On the road with Therese, Pat and Phyllis
An appreciation of “Carol” (2015) on the occasion of the TCM streaming premiere
Photo, courtesy The Weinstein Company, 2015
Unlike “Thelma and Louise,” another Hollywood foray into women relationships, Carol” is a journey of redemption. “Carol” ends with two women starting a life together.
In his introductory remarks on the premiere streaming of the 2015 Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Ben Mankiewicz contrasts “Carol’s” two protagonists, describing the cinematic presence of one protagonist, Therese, played by Rooney Mara, as a “blank slate.” The other protagonist, Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, Mankiewicz describes as “sophisticated, elegant with a sense of emptiness…”
Not what I saw.
Therese takes photographs. Therese looks out car windows at happy couples walking together in the street. Therese has a “boyfriend” with whom she goes biking in Central Park. Therese liked to play with toy trains as a child and has graduated to the Toy Department at a Macy’s-like department store.
Hardly a “blank slate.”
Carol, on the other hand, to borrow Mankiewicz’s analysis, is struggling to become a “blank slate.” Fissures appear in Carol’s life: estranged husband, custody-fight prone single child, suburban melancholia. As Christmas approaches, with hubby taking single child to family in West Palm Beach, Carol yearns for a different holiday: “I think I’ll spend Christmas somewhere by myself,” she confides to a friend.
Everyone surrounding Carol appear old and matronly. Everyone surrounding Therese appear young and feckless. We have a romantic “thriller” in the making.
We quickly grasp in the movie’s opening shots a precursor of the tension between our viewer-gaze and the duo. A male friend descends on Carol and Therese seated together at a stylish upscale hotel restaurant. Fellow diners are men-women couples, aged 40’s to 60’s. Envision “meet me under the clock at the Roosevelt.” Scott and Zelda are in the wings. The opening scene is a cultural flash-back concealing a “flash-forward.”
What is the relationship between these two? Mother-daughter? Not likely. Peers? They seem from different half-generations, different classes. Friends? Hardly, for these are the fifties and men are notably absent from the table.
Enter the male intruder who calls out, “Therese? Therese? Is that you?”
The scene ends with the male intruder whisking Therese away to another downtown couples party saying, “I am going. Are you coming?” These are post-war Saturday night urban vignettes. The “next generation” is coupling off, family-forming, heading to Levittown. Carol is redundantly polite and retires to let the male “intruder” proceed on his mission. In leaving, Carol proffers an ungloved grasp of Therese’s shoulder. Well, between a “grasp” and a “touch.” Not a consoling “pat.” An authentic “tap.”
The point is, “message received.” After all, “Carol” is a film and a story.
“Carol” is adapted for film by Phyllis Nagy from the novel, “The Price of Salt,” written by Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith wrote the popular story “Friends on a Train,” and a series of thrillers based on the character in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
This thriller is different on multiple levels. First, the protagonist’s story unfolds in a shared “state,” a road trip. Second, with a nod to film-noir, a gun is involved. (Spoiler alert: the gun does not discharge.) Third, there is no “I told you so” validation for where our gaze takes us. As Todd Haynes, the film director commented for the TCM streaming, “there is inequality, there is imbalance and it separates the women…”You (keep) wanting to cross those boundaries as a viewer.”
Both women are presented as enigmas and the gradual completion of the “blank slate” of their affair provides another level of tension. The “male intruder” theme vies with our gaze for attention throughout the movie. Shooting in 16mm helps. By the finale, “male intruder” becomes groups of men, forcing the duo into tighter and tighter spaces. A newspaper room. A lawyer’s office. A table at The Oak Room. The feeling of confinement, of polite entrapment, is palpable. In the fifties vernacular of “everyman for himself,” these ladies are committing to exploring their love for each other.
70 years later, their story resonates.
“Take what you need, leave the rest.”
-Carol coaching Therese about her photography work in an early scene.