Late to the Dance — Carol

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How does a 62-year-old straight, southern man fall in love with a film about the romance between two women in mid-20th-century New York? What is it about director Todd Haynes’s Carol that drew me in like few movies/books ever have? Yes, I added “books”; after watching the film on a Thursday night and again the following morning, I purchased Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt on Friday afternoon and read it over the weekend. Carol (2015) is based on The Price of Salt (1952) via Phyllis Nagy’s award-winning screen adaption. On Sunday evening, I felt criminal for accessing such a masterpiece for a measly 99¢ on Kindle.

The film and novel are different, quite different, in my opinion. That said, the love story, passion, and intensity are the same, and that’s what really matters, right? It is hard to imagine a long time fan of The Price of Salt not enjoying Carol, but I speculate, as I had never heard of Carol or The Price of Salt before stumbling upon the movie on Netflix a couple of weeks ago. The film and novel have been reviewed, discussed, dissected, and lauded at length in the past four years. But dammit, in my little world, I missed all that. I’ve got to talk about this story with someone, but my narrow circle of acquaintances either can’t handle the subject matter or don’t get it, so you’re it.

The novel is written in third-person limited from the point of view of a fledgling set-designer, Therese Belivet. Omniscient to Therese alone, one can only read Highsmith’s other characters through Therese’s thoughts and reactions. While working Christmas relief at a Manhattan department store, Therese meets Carol Aird, an upper-middle-class, suburban, estranged wife, and mother. A “love at first sight” moment, the two “women of their time” begin a cautious dance that takes us from NY to NJ to Philly to Ohio to Chicago and farther points west. They fall in love. They make love. Therese falls in hard and deep. Carol? The viewer/reader and Therese aren’t sure. One must follow along to find out.

In 1952 Highsmith was already a known quantity to her publisher when she finished The Price of Salt; however, they did not want a “career-ending lesbian novel.” She chose another publisher and a pseudonym (Claire Morgan) to sprinkle Salt on the world. It sold well, but not until 1990 did Highsmith agree to republish in her own name, this time entitled Carol.

Geez! Given the modern appeal of the subject matter, why did it take 63 years to make a film version? I guess we are still a very puritan culture, or more likely, my straight world feels threatened by the prospect of a same-sex couple living happily ever after. It’s hard to fathom such a fine story dwelling in the peripheral for over six decades, and that’s not all, Nagy’s bold, intelligent screenplay simmered for the last two of those. Was Hollywood scared to bite? Or perhaps, the agents of Carol were holding out, waiting for the right team, that magic mix of artists that would present the world with one of the best films of all time. They won the battle; it’s a motion picture that does the novel justice.

One screen option would have been for Therese to narrate off-screen, but that would have been distractive, so Nagy wisely made Carol Aird an equal player. Somewhere in this incubation, Cate Blanchett joined the project. We are all the more blessed for that. She plays the flawed, beautiful, and tortured Carol to perfection. She is Carol. Blanchett’s Carol shines like the sun in this movie, while… oh, wait…

I punched the “OK” button on my remote, and Carol started to roll. Other than Miss Cate, I distractedly phased out the other cast members’ printed names. Cut me some slack; the opening’s visuals and sounds seduced me; you will be too if you’re human. As hard as it was, a half-hour or so later, I hit pause. Danny, who is this compelling brunette with the eyes? A Googling of the cast indicated this girl, this “flung out of space” heartbreaker, is Rooney Mara. I was stunned. I have seen Mara’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at least five times, read Stieg Larsson’s book, watched all of Noomi Rapace’s Swedish television portrayals twice, and watched Queen Elizabeth II’s… oops, Claire Foy’s portrayal in the latest big-screen production, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, four times. You ask, “So, Danny, you’re obsessed with Lisbeth Salander as well?” Oh, hell yeah! The thing is, once again, in my little cloistered life, Lisbeth is the only image I had of Rooney Mara. I don’t do the entertainment or talk shows or even the awards shows. I contemplated, took a deep breath, and hit the play arrow.

…Rooney Mara’s Therese glows like the moon. When these two stare or only glance into one another’s eyes, it takes your breath away. The closing scene features their unbroken eye contact for a dialogue-free full twenty-seven seconds, and I mean real seconds, one thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand…

What does the book have that the movie doesn’t? Mainly, Therese’s relatable insecurities are bounced off the reader like pinballs. Highsmith provides a daunting backstory for her ingénue. Therese’s father died when she was young. Unloved by her mother, she was cast off to an oppressive parochial school. Highsmith fires Therese’s growing frustrations at the reader; our girl is romantically and sexually attracted to Carol, one of her own gender, all the while facing societal, possibly criminal, penalties if she pursues said desires.

The reader enjoys a time-capsule glimpse of 50s theatrical set design with its paper models and flippant producer/directors. In contrast, Therese is striving to become a professional photographer in the film.

Our pair takes a road trip in both the novel and the movie, but the book’s is longer in time and miles.

What does the film offer that the book doesn’t? Cinematography, costume design, music, directing, screenwriting, and acting, all at their very best. Blanchett and Mara give punch-in-the-gut performances of women risking it all (the price) to pursue true happiness (salt). You will only experience Carol’s final exchange with her estranged husband and their attorneys in the film; I’d be shocked if the powerful Blanchett fails to bring a tear to your eye. Mara’s performance as Therese is an open wound, every nerve pulses. Screenwriter Nagy’s decision to change Therese’s career goal to photography is genius. As Therese tweezers black and white prints from the developer, the viewer sees both the character’s natural talent for the craft and when the photographic subject is Carol, Therese’s enchantment.

What do both share? On light notes, the art of cigarette smoking is shown and/or described in all its unholy glory, guilt-free, out in the open, and everywhere. The women of Carol orgasmically drag on their cigarettes. I never acquired a tobacco habit, but the addiction’s portrayal brought back childhood memories of watching adults congregate under their blue-white haze. Whether in print or film, more treats for me are the travel courts, cafes, restaurants, and hotels of our protagonists’ early-fifties road trip through Americana.

Heavier is the tension and apprehension Highsmith, Nagy, and Haynes generate with simple human interactions. I write and read mostly action-adventure. This book’s and movie’s closing chapters and scenes are cliffhanger-like. No violence, screams, or shouts, just emotions pushing you to the edge of your seat. I must point out that Carol carries more baggage than Therese, so she has to make a decision that I found Sophie’s Choice like. While not of that Holocaust magnitude, it is still horrendous.

What appears in neither? The word lesbian doesn’t. The two men who love Carol and Therese want to think their women suffer from some curable psychiatric disorder or deviance. They seem to believe that some level of shouting, pleading, or bullying will induce their “ladies” to seek help or simply “get over it.” Throughout, Carol and Therese realize their only real problem is society and its audacity to dictate that most precious freedom, the gender of one's love. The hearted reader or viewer finds the fog of prejudice lifted to reveal a tender love story. This is especially appealing to me as a writer. I never use the labels lesbian, gay, straight, black, white, etc., in my post-apocalyptic series, yet all those characters are there. My players plod about the bottom tiers of Maslow’s Need Hierarchy; the luxury of prejudice stayed with their Old World. Occasionally, a reader has asked me, “Is he black?” or “Is she a lesbian?” and I quizzically smile.

As to my opening questions:

“How does a…” I watched it.

“What is it about…” It’s so damn good.

Less than a week after I first watched Carol, Netflix dropped it. “What the hell?” When I fall for a film, I will watch it repeatedly, and three times was not enough. I exited Netflix to the general viewing area and anxiously spoke into the remote, “Carol.” A single option appeared; alas, I had to buy the film. Oh well, Danny, ten measly dollars for a Carol fix anytime you want. I will become jaded or at least less enthusiastic about Carol at some point, but not yet:

After the opening score fades, plot device Jack steps away from the upscale hotel bar to confirm the identity of a woman seated in the adjacent restaurant; viewing her from behind, he is unsure. Hesitantly, Jack literally peeks around a massive pillar at the restaurant entrance. Much closer now, he boldly calls out in his crisp New York accent, “Therese? Is that you?” Shocked, she turns.

I’m in.

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