Todd Haynes, the director of “Carol,” is a lover of pulp fiction. Past credits include Mildred Pierce and Far From Heaven, two weepy period films about women in familial straits and “Carol,” adapted from an autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith, follows in this tradition. Not having read the novel, I can only comment on the plot and characters as presented in this film version set in the 50’s in New York.
Played by Cate Blanchette, Carol is an elegant wealthy socialite who goes Christmas shopping in her mink coat and full maquillage. At the doll counter she meets Terese, a salesgirl played by Rooney Mara wearing a Santa hat and a blank expression that’s either boredom or inexperience. We soon see that Terese lives in what is meant to be a cold-water flat that has no radiator or phone; she lights the oven for heat and receives her calls from the pay phone in the common hallway. Incongruously, the set designer has made this cold-water flat a generously sized 3 room apartment that is fully furnished. This is the first in a string of details that don’t ring true, either to the characters or the period of the 50’s. Terese is a blank slate - we know nothing about where she’s from, whether she has a family or a backstory - only that she has taken a few pictures and might want to pursue that interest at some time in the future. Though she’s a naïve young salesgirl, she is pursued by a wealthy young man who wants to marry her and take her to Europe - two offers that she instinctively spurns though we’re not sure why.
Carol, a woman who is in the process of divorcing her wealthy husband, has a lesbian affair in her past, one that her husband has forgiven but certainly not forgotten. She also has a 4 year old daughter who is the obvious pawn in a custody arrangement yet she embarks on an impulsive road trip with Terese, one in which they occupy the same hotel suite and culminate their physical attraction for each other. We can accept that Terese is dazzled by the attention of this glamorous wealthy woman but it’s hard to believe that Carol would jeopardize her tenuous position knowing that she has an angry, suspicious husband who doesn’t want the divorce. She is too cool and predatory for us to believe that she would endanger herself at this delicate time, particularly with her past history. there is also a smoking gun in the plot which is never explained and seems outlandishly improbable for the personality of a woman who barely raises an eyebrow, much less her voice or temper.
The road trip leads to complications for the two women but Terese rises like an incredible phoenix to land a job in the photo department of no less than the NY Times. We can only assume that the sexual release of her lesbian affair inspired the subsequent burst of talent that the audience sees little evidence of. And Carol comes to surprising conclusions that represent a 180 degree turnaround from her previous aspirations. Throughout the film, we see the two women filtered through highly stylized rain-spattered windows or mirrors, or staring at each other from a distance - clichéd attempts to give visual weight to a very thin story that doesn’t make much sense. The previous object of Carol’s affection was a long-time friend who shared common interests and background; we assume there was a depth to their relationship that is totally lacking in the one between her and Terese. In the final scene, we see Terese staring at Carol in her own milieu in an expensive restaurant with sophisticated friends of her own age. We are meant to see this as a longshot of Terese’s loving desire. What I thought instead was what would she have in common with anyone at that table and did she want to spend the rest of her life with much older people who would have little to say to her? As a coup de foudre, the plot is semi-believable but as a lifetime game-changer for two mismatched women, it has no more credibilty or weight than the Santa hat previously perched on top of Terese’s salesgirl head.
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