There is an undeniable aura about Carol, an elegance and mystery that wafts around her like the perfume she wears. Sitting in a darkened movie house, watching Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, I was never able to inhale the fragrance she applies so lightly to her wrists. But she evoked the memory of a lovely woman who passed by me years ago—she was wearing a rare perfume, and I wanted to follow her, just to breathe in her scent once more.
It is easy to see why the shop girl Therese, played by Rooney Mara, is so immediately intrigued by the well-dressed woman who walks into the toy department of the store where Therese works. Therese is transfixed, and the woman returns her look. In that moment, for both of them, there is no one else in the room. But then Therese must turn her attention to another shopper, and when she looks again for the woman in the luxurious fur, she is gone. Alone once more with the dolls on display for Christmas, Therese turns back to the ordinary tasks that fill all the week days of her life. At first she doesn’t see that the woman has reappeared—Carol is there, deliberately placing her suede gloves on the counter as she waits for Therese to notice her.
Upon finding that the doll she wanted for her daughter isn’t available, Carol asks Therese what she wanted for Christmas when she was a little girl. “A train set,” Therese answers. In their first encounter, the gap that separates these two women is obliterated. Their age difference, their social status, the counter between them, none of that matters. And as the scene plays out, we understand that the moment she saw Therese was decisive for Carol—she has recognized in this young woman someone she wants in her life. She orders a train set to be delivered to her home, writes out her address and pays for her purchase. Then, with one last smile and the adroit remark of a woman who knows how to flirt, Carol walks away without her gloves, leaving a trail for Therese to follow. There is a subtle trace of suspense throughout this film, and the first one we experience is in Therese’s hesitation upon discovering Carol’s gloves. Will she accept the invitation implied in those gloves?
The love story that unfolds between Carol and Therese is poignant, tender, and layered with all the complexities of a time characterized by constraint. The constraint bore down on both men and women, but that weighted leash certainly placed greater restraints on women. It was a man’s world, and women were expected to accept without question their secondary, supportive roles. Director Todd Haynes uses muted tones to create the mood of his movie. Set in New York in the 1950s, brightness is suppressed in the same way so many emotions were repressed in that ultra-conservative decade. But Carol’s defiance is the point of light in this beautiful film. She glows.
The counterpoint to the ease and self-assurance of Cate Blanchett’s Carol is Rooney Mara’s Therese. She is awkward, unformed, searching. When they first meet for lunch, Therese tells Carol that her boyfriend Richard wants to marry her. “Is that what you want?” Carol asks.
“I barely even know what to order for lunch,” Therese says. She doesn’t know what she wants, or what else life may have to offer, but she catches a glimpse of the possibilities in Carol. What is tenuous with others can take on substance in this relationship, one that is unlike any other Therese has known. And though there is something dangerous about her, Carol’s warmth and strength are irresistible.
I saw Carol with Donna, my love and life-mate for the past 37 years. As we left the movie and stepped out into the small lobby of the Darkside Cinema, a woman seated on the comfortable old couch there asked, “Did you like it?”
“Yes,” I said. “Very much.” I could also have said, “It’s gorgeous, beautiful, exquisite.” All true, but I didn’t know this woman, and some of the fifties-era reserve that was once ingrained in me had reasserted itself.
The woman told us she had read The Price of Salt, the novel by Patricia Highsmith that Carol is based on. “Did you know Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train?” she asked. She spoke about seeing The Talented Mister Ripley, also written by Highsmith, and when she said “we,” she indicated the woman resting across the way on another sofa, to let us know she was there to see Carol with her partner.
On the street, lingering near the doorway to watch the sunset sky, two young women walked by us and we glanced at one another. I thought they were probably on their way to the next showing of Carol, just as they may have assumed (rightly) that we had just seen, or were about to see, the same movie.
These brief exchanges drove home the feeling that I am still part of a secret society. Gay marriage is now legal in all fifty states, and Donna and I live in a liberal town where our marriage is accepted. We have both been out of the closet for several decades. And yet, with all that, the sense that we are part of a closed circle lingers. It lingers because we know there are some countries where we could be stoned for loving someone of our own gender. It is stamped into our consciousness because it is a fact there are places in these United States where we are regularly vilified, demeaned, and ostracized.
On one level, this film served as a reminder that I am outside the norm, and that there are regions where gay people are still an endangered species. At the same time, the wondrous actress who plays the title role conveyed a gift as rare and mysterious as the imagined perfume Carol wears. As we walked along the street back to our car, I felt a difference in the way I carried myself, the way I stood at the corner waiting for the light to change. I realized that Cate Blanchett had left her imprint, caused a shift in my perspective and sense of self. For a while, I was Carol—beautiful, strong, decent, flawed, brave. And even after that sense of myself as someone else faded, a deeper affinity remained: Like Carol, I have chosen to be myself. With all its struggles and sorrows, no matter the cost, claiming your own identity is worth the price.