C arol, the hotly anticipated romantic melodrama from director Todd Haynes, begins with the kind of cinematic sleight of hand that only becomes truly impressive in retrospect: We follow an almost but not quite dapper young man across a wintry New York street and into a cozy restaurant, where he happens upon two women who might be sharing something as simple as an afternoon cocktail. He recognizes one of the women and inserts himself into the conversation, promptly whisking one of its participants off to a party. We know there’s more to it, of course, but it’s not until we revisit the same scene at the end of the film that we really grasp the momentous impact of what seemed like a casual encounter.
The young man is only a bit player—one of many such people throughout the film who will wonder about the relationship between the two women but, this being 1952, either will not or cannot acknowledge it in any but the most oblique fashion.
The women themselves don’t even have the language to articulate the intense attraction that blossoms between them when Carol (Cate Blanchett), an elegant soon-to-be divorcée, becomes infatuated with the much younger Therese (Rooney Mara), a bohemian shop girl who’s working a department-store doll counter during the Christmas rush. Carol forgets her gloves after buying a gift for her young daughter—or does she deliberately leave them behind for Therese to find?—and thus begins a tantalizing courtship that slowly, dreamily spirals into the swooniest big-screen love story in recent memory.
Their courtship takes them from smoky Gotham cafes to chintzy roadside diners, from paper-walled motor courts to swanky Chicago hotels, as they try to define exactly what’s going on between them. I’m reluctant to give away much more of the plot, since Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy take such pleasure in teasing out the details of the story, which is based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt.
The dynamics of the film’s romance are constantly shifting—sometimes the more worldly Carol appears to hold all the cards, and at other times she seems to be drifting along in the younger woman’s wake—but Haynes delights in the art of seduction, from the film’s opening sequence through its final, deliciously ambiguous shot. In a time when Game of Thrones presents graphic sex scenes with all the eroticism of a rancher artificially inseminating his cattle, it’s easy to forget the electric power of a lingering touch or a sleepy-eyed gaze. Carol has something much steamier than sex—it has sexiness, and it has it in spades.
It’s visually ravishing, to be sure. Carol is a tapestry of texture and color, from the title character’s sculpted ruby lips and buttery leather gloves to the white steam that boils up from beneath New York’s slick December streets. Haynes takes an almost fetishistic delight in evoking the frayed-at-the-edges urban glamour of the era, and Carol is, for my money, last year’s most beautiful movie. Haynes must keep a Ouija board in his trailer to help him channel the flair of his acknowledged idol, German melodrama master Douglas Sirk.
But Carol is so much more than a sensual valentine to a time gone by, and its story soars high above the “lesbian romance” tag that will inevitably be assigned to it. It necessarily deals with the repression and conservatism of its time, not to mention the difficulties that came with being anything other than a straight white male in mid-century America. But more than that, Carol is a grand, wistful love story that belongs on lists with the best of its genre—it’s both heartbreaking and hopeful, and it unfolds at a dreamlike pace that implores us to savor the details of falling in love. It’s a poignant, starry-eyed reminder that a love story can be every bit as thrilling as a space fantasy, and that a cinematic event can involve pyrotechnics of a very different kind.
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