“Carol” and the universality of the year’s best lesbian film

The story of Carol is one of not just two, but three women. Although Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara) are the major focus of the new drama based on Patricia Highsmith‘s The Price of Salt, there is also the friendship between ex-lovers Carol and Abby, the latter played by out actress Sarah Paulson. Despite their having broken up years before, Abby is Carol’s confidante and best friend; the person who helps her in every situation, even if it might be heart wrenching.

“I really just tried to think about friendship and selflessness and kind of unwavering loyalty,” Sarah said during a press conference this week in New York. “Because I think Abby still has feelings for Carol. And I think it’s a challenging thing–I wonder what I personally would do if somebody I loved and still had feelings for her–if I was called upon to come in and rescue the person that she currently loves. I don’t know.”

CAROL New York Press Conference

It’s this kind of relationship that also speaks to the lesbian experience. Many of us maintain these kinds of close friendships and steadfast love for women we’ve dated in the past, and at a time like that of Carol (the early 1950s), there were so few lesbian women out in the world that not only were they friendships, but lifelines.

“It was, to me, a testament to her [Abby’s] friendship and her love,” Sarah said of Abby’s consistency in Carol’s life. “and I think the desire to be around Carol and Carol’s orbit no matter what. I think Abby’s sense of society–I don’t mean literal society, but her community, her friendships–they were probably quite narrow at that time. So, to lose something like that would be–the consequences of that would be too enormous.”

Abby had a larger part in the original script, but, sadly, scenes were cut in the editing room (likely for time as the film is already two hours long). But out filmmaker Todd Haynes was looking, first and foremost, to tell a tale of romance, and Abby is inevitably a part of that.

“I really was taking it on as if for the first time looking at the love story, something that I felt I hadn’t really ever accomplished directly in my other films,” Todd said. “Love stories are about conquering the subject–so, it’s always the subject who’s in a state of vulnerability and peril at some level. And through much of Carol, that is the character of Therese, who occupies a much less powerful position in the world than Carol, is younger, is more open, is sort of experiencing this woman with the freshness that is different from Carol’s life and experience.”

The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Hosts An Official Academy Screening Of CAROL

In her early 20s, Therese is an aspiring photographer who works as a shopgirl at a department store when she meets the self-assured and glamorous Carol. But throughout the film, there is a shift that occurs and Carol becomes lost, while Therese finds more of herself both when she’s with her lover and after their heartbreaking time apart. At the end, Therese is the one with the upper hand; Carol the one hopeful and wanting. Todd said that’s part of what he loved about the story: “…how what happened to the two women really moves them through a series of events which change them both.”

Cate describes her character as “a deeply private person whose sexuality in relationship to herself is not unsettled or ambiguous, but she lives in a quiet hell because she’s not able to fully express herself.” Although in other interviews she’s referred to Carol’s marriage to Harge (Kyle Chandler) as “loveless,” she clarified that she doesn’t necessarily see it that way.

“I think that the complicated thing for Carol–and being confronted by Therese at the time in her life that it is–is that she’s got an enormous amount to lose,” Cate said. “She’s found a sort of an unhappy balance … with Harge because of her love for her daughter. So, she’s risking a lot.”

That kind of situation is certainly still relevant today, as many women (and men, as well) find themselves falling for someone who disrupts their life in a way that challenges them to decide what is truly the best for everyone involved. And even though Carol knows she wants her divorce from Harge, she is terrified to lose her young daughter, Rindy, ultimately deciding that she’d be less of a mother if she decided to stay unhappy and unfulfilled just to be around her. Instead, she’d rather have less time spent with her so as to fully give her best self when are together. Quality versus quantity; it’s the decision she comes to after realizing who she is as a woman, as a mother, as a lover cannot be compartmentalized. 

“Carol is being a good mother,” Phyllis said. “Carol must be who she is; she’s not yet who she is. In order for her to be good for her child, and not screw her up later on, she’s got to do this. It’s actually quite selfless.”

“If a mother makes a choice based on her survival she risks losing the audience’s sympathy, and if it was a gay man, somehow I don’t think the question of sympathy would arise,” Cate said.“But if a woman plays a mother onscreen there’s always a sense that there’s a right way to parent, and that you lose your identity and you become a mother first and foremost. What I love about Todd is that we never talked about sympathy, and personally, as an actor, I find the idea of playing for an audience’s sympathy a kind of repulsive endeavor.”

CAROL New York Press Conference

Despite any resonance that might be found in Carol‘s themes of love and obsession, and the fact that LGBT parents still struggle with custody issues based on their sexual and gender identity, the idea was to keep Carol in and of its time.

“That was one of the things that I was intent on doing–to not overlay a contemporary psychology on any of the characters,” Phyllis said. “When you overlay any kind of a psychology and overview, an ethos, you’re judging those characters immediately, and it seemed very important for all the nuances of the relationships among the central quartet that you don’t do that. .. It was a pleasure to forget that we were living right now, so we didn’t have to deal with any of the methods of communication that people might’ve had, or the attitudes or judgments of now. This is about instinct, not calculation.”

During the press conference, a woman attempted to praise the film for its love story feeling “heterosexual,” to which Cate said “You mean normal,” which is essentially what most of the press around films of this nature try to perpetuate. The love story about two women is still, at its core, a love story. Their point: Ideally any viewer could watch and not be taken out of it because of involving two women.

“To me there is no difference,” Rooney said. “I think one of the great things about the film is that it’s not a political film. We’re not preaching to the audience, so people are allowed to watch it for what it is which is a love story between two humans.”

“There was a beautiful line that Phyllis wrote describing Therese as being flung out of space,” Cate said, expanding on Carol‘s universality. “But I also think Carol’s describing that situation of being in uncharted territory, free-floating, as you do when you fall in love with anyone for the first time. You feel like you’ve never been here before. You’re being confronted with questions, confronted with sides of yourself.”

CAROL New York Press Conference

It’s completely possible for a film to be both a lesbian love story and a love story, and Carol is that. What makes something “lesbian” is debatable, but for all intents and purposes, two women in a romantic relationship as the focus of a film, as well as a third major lesbian character, would qualify. (Not to mention the story is from a lesbian novelist and adapted by a lesbian screenwriter.) But at the same time, Carol and Therese’s feelings for one another are not motivated by anything different from that of Noah and Allie in The Notebook or other Baby and Johnny in Dirty Dancing, or any other couple who come up against the odds to be together because they just can’t not. All-consuming love is just that way, and if moviegoers refuse to see that it can happen between two women, they are missing out on one of the year’s best, most-likely-to-take-home-a-bunch-of-Oscars films.  

Carol opens in select theaters today.