USA Great Britain (118 mi) 2015 Official site
USA Great Britain (118 mi) 2015 Official site
What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space! —Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett)
Todd Haynes has made the finest film of his career, a glowing tribute to all the gay romance stories that were never told during the golden era of Hollywood, a different kind of love story told with such eloquent restraint, yet it’s a story that’s been waiting perhaps a hundred years to be told, charged with extraordinary cinematography by Ed Lachman, shot on Super 16 mm with subdued tones and ultra-saturated colors that stand out brilliantly, where the suppressed emotion is the engine that drives the film throughout. Described by John Waters in Artforum magazine (John Waters - artforum.com / in print), “Maybe the only way to be transgressive these days is to be shockingly tasteful. This Lana Turner–meets–Audrey Hepburn lipstick-lesbian melodrama is so old-fashioned I felt like I was one year old after watching it. That’s almost reborn.” The film is without question an adult drama, where it never overreaches, as little to nothing is explained in political terms to the audience, yet the dramatic emotions are shockingly clear, while the two lead performances are among the best and most enduring of the year. Adapted from the 1952 Patricia Highsmith lesbian-themed novel The Price of Salt, when the aftereffects of McCarthyism and 50’s conservatism are still in full swing, a period of vicious national anti-gay bias and continual witch-hunts, where according to Highsmith in a postscript to the novel many years later, “Those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they were suspected of being homosexual.” The compact nature of the story and the sheer intimacy makes it feel more like an extended short story, as what’s so delicious to enjoy cinematically are the exquisite depth of characters, a luminous look, and tiny details where the subtleties make all the difference, with Carter Burwell’s musical score adding a quiet, prodding sense of urgency. When this film is over, it’s as if we’ve known these two women all our lives.
Haynes has worked his entire career to achieve what no other American director has ever accomplished, to bring a cinema of transgression into the mainstream, where this prim and proper and all too conventional film clearly reflects the influence of women’s films of the 40’s and 50’s that were often derided at the time, yet today are viewed completely differently, as if they incorporate subversive commentary, becoming psychological studies of complex female characters, much like his first extended television mini-series of MILDRED PIERCE (2011) was a remake of a 1945 Michael Curtiz film and ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (2002) was a reworking of a 1955 Douglas Sirk film. Each focuses on what’s going on under the surface, as in that era it was the only place that gays and lesbians were allowed to express themselves, as what could be viewed on the surface could be used against them, as simply being gay was sufficient grounds to deny work, housing, and social opportunities, not to mention the unleashing of punitive legal restrictions when it came to love. Even the novel upon which the film is based was published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan and under a different title, as the author always wanted the title to be Carol (retitled in 1990 only after publishing it in her own name) according to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy who was friends with Highsmith, with the contents reflecting the obstacles any lesbian couple would likely encounter in the mid-20th century, adding to the confusion of many coming-of-age women, as any expression of gay and lesbian desires was not only frowned upon but outlawed. According to Highsmith, at the time, homosexuals in fiction “had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality… or by collapsing — alone and miserable and shunned — into a depression equal to hell.” As the only novel written by Highsmith that is outside the crime genre, Haynes points out “it is completely consistent with the rest of her work. But in this case, the crime is love, and the love is illegal,” where the defiant optimism of the book has always been viewed as radical social content, as it’s one of the rare lesbian love stories of its time that remains guardedly hopeful and optimistic.
Interesting that the origin of the story has real-life roots, as Highsmith used to work part-time at Macy’s in New York in the doll department, where she was so struck by the elegance of a particular woman, Kathleen Senn, a “blondish woman in a fur coat,” who came in looking for a doll for her child that she wrote down her address in Park Ridge, New Jersey from the sale’s slip, taking a train and cab out to her house on her day’s off just to spy on her, though they never met again. But that night, after seeing the woman in the store, Highsmith went home and wrote out the plot for the novel. “All my life work will be an undedicated monument to a woman,” Highsmith wrote in her diary in 1942, ten years before the novel was published. “I see her the same instant she sees me, and instantly, I love her… Instantly, I am terrified, because I know she knows I am terrified and that I love her.” Only afterwards did she learn the woman was a troubled alcoholic who killed herself in the garage from the exhaust fumes of a running car, but this was the original inspiration for The Price of Salt. In addition, Highsmith recalls the personal circumstances of one of her former lovers, Virginia Kent Catherwood, a wealthy Philadelphia socialite she first met in New York in 1944, whose debutante ball in December 1933 was reportedly the most lavish party in Philadelphia since the Depression, who lost custody of her child in a particularly scandalous divorce that was the subject of gossip columns in the 1940’s, where a tape recording of her and one of her lovers in a hotel bedroom was used against her in court. Written from the perspective of a young Manhattan shopgirl named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), the book is ostensibly “an interior monologue of her thoughts,” according to Nagy, using an experimental, stream-of-conscious point of view, where “Therese is (Highsmith’s) alter ego, so she isn’t a character — she’s the voice of an author.” Nagy, who wrote her first draft of the script a decade ago, had to rework the ghostly presence of the author in Therese’s character, reconstructing a new personality through the incandescent subtlety of Mara’s performance, instilling in her the shy and naïve qualities of a younger woman in her twenties (only 19 in the book) still discovering herself while yearning for a wealthier woman considerably older and more confident in Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who just happens to stroll into her department store counter one day over the Christmas holiday leaving a lasting impression that won’t let go.
While Carol, in effect, represents the object of Patricia Highsmith’s own desire, bearing an odd similarity to the Hitchcock blonde, she is immediately seen as a glamorous, charismatic, and self-assured woman pursuing her own interests, though we quickly realize her personal relationship with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) is on the rocks. While they live separately, he continues to dominate her life by making threats and demands, and while his alcoholic behavior tends towards abusive when things aren’t going his way, that doesn’t stop him in his perpetual quest to control her, which includes their shared 4-year old daughter Rindy (played by two child actresses, Sadie and Kk Heim) that Carol pampers with constant affection. While they represent the icy coolness of upper class wealth, with well-established emotional distance and reserve, Therese is plagued by the incessant attention from her well-intentioned boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) who reminds her at every opportunity that their summer will be spent voyaging to Europe in hopes that they will marry. It’s hard not to forget that perfectly well-intentioned husbands routinely confined their wives to housework and to the kitchen in this time period. While he’s obviously smitten by her beauty, she’s under no such spell, remaining indifferent to his advances, but appreciating his friendship. When Carol asks to meet for lunch, it’s a cautious meeting, with so much going on under the surface, ending prematurely with the interruption of a friend, which leads to a subsequent invite to Carol’s lavish home. The first time they’re alone is expressed in a car ride leading out of the city into the scenic countryside, with Therese taking pictures of Carol buying a Christmas tree, where the impressionistic mosaic seen from the reflection in the window is utterly intoxicating, where despite few words being spoken, it’s an enthralling moment, beautifully capturing the initial signs of being in love, so perfectly integrated into the rest of the film, which couldn’t be more understated. Instead of an idyllic afternoon alone in her home, playing the piano or listening the LP records of jazz recordings, their interlude is broken up by the intrusion of Harge, who grows increasingly upset by the presence of Therese, leading to a full-fledged rant about her lifestyle, where Carol had an affair years earlier with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), and he’s obviously alarmed and suspicious of more of the same. Fuming out of the house with Rindy in tow, Harge spends the holiday in Florida with his parents, while Carol, visibly upset, abruptly drives Therese to the train station.
Despite the obvious hysterics, more is yet to come, as Harge petitions a judge for full custody of Rindy, claiming Carol’s pattern of attraction to other women violates a Morals clause, sending her into a depressive swoon of emotional turmoil, becoming a Sirkian melodrama where her rights are being subjected to the narrow views of a husband and ultimately a judge, both male, which has the effect of tightening the noose around her lifestyle. With limited options, Carol decides to take a lengthy road trip to alleviate the stress, inviting Therese along, where Richard, seeing her pack, feels just as suspicious as Harge, both men feeling the effects of losing their controlling interests, where mistrust leads to an untidy break up. The road trip is deceptively subdued, filled with small moments, where everything is strange and ambiguous, including roadside encounters that make it clear Haynes is a fan of Edward Hopper, with little to note except the tenderness that builds between them, where they are literally reconstructing their lives in a vacuum, standing outside all intruding conventions of society, taking their time, feeling like a kind of slowly paced, wish fulfillment coming out party, where politeness and manner enter into the equation, yet most of all there is a developing need to be needed, while continually hanging over any buildup of erotic tension is the lingering custody of a young girl. It’s not until Waterloo, Iowa, ironically, that they consummate their desires, where it’s more suggested than revealed, expressed with inordinate taste and refinement. By the time they get to Chicago, however, staying in the swank elegance of the Drake Hotel, their momentary bliss comes to a crashing halt when Carol learns they’ve been secretly tape recorded by an unsavory detective hired by her husband working undercover. While it hardly feels like forbidden love, as in Haynes’ hands it’s positively ordinary, yet it has taken until June 26, 2013 for same-sex marriage to become the law of the land in the United States, so the film itself, set in a flashback structure, where we see the same scene from utterly different perspectives both at the beginning and near the end, is a historical flashback into our own discriminatory pasts when the dominant ideology forbid it and lives were ruined because of it. Haynes’ protagonists couldn’t be less subversive, yet at the time they were viewed as abnormal, disrupting social order, setting a dangerous precedent for our children. It’s the all-consuming tenderness of the protagonists that sets this film apart, where rarely have we ever seen intelligent characters be so quietly civil and display such well-construed politeness, yet their romantic affairs are continually interrupted in the harshest manner possible, with their lives upended by society’s dominant interests, showing little regard for the emotional upheaval it caused, all protected by the enormous power of the law. To think all this wisdom eluded us for so many years. The final, silent encounter is nothing short of stunning, a rare glimpse of poetry in motion, where sometimes the smallest moments are the most miraculous.