Therese and Carol meet in Carol (2015)

“I always spend New Year’s alone. In crowds. I’m not alone this year.”

This film has been featured in an episode of my podcast about movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show!

In film, lesbians have almost always gotten the short end of the stick. On the one hand, you have the stereotypical butch lesbians, who exist as jokes; on the other hand, you have the stereotypical sexy lesbians, which exist mainly for the entertainment of men. Very rarely do you see a lesbian character in film that’s neither a joke nor a set piece, and when you do see a smartly-written lesbian character, she’s usually a background character with little bearing on the plot. That’s why the 2015 film Carol is so important. Directed by one of the pioneers of the New Queer Cinema, Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) and starring Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, this is a smart romance between two women in the 1950s—a time that was not accepting of two women falling in love, but also a time that didn’t really accept the livelihood of women without men. The hardships they face are as big a part of the plot as the romance itself, and this is a touching but also heartbreaking tale of two women trying to find love.

Though the film is called Carol, it’s primarily about Therese Belivet, a young woman living in New York City and working at a department store. She’s half-heartedly dating a man who wants to marry her and trying to find enjoyment in going out with friends, but finds herself in a perpetual state of discontent. When an older woman named Carol Aird walks into her life, she finds a connection and relationship that not only fulfills her but also understands her. Carol is going through a nasty divorce and custody battle with her soon-to-be ex-husband Harge, and as Therese and Carol grow closer, it becomes painfully clear what the relationship could cost each of them.

I don’t mean ‘people like that.’ I just mean two people who fall in love with each other. Say, a boy and a boy. Out of the blue.

There are a lot of romances that try to play up the forbidden love aspect—in fact, that’s the driving force behind the plot in most romance films, two people want to be in love, but they can’t—but there are very few films that do it as well as Carol. The barrier between the two women, while not insurmountable, is so ingrained into society that they won’t be able to change it in their lifetimes, and it’s powerful enough to be a real danger to them throughout their lives. The amazing thing about this film, though, is while it does the forbidden love thing well, it never overplays it. The whole film feels very grounded in reality and never crosses the line into melodrama. The characters are well-written and remain the focus of the plot even as the film shows us the hardships they face.

Carol is based on the 1952 romance novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. Due to the subject matter, Highsmith originally published the book under a pseudonym and remained anonymous for 38 years to avoid being pegged as a lesbian author. The bias against gay and lesbian creators was an undeniable part of society, in both literature and film, and Highsmith wanted to continue to seek mainstream rather than niche success. The film version, thankfully, came out at a time that was more accepting of gay and lesbian stories, but not by a wide margin. As I said, director Todd Haynes made his name as a gay director of queer cinema, and few of his films saw much mainstream success. Thankfully, Carol was met with critical acclaim. At the Cannes Film Festival, it received a 10-minute standing ovation. It was also the most nominated film at the 2015 Golden Globes. The film is far from blockbuster status, but it grossed $40 million on a budget of $11 million, making it a major milestone for queer cinema and Todd Haynes.

Therese holds a camera in Carol (2015)
Therese is also a talented photographer—another aspect of her life that nobody except Carol seems to appreciate.

Though this is undoubtedly a romance film, it’s not really about romance—and by romance, I mean the quest to find that special someone, your one and only true love. Instead, this is a film about simply wanting to be seen and understood; it’s a film about allowing yourself to be yourself, and finding someone who appreciates that. We see Therese constantly misunderstood by others in her life, including her female boss, but especially the many men that pursue her. In fact—I think this is correct, but I haven’t checked—I don’t think a single man gets her name right throughout the film (most just call her Terry). It’s telling that one of the first real interactions between Carol and Therese is Carol making sure she gets Therese’s name right and telling her that it’s beautiful. Their connection is made much more powerful by showing Therese’s failure to connect with most of the other people in her life.

Carol is a smart romance that gives us real obstacles and deep human connection without sacrificing the characters for the message. This isn’t my favorite romance film, but it’s undeniably important in cinema, and very well-crafted and tastefully done. The film also respects and shines the spotlight on a lesbian relationship—something that’s been ignored or disrespected throughout most of film history. I won’t go as far to say that this is a tragic film, but it’s certainly not a light, happy romance, as we see so often in the genre. But, let’s face it, many of life’s relationships don’t have the Hollywood ending, and this is a great portrayal of a relationship that feels very real. That’s something I really appreciated about it.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:58

Director: Todd Haynes

Year: 2015

Genres: drama, indie, LGBT, romance

Rating: R

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