When Therese Belivet, a salesgirl played by Rooney Mara, and Carol Aird, an elegant suburban housewife played by Cate Blanchett, lock eyes in a department store, their connection is electric, but the obstacles between them loom large. It’s the 1950s in New York City and homosexuality is not only taboo. It’s dangerous.
Todd Haynes’s Carol is a movie about how it feels to lose (or find?) oneself in a love that is, to others, wrong. This Saturday at the Angelika Film Center, producer and longtime East Village resident Christine Vachon (who last month celebrated the 20th anniversary of her company, Killer Films) answered audience questions about making the film, which has already won rave reviews at Cannes and attracted Oscar buzz.
Certainly, part of Carol’s appeal is the movie’s fidelity to a particular time and place. Cinematographer Edward Lachman was deeply influenced by midcentury street photographers like Saul Leiter, Vivian Maier, and Ruth Orkin, whose pictures captured the bustle and promise of postwar New York. The movie was also shot on Super 16mm film, which gives it a documentary, period feel.
On the other hand, nothing about Carol and Therese’s experience— from coup de foudre to feverish affair— is unrelatable. The women exchange awkward-eager phone calls and letters the way we send texts, to extend a moment that might otherwise be fleeting. “One of the things I love about Carol,” Vachon explained on Saturday, “is how modern it feels, even though it is obviously not a modern story.”
In fact, Carol is based on The Price of Salt, a 1952 novel by Patricia Highsmith, author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The book was initially published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan, but it sold over a million copies.
Lucia LaRocca, who sat next to B+B during the movie, remembers reading the book in the 1970s, when she was a 20-something who “tried to read every book I thought would help me out.”
“I didn’t know what the heck I was doing in those days,” she said. “I didn’t know I was a lesbian. There was no word [for] it back then.”
In the movie, Therese is also without words to make sense of her feelings. When her beloved is near, she is spellbound. Otherwise, she lives trance-like, waiting to see her again. As Therese’s friend says in the movie (before he tries to kiss her), “You are either attracted or not…it’s like physics.” In the Q&A, Vachon put it another way: “What is happening to Therese is so new to her and so unexplained…and that makes it kind of insanely exhilarating.”
As it turns out, the Carol Effect is contagious; moviegoers are intoxicated too. Blanchett’s face is seductive but severe, poised yet desperate. She sports luscious headscarves and coral-painted nails. Her hair glistens. Thanks to Sandy Powell’s impeccable costume design, she embodies postwar affluence. The camera worships her.
Inside, though, Carol is breaking. She is desperate to divorce her husband, who is plotting to use her lesbianism to secure full custody of their daughter. As Carol’s life falls apart, she decides to get out of town and, of course, invites Therese to come along.
In subsequent car scenes, dialogue is sparse. Instead, intimacy collects through body language, as the women steal glances at each other, eat sandwiches, and burst with laughter. “One of the amazing things about Phyllis [Nagy’s] script is what it doesn’t say,” Vachon told her audience. “All the times when the characters are not talking is almost the best part.”
As much as Therese and Carol live in constant fear (Carol even packs a gun on their road trip) their journey together is always pretty– straight through to the last scene.
All this might feel pat if Carol were a movie about a heterosexual couple. But it’s not. LaRocca, for one, said she felt “relieved that there could be a positive thought about this kind of love.”