Topic: Carol [Spoilers]

I walked into Carol expecting it to be easier than it was. I expected a tearjerker—it’s a lesbian romance that takes place in the 1950s, after all, and that’s not something that’s going to end well. I expected an emotional catharsis that left me walking out of the theatre feeling drained but also uplifted by negative emotion, if that makes sense. Instead, I walked out confused. Carol is a film that, at first, seems to hold its viewer at a distance, cold and impenetrable.

Its cinematography reflects this mood. The 16mm film it was shot on casts a haze of grain over the proceedings, characters’ faces fogged by swimming particles. Chemical color grading lends a subtle sepia tone to every image, evoking both times gone by and the chill of New York in wintertime; there are next to none of the popping hues or warm tones typical of hot emotions. Its most impressionist moments, with bokeh hanging in the background and raindrops smeared on the lens, are reminiscent of paintings or snapshots from a dreamscape. It’s utterly beautiful, but it’s not the kind of beauty that lends itself to ecstatic feelings; it’s muted, melancholy, as if seen through a car window in the midst of a drizzle (which, indeed, is literally what happens in several scenes).

Similarly, the film’s characters hold each other at an uncomfortable distance for a good portion of its runtime. Anyone who walks into Carol expecting its titular character (Cate Blanchett), an upper-class woman in the midst of an ugly divorce, and Therese (Rooney Mara), a young photographer who works in a department store to pay the bills, to go through the typical motions of falling into friendship and then love is going to be disappointed. Most of their interactions in the film’s first half are stiff and self-conscious, with Carol attempting to seduce Therese but being horribly obvious about it and realizing how horribly obvious she is, and Therese markedly uncomfortable and bemused by this stranger’s attempts at what she initially perceives as friendship. Early on in the film I chalked these interactions up to an awkward screenplay, but eventually I began to realize what director Todd Haynes was doing.

“I don’t know what I want,” Therese says, weeping, in a crucial scene late in the film. “How could I know what I want if I say yes to everything?” As this revelation hit her, it also hit me. Carol is not a movie about love, it’s a movie about selfishness. Carol romances Therese not because she’s in love, but because she desperately needs an outlet for the welling emotions she’s suffering due to the stress of her divorce and the possibility of her husband taking her daughter away from her out of spite. Therese responds to Carol not because she loves her but because she’s infatuated and because she’s possessed of a chronic inability cause trouble for anyone. Carol’s husband uses their daughter as leverage not because he loves Carol and wants her back but because he needs to possess her. And so on and so forth. It’s a quietly devastating study in just how wrong things can become when relationships start to crumble.

Not to say that Carol is an awful person, or that her relationship with Therese isn’t moving. The moment in which Therese realizes what Carol feels for her and decides that she feels something too is quietly beautiful, the consummation that comes immediately afterward shot in such a startlingly intimate way compared to the rest of the film that it feels transcendent. And both women are ultimately victims, living in an age which views their feelings as nothing but depravity. But while the film doesn’t blame the women for their unfortunate circumstances, or consider their attraction at all wrong or unhealthy, neither does it present their story as an easily-swallowed tragic romance. It’s off-putting to have these expectations completely turned on their heads, but the film is far better for it, taking what could have been trite and neat and turning it into something far more disquieting and thought-provoking.

Ultimately, while the film is named after Blanchett’s character, it’s Therese who is its heart and soul. The meek, frightened vulnerability with which Mara plays her is arresting, especially when contrasted with Blanchett’s confidence and maturity. Each performer would deserve a Best Actress win, for the film couldn’t have happened without them. They bring an essential element of humanity to the movie, one that otherwise could have been lost in Haynes’ chilly visuals despite the ultimate humanity of the screenplay. It’s for Mara especially that I’ll be returning to this movie, her film-misted visage a spark of hope and beauty in a great work of art that’s very much concerned with the latter but not often with the former.