Classic melodrama of the 1950s was the genre for exhibiting boundless love, but under the censorship of the Hays code many things were in fact far beyond its limits. Homosexuality was certainly taboo in classic Hollywood. Characters would be depicted as harboring same-sex desires only with vague allusions: in The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston), for instance, Peter Lorre’s detective client had gardenia-scented handkerchiefs to give him away; in Queen Christina (1933, Rouben Mamoulian), Greta Garbo’s eponymous heroine wore men’s clothing, whereas in Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock), hosts Brandon & Phillip hid their feelings for each other in polite company, along with their complicity in murder. Happy endings were much less likely than their exact opposite: in Advise & Consent (1962, Otto Preminger), a senator (Don Murray) loses his family, his political prospects and, eventually, his life after his youthful affair with another man is exposed. By all evidence, as much as these films aim to be emotionally satisfying, even those which try to creatively subvert the industry prescriptions claim that love exists between a man and a woman and is sanctioned by marriage.
Director Todd Haynes’s work lovingly draws on the conventions of old Hollywood melodrama while opening it up to plot situations that are no longer forbidden or hushed. Empathy is extended to the outsiders and the undesirables of Hays-code Hollywood. The soul of Haynes is much larger than Hays’. In his 2002 Far from Heaven, a tenderhearted pastiche of Douglas Sirk melodramas, Haynes evokes pathos with interracial and homosexual relationships; the film resolutely stays within the outlines of the tearjerker, but something seems to be surreally out of place in the background of Eisenhower-era respectability. With his recent Carol, set in the same moment of the US history, he is looking again at queer love, with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara playing two women who feel an intense attraction toward each other, despite the difference of age and social status between them.
This same-sex romance placed at the centre of Carol is complicated and put into perspective by the several heterosexual relationships in the film. The men in the two women’s lives are increasingly revealed to influence their choices and limit their freedom. They become essential in the overarching design of this love story, although their happiness is only indirectly at stake. In a sense, the power is with them, by virtue of the social respectability of marriage. This is the era depicted in Betty Friedan’s 1963 second-wave feminist classic The Feminine Mystique. Its title denotes the commonly held belief that the best that a woman could wish for is to become a housewife with a loving husband who could hold down a good job, while Friedan’s interviews revealed a widespread unhappiness and feeling of lack among them. Since the role of wife and mother was seen as the natural female state and self-reliance was discouraged, women who wanted to share their lives with other women would still have a long road before them in affirming their autonomy.
Carol (Blanchett) is a married woman in the process of divorcing her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), who hesitates to let her go. Their initial agreement is to share custody of their four-year-old daughter, Rindy, and this inevitably forces them to stay in touch to manage their time with her. His attempts to control Carol get stronger (or more pitiful and pathetic) with each instance of rejection (“Get in that car right now,” he threatens her when preparing to leave New York for Christmas. “Or what? It’s over?!”, she replies in the heat of the moment.) As much as we might root for Carol, since we follow her steps as the film unfolds and only know as much about her life story as she says out loud, Haynes and his co-screenwriter Phillis Nagy allow Harge enough fictional space to himself to show the full complexity of his emotions. He openly declares his love for Carol and twice insists, in laments delivered on the doorstep, that he would keep his wife close due to chivalry: he wouldn’t want her to be alone, he wouldn’t want her to be without protection. Harge is jealous of her wife’s new lover just as he is jealous of her childhood friend and confessor, Abby (Sarah Paulson), who in the past had a brief lesbian affair with Carol. His wife’s escapades hurt his (socially sanctioned) feeling of being the man of the house, a good husband and father who has earned his wife’s loyalty. Carol’s behavior (in their conversations which have more time to unfold, as well as in her tearful but eloquent speech in front of both their lawyers) suggests that she herself might believe that she owes him gratitude.
Therese (Rooney Mara) meets Carol at the department store where she works just after she’s been asked by her fiancée to travel to Europe with him. Richard (Jack Lacy), the fiancée, seems solid but dull – he wears a red chequered scarf with a grey chequered coat and has the pompous personality to match his outfit; he seems sincerely in love with Therese, and her shyness in accepting him is intelligibly disorienting. In this case too, we are guided by Therese’s perspective of their relationship, and have reasons to judge Richard’s behavior as being possessive. When Therese tells him she is leaving with Carol on a trip, he holds her responsible for planning to use the money she had saved for Europe, then dismisses her fascination with Carol as some sort of regrettable schoolgirl crush. He too, like Carol’s husband, delivers an ultimatum after getting grandiosely upset – he obliquely threatens to break up with her for leaving recklessly with Carol, then he plays the victim when Therese isn’t as shocked as expected by the idea of breaking up.
Apart from Carol, Therese attracts another suitor’s attention, a New York Times employee and passionate cinephile/aspiring writer. Suggestively, although Dannie (John Magaro) is straightforward in his interest for her and accompanies the promise of a better job with an uninvited kiss, he is also the easiest to turn down; since he is able and willing to accept keeping at a certain distance, their friendship holds through an emotionally stormy time in her life.
After all, Carol and Therese are not the only two women in New York City. Towards the end of the film, Haynes and Nagy are considerate enough to show both Richard and Dannie with other women by their side. Just as Carol and Therese are freed to think of building a future together, breaking away from their pre-established roles and commitments, the men are relieved of their assumed loyalty, their unfulfilling roles of ‘the fiancée’ and ‘the sidekick’. Life goes on, even in melodrama.
To give a final argument that the men’s pushiness is partly a matter of the heteronormative entitlement that accompanies their love, there’s a pronounced difference between the male-female relationships and the way that the women relate to each other (Carol and Abby, her long-time friend and former lover; Carol and Therese; Abby and Therese). Their love is free. There is a definite acceptance of the fact that feelings should sometimes be subdued by rational arguments, and of the fact that feelings change. Carol and Abby openly discuss their interest in women they have recently met. Abby openly confesses her past with Carol to Therese. They seem to be unburdened by their male suitors’ prejudice that the only beautiful relationship is one that lasts forever. When Therese fights with Richard over her going away, she claims she wants to get closer to Carol because Carol is someone who she can talk to, and while in saying this she dissimulates her physical interest, we have no reason to consider it a dishonest excuse.
Carol and Therese’s affair is given preferential treatment in the film mainly because their attraction is reciprocated. This is established, by the codes of melodrama, fairly early: during their first intense, though awkward, encounter at the toy store, it is already clear that they will, and should, grow closer later in the film. The sound bite of a megaphone advertisement – one that is realistic, though obviously meaningful on a higher narrative plane – compels the buyers in the department store: “…you will not resist…”, and the voice is subliminally heard just when Therese notices that Carol forgot her gloves on the counter. This symmetry of interest doesn’t hold true for any other relationship depicted in the timeframe of the film. Carol might be more persistent than any of the film’s men, but her courtship of Therese reads as justified. Being a same-sex affair doesn’t detract from their willingness to be with each other but, on the contrary, as far as their own impulses go, it adds to it. One could imagine the same relationship would have a different resonance if Carol were of the opposite sex: an older man with family commitments who struggles for the attention of a young, impressionable girl. Here, however, there are no overtones of corrupting innocence save for Carol’s own repeated intimations that she doesn’t know what she is doing. Although Therese is inexperienced, we aren’t encouraged to think of her as naïve. Any development of their relationship, from their first private meeting to their first kiss and the first time they make love, follows Therese’s explicit consent.
As in classic melodramas, the actresses’ persona, emanating through their screen presence and established through their previous work, informs how we view the characters they play. Blanchett has the self-assurance and polish to make Carol the centre of attention from the moment she walks into the frame. Mara has developed, in the past five years, a series of roles as an independent-minded young woman (in David Fincher’s The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects) and framing her in a period setting does little to erase that. Her character is indecisive, if we are to take her at her word, but as soon as she discovers something she is genuinely drawn to, Therese abandons everything else to pursue it. Rarely smiling or meeting her interlocutor’s gaze, Mara projects the constant opacity and subtle shyness that make the impassioned moments stand out. Using her voice and posture far more than legible facial expressions to communicate, Mara defines her character through the way she deals with tension in the proximity of Carol, choosing ‘would’ over ‘should’ in the search for her unpredictably located and elusive happiness. The petite and restrained actress has noteworthy precursors in classic cinema: the mysterious beauty of Teresa Wright, Gene Tierney and Jean Simmons was so vital in shaping their roles that their characters were more easily read through plot progression than through whatever momentary expression they might convey. So, too, Therese is impossible to understand in isolation, apart from the people and situations that she reacts to.
Completing the cast are actors who also have previous appearances in films with feminist overtones. Blanchett recently starred in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013), where she played a trophy wife who loses her pedestal when it turns out that her husband’s fabulous wealth was amassed through fraud. Paulson has had an equally important supporting role in the similarly spirited, but more conventionally entertaining Down with Love (Peyton Reed, 2003), where Renée Zellweger’s chic writer/advice dispenser refuses to take up the image of a self-pitying, starry-eyed Bridget Jones. Lacy has played the boyishly enchanting suitor, whose supportiveness is not enough, by itself, to save the day, in Gillian Robespierre’s self-portrait in disguise, Obvious Child (2014). Male actors, too, add to the weight of the melodrama in Carol, as Haynes allows them just as many reaction shots during emotionally demanding scenes. They, too, have to cope with overwhelming feelings when the desired evolution of their love lives doesn’t go according to plan. Chandler conveys constant stupefaction when presented with further evidence that he is no longer needed as the white knight galloping to the rescue: after driving to Abby’s house to look for Carol and being greeted with reproach rather than reassurance, Harge helplessly waits in front of Abby’s door even after it slams shut in front of him. Lacy enriches his character with a good-humored temperament that shifts into condescension when it isn’t answered with equal enthusiasm. Magaro’s likable eccentric hovers around Therese expectantly; Haynes usually frames Magaro and Mara in two-shots (uncharacteristic for other character duos), where the actor has the freedom to be his own person without losing the young girl from his sight.
The implied extension of the heterosexual couples’ onscreen chemistry is parenthood, complicating the idea that relationships are only meant to answer the needs of the two people involved, and it’s no accident that Carol’s daughter is finally used to control her. By divorcing her husband, she risks losing custody of Rindy. There’s a repeatedly declared tension between Carol’s desire to express her sexuality freely (and outside her marriage) and her duty as a mother – a tension that Carol, by herself, doesn’t sense as being harmful in any way. It’s worth mentioning that Abby is unmarried and childless and that Therese, although she finds herself almost by accident to be engaged to a man, doesn’t show any maternal urges. Therese is introduced to us while on duty in a toy store on Christmas Eve, where rowdy children eagerly scan the shelves and where a common-looking woman barely carrying her daughter in her arms interrupts her to ask where she can find the bathroom; what the mother interrupts, more precisely, is Therese’s first glimpse of Carol.
The two women’s passion for each other is seen as dangerous, eroding the social fabric that interweaves sex and maternity. (This view, harbored primarily by the men in their lives, is hardly just an expression of Harge’s and Richard’s temperaments: it proves to be strong enough to also serve as a plausible ‘morality clause’ in a trial for custody.) Their labored good looks aren’t meant to exist by themselves, as part of their self-image or for whomever they might decide to make the target of their feminine charms. It’s all the more perverse and unexpected that the spark of their passion, leading Carol and Therese to elope later in the film, was lit in the setting of a toy store, a place of anticipation and of playful children’s dreams, but also one that maintains a rigidly developed social transaction. The goods on offer are displayed, the child’s gift is chosen, its price is paid; the merchant takes the profit, the parent’s role is fulfilled, and everybody goes back home.