WARNING: Below are spoilers for the ending of Carol
“Please believe that I would do anything to see you happy and so I do the only thing I can – I release you.”– Carol to Therese
Upon this very written line in a letter from one forbidden lover to another, if one had not already seen Carol, this could be presumed to be the final line spoken before the untimely end of one of the two female leads. This isn’t how Carol ends, even though every other queer drama would make you think so. This is perhaps the greatest and most poignant thing about both the movie and the novel that came out sixty years before it. Very few, if any, queer literature or cinema presents a happy ending or an ending where the couple presumably ends up together in the end, as Carol does. Recent films such as Weekend (2011) and Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) present immediate and instant connections between their leads as Carol does, but take place far more in the present. Neither Weekend nor Blue is the Warmest Color present the same level of hope by their conclusion. The very same melodrama found in more historical representations of queer romance in novels and films would often end in tragedy, often to extent of featuring suicide or death towards the end. Recent Academy nominated movies such as Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Imitation Game (2014) are two great examples of such represented tragedy. Ultimately Carol, more than any other queer film in the past few years, perfectly encapsulates love in the past, the present, and the future through providing actual hope in the end.
Directed by Todd Haynes and based upon the semi-autobiographical novel by Patricia Highsmith, the story of Carol is sixty-four years old. Originally published in 1952 under the title of The Price of Salt and under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan, it wouldn’t be until the 1990 re-release that the book would be published under her real name. When writing The Price of Salt, Highsmith based the story upon a real-life encounter while working at Bloomingdale’s department store. Personally placing a lot of her own self into the character of Therese, an inspiring theatre set designer (changed to photographer in the movie), Highsmith substitutes and expands upon her interaction in the novel. Following Therese after her chance encounter with an older woman while working at a department store, the book would go on to be quite popular in the lesbian community. Published as a lesbian pulp-novel for twenty-five cents, the novel went onto sell more than a million copies. With attempts to adapt the novel into a film since the mid-90s, it wouldn’t be until the attachment of Todd Haynes as director and Cate Blanchett accepting the titular role that the film would become a reality.
Perhaps the biggest change that Haynes brings into his adaptation outside of a career change for Therese, is the presented romance, which isn’t just shown one-way. As the novel strictly presents Therese’s POV, the film takes the opportunity to explore and present Carol individually. Through Haynes presenting the visual equivalent of each other within their public and private lives, and the unbreakable connection between the two and their emotional longing for each other, it no longer seems as if Therese is chasing the ghost of a person as it sometimes seems to be in the novel. When Carol refers to Therese as “an angel, flung out of space”, it feels like a privilege or nearly a miracle that they could have possibly found each other. Even more so that they would possibly even reach a hopeful conclusion with such feelings.
Attraction plays a huge part in ultimately presenting many notions of love seen in the film and Haynes places major emphasis on this. Through the power of looking, the glances between Therese and Carol linger towards something more. Nearly the entire movie’s sensualness comes from the power of looking. The simple acknowledgement of each other and consciously witnessing how they would prefer not to be with anyone else in the world is what makes the movie feel so captivating. The popular “car tunnel” scene that many writers have referred to, speaks exactly towards captivating such feelings through imagery. Admittedly, by the time they actually physically explore each other, it feels as if they have already experienced everything through the power of looking. Perhaps being the greatest emphasized queer feeling, the necessity of looking finds Carol and Therese finding each other among the masses of heteronormativity. Finding such connections, nonetheless during a time where such love was never spoken about and forbidden, makes any such connection found in the sea of heteronormativity seemingly special.
While Carol features its share of melodrama, neither heroine is overcome by sadness. Even when Carol willingly loses all ties with her daughter, she isn’t forced to apologize for who she it and decides to stay together with Therese. Released during the same monumental year that the LGTBQ community saw one of their biggest political wins in history, to cap off 2015 with Carol feels nothing but a victory. Even with Carol being arguably the most notable exclusion from today’s Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director nominations, Carol stands high on its own for the masses of the LGBTQ community.
Nothing feels as provident towards representing the greatness of Carol, then when Highsmith went on to publish the novel under her actual name in 1990. Going on to write in the “Afterword”, Highsmith spoke to the appeal of writing a queer novel that isn’t necessarily filled with anxiety and dread:
“The appeal of The Price of Salt was that it had a happy ending for its two main characters, or at least they were going to try to have a future together. Prior to this book, homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality, or by collapsing—alone and miserable and shunned—into a depression equal to hell.”
While the film Carol is first and foremost aimed at a queer audience, it is simply and primarily a declaration of love for anyone to witness, ultimately making Carol one of the greatest queer films of our generation and hopefully marking a new age in queer filmmaking.