiful written. Thank you DS
Well, now “take me to bed”:)

Florence said...

Beautiful review.
I finally got to see Carol and it's everything I hoped it would be.
The way Cate Blanchett acts with her eyes only in the first lunch scene is simply breathtaking.

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to see it but I have will probably have to drive at least two hours. Some of the downside to living in the middle of nowhere!

Dar said...

Loved your review and I agree that one can love both Carol AND Desert Hearts. We own and rewatch DH from time to time and intend to do the same with Carol. The DVD can't come out soon enough. I always enjoyed Cate Blanchett, but after this I am absolutely over the moon. I have been a fan of Sarah Paulson forever, and was really happy to see how much screen time she had in this movie, considering her character, Abby, is not quite as 'visible' in the book.

Unknown said...

I've been fortunate enough to see "Carol" a few times already with plans to see it many more times in the future and your review captures the reason for that quite nicely. It's a lovely read, befitting a lovely film with strong work from all involved, starting with the adaptation by out writer Phyllis Nagy to the astonishing performances by Blanchett and Mara to every other point along the way. Indeed, I also see this as the lesbian movie I've been waiting for my whole life, which doesn't take away from the strength of gay lady films in the past but merely expresses my love and appreciate for this brilliant movie we have right here and now.

TekGirl said...

The word lesbian wasn't even uttered once, quite possibly to the joy of Millennials who identify as anything but......

AnnieStinkle said...

Interestingly, I've heard the actresses say, in interviews, that Carol is not a politicized movie, but I agree with you. The very act of these two women pursuing their honest love for each other, without someone getting killed off or going crazy at the end, IS political. Of course, they pay a price (Carol especially, with her limited contact with her daughter), but these characters refuse to feel shame.

I've seen the movie twice now, and I was really surprised by the other people who showed up. I saw it first in Los Angeles, then in Orange County (a conservative area, generally). I figured it would either be empty, or just 20-30 something lesbians. To my pleasant surprise, in both showings there were a number of men, and an unexpectedly high number of older women (some of whom arrived alone, and others in groups). Obviously, I don't personally know their life stories, but it was heartening to see the diversity of people who wanted to watch the film. I'm willing to bet that, at least in some cases, the film provided a place of solace or answers for women who are questioning their own sexuality. How is that not political?

Anonymous said...

As always your review is beautifully written and also provides me with a few new things to consider. I was just wondering whether anyone had noticed the similarities between "Carol" and "Imagine Me and You".
I know that these two films are to a large scale completely different, especially considering the different eras they portray. However, while watching Carol I could not help but notice how they could be seen as similar in a number of ways. I liked both of these movies and I think this is to a large extent based on the fact that nobody dies or goes crazy in the end and also because of the chemistry (especially in Carol) nothing feels forced and this makes the love between these women seem more authentic.
I think the reason for everyone saying that Carol is "the best lesbian movie they've ever seen" is because in Carol the stakes are much higher, seeing as it is in a different era where same-sex relationships is considered completely wrong and most certainly not something that people are open about and in Carol, as opposed to Imagine Me and You, she has a lot more to lose by following her heart and being true to herself. Losing your daughter is a much greater sacrifice (Carol) than losing your husband (Imagine Me and You).
Like I said, I enjoyed both movies and I look forward to seeing more such movies (more realistic representations) in the future. Although, when I watched Carol, all I thought was "been there done that; only now there are higher stakes and one character is being more stoic”. In fact, for most of the movie (Carol), I felt bored and wanted to fast forward to the part where something actually happens! (I’m going to regret saying this, aren’t I? Please don’t hurt me. It’s just a thought).
I feel that this prolonged anticipation was intentional though. The film makers create all of this tension so that when something finally happens (even if it is unpleastly brief and vague – we could all read between the lines though), we just feel glad that the ending is a happy one, rather than one similar to all of the tragic endings we’ve grown accustomed to over the years. So, ultimately, we leave the theatre feeling happy and this illusion of happiness makes us think that Carol is the greatest movie ever.
While Carol is a perfectly good movie, I feel that it could have been better – I expected it to be better, especially because of all the hype about it in the media for so many months prior to its release. I think it was a good movie, but I also feel that we, as a community, still deserve better than mostly subtext.

Anonymous said...

love your writing on a daily basis, but this was especially beautiful.

Emily said...

Great post! One question - what do you mean by the phrase "aphoristic visits"? My bookworm wife and I are trying to figure it out - the dictionary and Google have been no help at all... Thank you!!

Alex said...

Thank you for this. I'm glad you talked about the inexplicable and glorious chemistry of falling in love. The two lead actors did a splendid job in conveying the emotions of what it feels like to fall for someone- the excitement, elation, ache, fulfillment, and making us realize this is what you live for. To fall in love is to embrace our humanity. It's no surprise then that some critics are hailing Carol as one of the great American romance, even one of the best love stories ever told. When you said it's the lesbian film we've been waiting for, I take it as an affirmative answer to my question. It is indeed the definitive lesbian film we yearn for.