Todd Haynes’ Carol may initially seem to be about two women who fall in love, yet underneath the romance Carol reveals that it is much closer to a political film about the role of women—Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) comes to mind—than it is a conventional romantic drama. To elaborate, Le Bonheur is a film about Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot), a husband who begins an adulterous relationship with a desk clerk. Francois then bounces between the two women of his life. In the afternoon he’ll make love to the desk clerk and at night his wife. In displaying the relationship between Francois and his two lovers, Varda chooses to film in bright outdoor landscapes punctuated by jovial music. The point of Varda’s technique here is to highlight the male fantasy of having the ideal woman and later on, the punishing consequence on the women who are forced to fulfill that fantasy.
Similar to Le Bonheur then, the women in Carol find themselves under the jurisdiction of men who want them to fulfill out their own fantasies of what a woman should be. In the world of Carol, and it wouldn’t be too far of a claim to say in our own world, this fantasy means being a loving heterosexual woman.
Theresa (Rooney Mara) works at a department store in Manhattan and one day, she helps a woman, who introduces herself as Carol (Cate Blanchett), buy a train set for her daughter. The sexual tension between the two is nearly instantaneous. Mara plays Theresa with a mousy innocence which seemingly invites the more powerful Carol to flirt with her and relish in seeing Theresa blush. On her way out, Carol “forgets” her glove prompting Theresa to later phone her. Carol invites Theresa over for dinner and the two begin a casual friendship.
In between these events we are also given exposition which sheds personal light on Carol and Theresa’s individual lives. Theresa’s boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) wishes to take Theresa to France and marry her, a sentiment that Theresa reacts towards with ambivalence. Meanwhile, we also learn that Carol is in the midst of a divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who she feels is neglectful and misunderstanding.
Although the men of Carol are relegated to the background and rightly so since the film is about two women, their thoughts and actions pervade and pierce into the film’s most intimate spaces, figuratively and literally. Without giving too much away, one sub-plot involves a male who is hired to spy on Carol and Theresa. Try as they might to be individuals then, Carol and Therese find themselves to be operating under the wants of the men who attempt to dominate them. This shouldn’t be taken as Carol being a film about male-dominance however, just the opposite. Carol and Theresa aren’t so easily controlled and do retaliate against their aggressors.
What Carol is about consequently, is the struggle of the female. In capturing Carol and Theresa’s battle of wills, Haynes’ chooses a more passive camera technique, preferring the use of long-takes and close-ups. In combination with superb acting from Mara and Blanchett who both seem to have complete control of contorting every inch of their face in order to convey emotion, the result is that Carol’s story is one presented with a sense of intimacy. When seeing Mara or Blanchett, one feels as if it’s possible, to see between the cracks of their emotions. There’s a sense of fragility between Carol and Therese because of the nature of their relationship and it is this fragility that’s threatened by the men in their life.
The film isn’t necessarily violent and thankfully so. Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy never resort to cheap tricks that are meant to easily illicit emotion from the audience. The violence presented in Carol is a psychic one that refers back to the fragility of the characters. When Carol does become violent in this sense, the psychological rupture of Carol and Therese quietly permeate the screen, creating an atmosphere of grand heartache while remaining humble.
Carol is an important film and its omission from the Oscars for best picture ironically points this out. The film’s issues revolving around the control of women are still as important today in Hollywood as they were for Varda in 60’s France. The nature of the plot becomes two-fold in this manner. In one aspect, Carol is about two women who fall in love, and the patriarchal forces that desire to keep them apart. In another aspect, however, Carol can also be seen as the plight, struggle, and resistance of women everywhere, not just those in relationships. Being a film, Carol does highlight the particular struggles of women in filmmaking and so because the film seeks to challenge the notions of male control through its characters, Carol ultimately becomes a political necessity, a beacon of sorts, for women everywhere.