It’s no secret that Carol is a groundbreaking film. A lesbian love story made for a mainstream (read: straight) audience, with a hefty budget ($11.8 million), and loaded with not only recognizable but respected actors. This is not how Hollywood typically handles queer love stories.
At best, lesbian-centric films are quirky, cult classics (But I’m a Cheerleader), at worst they’re low budget and, sometimes, even desolate love stories (someone dies, someone has sex with a cis-guy, someone dies while having sex with a cis-guy). The terrible possibilities are endless, which is why Carol–bowing out on a vague, but happy ending–feels like a breath of fresh air. A win even.
What makes the Cate Blanchett/Rooney Mara romance seem even more successful, and unique, is the high praise it’s receiving from critics. This film has a 94 percent critics’ approval on Rotten Tomatoes with only 11 out of the 186 reviews pegging it “Rotten.” Other big Academy Award contenders, such as The Revenant, Joy, and The Big Short rank lower with 81, 60, and 88 percent respectively. According to the Rotten Tomatoes Critics Consensus, “Carol lives up to its groundbreaking source material.” There’s that word again: groundbreaking.
The film’s six Oscar nominations, including nods for both Blanchett (Best Actress) and Mara (Best Supporting Actress), also don’t hurt Carol’s fast-moving trajectory to become the most well respected lesbian movie to date.
And yet, Carol left me wanting more. If Mara’s Therese was replaced with Ryan Gosling and the story was just another hetero romance, it would feel like just another dull love story. Relying on the lesbian aspect is what makes Carol feel special. What’s more, it seems as though both actresses and the director, Todd Haynes, are comfortable resting on that fact alone to entice audiences. There’s no deep connection building. Yes, they pick out a Christmas tree together and go on a road trip, but nowhere do I witness their connection becoming deeper than a schoolyard crush–and I desperately wanted it to.
Love stories are tricky animals. The chemistry must be believable, and the characters compelling even when they’re not opposite their onscreen partner. With Carol featuring such talented actors, I expected the chemistry to be more tangible. Isn’t the alluring part about taboo passion and forbidden love that almost electric desire? It’s why so many of us have fallen for at least one someone we weren’t supposed to.
True, Carol is a highly stylized film that showcases a time in history when queerness was not acceptable, but sometimes I couldn’t tell if Therese was shy and understandably apprehensive or just incredibly bored. “I never asked for anything! Maybe that’s the problem!” She declares at one point. Maybe that was the problem. Blanchett’s Carol smolders.
It would be a lie if I said I didn’t feel the gravitational force she puts on screen, but it’s not directly focused on Therese (at least no more than it is on her daughter, or Sarah Paulson’s Abby, or even Kyle Chandler’s Harge). Maybe Mara’s character didn’t demand the attention, but it left me unsure if “love” was the word everyone should be throwing around. I needed something–maybe as simple as one more line or one more disarming gaze pointed at Carol–anything to make me have a guttural reaction to their romance. But not just for myself. I wanted Carol to silence mainstream culture’s belief that women can’t be passionate and, therefore, a lesbian romance must be subtle, calm, controlled. That’s a lie.
If Blue is the Warmest Color’s director, Abdellatif Kechiche played it too risque (that seven-minute, almost porn-like sex scene anyone?), then Carol’s Haynes played it too safe. Surely, even in the fifties, passion got the best of lesbians sometimes.
Of course the movie is not without impactful moments. Watching Blanchett’s Carol interact with her daughter, and seeing her try to navigate how to be both a lesbian and a mother is when the movie is at its pinnacle. As a glimpse into the bleak reality of being LGBTQ in the post-World War II era, Carol hits a nerve in even the outtest of lesbians.
In the end, I realize that I need more gayness in my gay movies, and while I appreciate that Haynes is one of Hollywood’s few out-directors, I can’t help but wonder–would Carol and Therese’s connection hit me harder if a (queer) woman was behind the camera lens? Maybe it would make no difference at all.
I’ll confess, I haven’t read The Price of Salt (though I think I will now); maybe their relationship isn’t the point of the story after all. Maybe it’s simply Carol’s journey to accepting herself and taking pride in her identity that I’m supposed to marvel at, and that I can do.