Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.
Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt
PUBLISHED IN 1952, when sapphic couplings depicted in high and low culture commonly ended in misery, ignominy, or suicideand when same-sexing itself was a criminal offensePatricia Highsmith’s second novel, The Price of Salt, was nearly unprecedented in the happy ending it imagined for its lesbian couple. Sixty-three years later, Carol, Todd Haynes’s simultaneously controlled and rapturous adaptation of Highsmith’s book, arrives at a moment of inexorable homonormativity. (I happened to see Carol the night before the Supreme Court delivered its landmark ruling on gay marriage.) The latest work by one of the pioneers of New Queer Cinema doesn’t romanticize the closet but passionately salutes lovers who exist outside the law.
“Identity and its pathologies have always been interests of mine,” Haynes remarked to Amy Taubin in an interview published in the March 2011 issue of this magazine, occasioned by the HBO premiere of Mildred Pierce, the filmmaker’s highly faithful page-to-small-screen transfer of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel. That theme is especially pronounced in Mildred Pierce, a sharp dissection of motherhood and martyrdom, as it is in Haynes’s other interventions into the “woman’s picture,” notably Safe (1995) and Far from Heaven (2002), “woman” perhaps being the most fraught identity of them all. Carol continues Haynes’s exploration of that film genre, though the notion of identity here is less fixed: In both the book and the movie, the words lesbian, gay, and homosexual are never uttered. In a romance unfolding seventeen years before Stonewall, the central loversthe soigné, thirtyish, upper-middle-class New Jersey wife and mother Carol Aird and the guileless nineteen-year-old Manhattan shop clerk Therese Belivet, who is indifferent to and often annoyed by the boyfriend who’s keen on marrying herattach no labels to their desire.
But even if theirs is the love that dare not speak its name, neither protagonist feels any shame about her erotic inclinations. Crucially, though, both are pathologized by others, most poisonously by Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, who hires a private detective to tail his spouse, gathering evidence as to why she should not be allowed near their four-year-old daughter. (As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times pointed out in an interview with Haynes in May at the Cannes Film Festival, where Carol had its world premiere, Highsmith’s novel was published the same year the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance.”) In refusing to demonize its same-sex couple, Highsmith’s novel was a progressive work in a benighted era. Conversely, one of the many perverse pleasures of Haynes’s period piece lies in teasing out its subtle intimations of what queer cultureand identityhas irretrievably lost in the decade or so in which attaining the right to wed came to define it.
It is instructive to note, though, that the publishing history of the novel that inspired Haynes’s film is filled with its own incongruities. Highsmith was an accomplished serial seducer of women (her conquests and relationships, most of which flamed out disastrously, are detailed in Joan Schenkar’s lively 2009 biography of the writer). But the butch bravado that marked her private life wasn’t necessarily matched in her public one. Taking precautions to ensure that her career wasn’t derailed by societalor, more specifically, the literary establishment’sabhorrence of lavender life, Highsmith published The Price of Salt, which sold nearly a million copies when released in paperback in 1953, under a pseudonym, Claire Morgan, and did not publicly acknowledge the book until 1984. (Highsmith died in 1995, at the age of seventy-four.)
As the author herself details in the afterword to later editions of The Price of Salt, the initial meeting that inspired the story was followed by an actual fevera delirium that Haynes’s film so beautifully translates to the screen. In 1948, a year before the publication of her first novel, Strangers on a Train, Highsmith worked in the toy section at Bloomingdale’s for a few weeks during the Christmas rush. One morning, she noticed “a blondish woman in a fur coat” who “seemed to give off light.” After this elegant client bought a doll and left, Highsmith writes, “I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision.” She went home and wrote eight pages sparked by this encounter, producing in two hours a complete synopsis of the narrative that would become The Price of Salt. She woke up the next day with a 104-degree temperature, the beginnings of chicken pox.
Carol, the source of this department-store luminescence, is played in Haynes’s movie by Cate Blanchett; Therese, the young woman who is woozily deranged by her, by Rooney Mara. They meet in circumstances almost identical to those of Highsmith’s real-life scenario, with Bloomingdale’s renamed Frankenberg’s. Carol marks Blanchett’s second collaboration with Haynes. In their first, I’m Not There (2007), the filmmaker’s brilliant antibiopic of Bob Dylan, the actress plays, in a triumph of gender-blind casting, the folk-music sage in his most iconic, mid-’60s incarnation. The role seemed to shake something loose in Blanchett, whose most prominent films at that time included the airless historical costume drama Elizabeth (1998) and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In the eight years since the release of I’m Not There, Blanchett has come to be regarded as one of the greatest performers of her generation; to this viewer, though, her acting style has only become more mannered, cold, and calculating. Yet it is precisely this froideur that is tapped so deftly by both actress and director in Carol: Blanchett’s older, more experienced seductress comes on to Therese like hot ice.
If Haynes’s film reveals a longtime A-lister revitalizing her signature acting style, it also showcases the talents of a still-ascending performer. Playing the woman who breaks up with Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (2010), Mara is on-screen for only a few minutes but is the most memorable presence in David Fincher’s Facebook origin story; starring the following year in the title role of that director’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the actress proved that her allure could not be diminished even by a wholly unnecessary remake. Silent for long stretches of Carol, Mara’s Therese is often a beholder, a witness tobut by no means a passive participant inthe love affair that is so completely transforming her. The spark ignited in the actress’s enormous, watchful eyes when Therese and Carol first spot each other in Frankenberg’s indelibly signals curiosity and desire. Throughout the film, as the two women head west on a road tripeventually consummating their relationship, in a deeply intoxicating love scene, in Waterloo, Iowa (“Isn’t that awful?” Carol laughs between cigarette puffs when announcing the town’s name to Therese the morning after)Mara’s orbs operate as the film’s primary mode of communication.
The ways in which Therese sees the world, in fact, form the very basis of her professional ambitions. In one of the deviations from the source novel, Therese is not an aspiring set designer but a photographer. (Carol’s script was written by Phyllis Nagy; known primarily as a playwright, she is the author of a two-act stage adaptation of Highsmith’s most famous book, 1955’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Significantly, Carol is the only Haynes project for which he had no hand in the screenplay.) Therese’s black-and-white snaps of her beloved suggest an affinity with Ruth Orkin and Helen Levitt, acknowledged influences on the look of Carol. But the photographer whose style, sensibility, and muted color palette most clearly define the film is Saul Leiter, whose oeuvre was also a touchstone for Mildred Pierce: Characters, Therese especially, often look out of rain-slicked or befogged windows; subdued greens, grays, and yellowswith the occasional shock of redare the dominant hues.
Carol, like Mildred Pierce, was shot on Super 16 by Edward Lachman, the cinematographer on all of Haynes’s feature-length projects since Far from Heaven. “I wanted 16 because I really wanted that grain . . . dancing on the surface of the screen,” Haynes told Taubin in 2011. Just as kineticand palpable, if not always explicitare the feelings of two women whose romance deepens even as it goes largely unarticulated. As always in Haynes’s work, exteriors (of Carol’s Packard, of the hotels and roadside diners where the besotted women rest and refuel) and reflective surfaces (the vanity-table mirror in which we see Carol stroke Therese’s hair) are fundamental in conveying states of interiority. “It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and hell,” Highsmith writes. Haynes’s film gloriously demonstrates what a much more romantic declaration this is than “I do.”
Carol will appear this month at the New York and Toronto film festivals, before arriving in theaters on November 20 in select cities.
Melissa Anderson is a frequent contributor to Artforum.