Todd Haynes's Carol is more than just a triumph for LGBT cinema. It's at least two triumphsmaybe more.
The predicaments of same-sex desire in an anti-LGBT cultureone that antagonizes lesbians and gay men while also pretending we do not existhave rarely unfolded on screen with such sensitivity and dramatic layering. The two loversan upscale suburban housewife named Carol ( Cate Blanchett ) and an aspiring photographer named Therese ( Rooney Mara )follow very different paths into their world-shaking encounter with each other, doubling the movie's opportunities for poignant insight.
But Carol isn't just a story about concealment or repression. In the women's scenes together, and around other characters "in the life," the film showcases passionate impulse, breathtaking intimacy, even glimmers of sardonic humor that we rarely behold in 50s-set dramas, especially those with gay characters. Awards buzz is already deafening for this otherwise quiet tale.
Director Todd Haynes recently presented Carol at the Chicago International Film Festival, where it won the Q Hugo for best LGBT feature. While in town, he spoke to the Windy City Times about how Carol recalls but also departs from his earlier work, like his stylized tearjerker Far from Heaven ( 2002 ) and his gender-bending glam-rock fantasia Velvet Goldmine ( 1998 ). After sharing fond memories of time he spent in Chicago with the late, beloved Roger Ebert, his conversation shifted to his own memories of first love.
Windy City Times: You have described Carol's biggest goal as capturing a universal experience of falling in love. I so appreciate you approaching lesbian lives not as marginal or "other" but as front-and-center human stories, reflecting aspects of everybody's experience. That said, lesbian relationships, especially in the early 1950s, clearly confront particular social and psychological pressures. So how did you balance the general and specific dimensions of this drama?
Todd Haynes: This story reminded me of my own intensely lovelorn youth, and of being in Therese's position. I remember that kind of painful, pleasurable tunnel you enter around whomever you're completely obsessing over, trying to decode every one of that person's gestures. Later, I'd ask, was that intense, precarious anxiety I felt in those situations because I was gay? Or was it something that everybody feels?
In preparing for Carol, I started watching old Hollywood love stories: Now, Voyager ( 1942 ) with Bette Davis, Letter from an Unknown Woman ( 1948 ) and Brief Encounter ( 1946 ), to name a few. Most of those classics favor the female perspective, and most use voiceover or other cinematic devices to turn these women's subjectivities into absolute echo chambers of the love they're feeling. Something about the women's perspective in these films, which governs the storytelling but stems from their powerlessness in their own lives, makes them slightly less "universal," even if they matched my experience.
I can't speak to how many heterosexual men shared this sense of being pathologized by their own desire, driven to near-madness by not knowing how another person feels in return. The power relations are just so different. But as a gay guy, yes, I can identify with that powerlessness that I think many women feel, which has been so demonstrated in a certain tradition of movies. Maybe I've been overstating the "universality" of an experience like Therese's, because I felt I understood it so well.
WCT: That's fair, though it's worth remembering that in the period you're describing, close to when Carol is set, studios did assume everyone could relate to women characters. And they were proven right, all the time! Female-led melodramas were huge hits and major award winners.
TH: Yeah! Lo and behold, a family might go see a movie, and maybe the wife decided what they all would see. Today, it's assumed the teenage boy makes all those decisions, and Hollywood invests exclusively in that consumer. This is just another reminder that we are not always moving in progressive directions, especially when it comes to women and their lives.
WCT: Do you think that's changing? I'm teaching a queer cinema course at Northwestern right now, and the room is full of folksqueer and straight, all over every mapand they're identifying more with a range of sexually diverse images than I saw even five or 10 years ago in the same class.
TH: That's great to hear, and polls always tell us how young people feel sexual identity is fundamentally fluid. Fixed, genetic notions of sexuality always bug me a little. They provide safe, clean categories that you can legislate around, and they're good for stopping Republicans from bringing up the issue of "choice" in our sexual lives. But in important ways, choice is always a factor in our personal and sexual lives.
This is something Therese learns in Carol: that saying "no" is also making a choice. She's not making choices in the beginning, which is part of being young and semi-permeable. But there are reasons why and when that starts to change. Maybe we've been hurt, like Therese is. Maybe we've settled down with somebody or have started a family and are trying not to think about sexual fluidity, to protect what we've built. Often our choices, whatever they are, have to do with self-preservation. We decide what our lives will be, what identities or storylines we will allow ourselves to feel inside of or outside of. That's certainly one thing Carol is about.
WCT: Carol is rare in your career as an unmistakable story about two gay characters in love. You aren't undermining identities, genders, or story structures as fully as you did with Safe ( 1995 ) or Velvet Goldmine ( 1998 ) or I'm Not There ( 2007 ).
TH: Not as much this time. I wanted to learn how films in that romantic tradition conducted desire, and how they construct barriersbetween characters, or with the audience. Desire needs resistance to be felt. That's why Brokeback Mountain ( 2005 ) was such a revelation, making the love story a viable genre again, because in a world where it's increasingly hard to imagine why two people can't be together, that film presented a reason we hadn't seen. You as the audience are left just yearning for these reasons not to be true, and wishing that society was different. The same holds for The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith's novel that inspired Carol, and is true, I think, for our movie.
WCT: I will admit I stopped reading The Price of Salt after 15 pages because I wanted to be surprised by the movie.
TH: Oh, you have to go back!
WCT: I will, I promise. But one particular surprise I savored, having expected a lesbian love story with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, is a third character named Abby, played by Sarah Paulson. She is so fascinating, even if I gather her storyline has been somewhat compressed. Plus, an angel gets its wings whenever an out actor plays a gay role in a big movie. How did you and she discuss that part?
TH: Sarah is a fucking brilliant actress. I've seen her do so many different roles now, with different styles and different looks, and sometimes different numbers of heads. I considered several people, but Sarah just felt right in so many waysand not as some kind of statement of self, as "the lesbian actress." She may have brought that to it, but also her actorly gift of being versatile and mercurial.
WCT: You feel that gift within the movie, even if you had somehow never seen her before. Abby has to make a different impression on us every time she appears, as we learn more of her backstory, and Sarah absolutely does.
TH: Oh, good. And, yes, everything got pared down from the novel, like always, including scenes we shot with Abby that we all still miss. But every amazing actor in the film was able to suggest what we needed, even without those scenes. When I showed the movie to Cate, the one time she cried had nothing to do with her. She was just watching Sarah's face as she drives in one wordless scene, reflecting everything that would have been weighing on that character's mind, at that time and place, in those circumstances.
WCT: I know how endlessly you have been asked about the New Queer Cinema that you and your film Poison ( 1991 ) helped to launch in the early 1990s. That movement took such risks, bringing more LGBT stories by LGBT artists to the screen than ever before. Is there anything about that movement we tend to misremember or omit today?
TH: Honestly, almost everything about it. But mostly, that radicalized, weaponized sense of standing really, truly outside of dominant norms and mainstream society. That was the message we were endlessly given. Gay lives did not matter. So, our point of view had an inherent mission, and an innate critique to offer. That's a harder thing to locate today, and that's part of what I miss, despite the unquestionable progress that we know in many ways has been the right path.