“Carol” is close to a perfect film. It’s also one of the best films of 2015, which is a different subject altogether.
A lot of great films are unholy messes. (See “Casablanca.”) But every shot in “Carol” is exquisite. Every scene bespeaks dramatic grace. Everything you’re watching is dramatic by virtue of its understatement and nuance.
The climax of the movie is a half-smile. The romantic beginning of the film is a pair of gloves that may possibly have been left deliberately on the toy department counter of a department store.
The film’s emotional and erotic high point is when its female lovers are about to have sex the first time and the older woman gets a film’s glimpse of her lover’s naked beauty. She says in an ever-so-quiet romantic swoon, “I never looked like that.”
When voices are raised and emotions in the raw take over in this decorous and conformist upscale ’50’s world, the implicit violation of manners is the equivalent of a knockdown shouting match.
The actresses whose dramatic love we see grow against all social odds throughout the film are Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in two of the year’s abundantly great performances.
Every 1952 detail of the film is perfect – the clothes, the cars (a chauffeur-driven black Cadillac sedan, a Packard sedan), the elegant restaurants (the Oak Room at the Plaza Hotel), the interior of an apartment belonging to a “shopgirl” at a department store.
The “shopgirl” is Therese (pronounced “Teh-Rez”). She first wears a red Santa hat as she sells a Christmas toy train for the daughter of an obviously wealthy woman swathed in mink.
That is “Carol” of the title.
The film is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt” (think of Lot’s wife in the Bible and what happened when she turned back to look at Sodom and Gomorrah). Highsmith wrote it after “Strangers on a Train,” but before that first book was published and was bought by Alfred Hitchcock for his classic suspense film.
Highsmith worked during Christmas time at the doll counter of a department store, she wrote in 1989. “One morning into this chaos of noise and commerce, there walked a blondish woman in a fur coat. … Perhaps I noticed her because she was alone or because a mink coat was a rarity and because she was blondish and seemed to give off light.” After selling her a doll, wrote Highsmith, “I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted as if I had seen a vision.”
Her own publisher turned “The Price of Salt” down. She published it with another house under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. “Prior to this book homosexuals male and female in American novels had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool or by switching to heterosexuality (so it was stated) or by collapsing alone and miserable and shunned into a depression equal to hell.”
Not in her novel. It won her male and female fans, both, and clearly led to a writing life perversely dedicated to main characters doing “wrong” with sinister impunity. One of her biographers said that Highsmith – a difficult bigot among other toxic things – was “as American as rattlesnake venom.”
The director of “Carol” is Todd Haynes, whose excellent previous film about nonconformist romance in the ’50s, “Far from Heaven,” was only a warm-up to “Carol” and in thrall to ’50s Technicolor romantic, director Douglas Sirk. I’m not sure “Carol” deserved the New York Film Critic’s Circle Award for Best Film of 2015 (I’d have gone with “Room” myself), but I wouldn’t argue too loudly or too long either.
Kyle Chandler plays Carol’s wealthy husband, whose rage seems only seconds away from physical violence in a couple of scenes.
It is all Blanchett’s and Mara’s film. Mara’s haircut makes her look like a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Susan Strasberg; Blanchett is the vision made of light that Highsmith described.
Their romance involves a trip across America in Carol’s Packard, staying in motels just as Humbert Humbert and Lolita would do in Vladimir Nabokov’s literary masterpiece “Lolita” a few years later.
The liberation of Highsmith’s story became a launch for other liberties in her fiction but no more stories like the one we now know as “Carol.”
I don’t think it was because Highsmith was afraid to follow it up. It was probably because she knew she’d done it once for all time.
And it was only a matter of time before sexual tolerances would change completely and someone would make a film of her novel as exquisite as “Carol.”
Whether Haynes will ever make another movie as good as this is an interesting question. In this case, all that matters here is that he had this novel to work with and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara to inhabit it sublimely.
And he knew exactly what to do.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler
Director: Todd Haynes
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: R for brief language, nudity and sex.
The Lowdown: Adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s once-scandalous and groundbreaking lesbian novel of the 1950s, “The Price of Salt.”