"I felt odd and swimmy in the head, near to fainting, yet at the same time uplifted, as if I had seen a vision." This is how Patricia Highsmith described the 1948 encounter that inspired her pioneering lesbian novel The Price of Salt. The novelist (who would soon become famous for Strangers on a Train) was doing seasonal work in a department store; the "vision" was a female customer who "was blondish and seemed to give off light."
The two would never actually meet again. But director Todd Haynes has brought that fleeting "vision" to resplendent life in Carol, his adaptation of Highsmith's 1952 novel. When affluent housewife Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) saunters into the orbit of mousy shopgirl Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), she is indeed luminous.
More than a narrative, the film is a study in visual ways to convey the "swimmy," unreal sensations of love at first sight. Haynes has always loved the gloss and glamour of Douglas Sirk's midcentury melodramas (see: Far From Heaven) and the dreamlike state they induce. Here, he intensifies that disorientation with a repeated motif: shot after shot of faces half seen through reflections sliding across car windows.
Thus Therese's first trip to Carol's suburban home turns from a routine drive into a strange, semiabstract odyssey in the company of a goddess. When Carol calls Therese "flung out of space," she's not kidding — there's something otherworldly about their almost wordless encounters, underscored by Carter Burwell's moody music.
But Carol still takes place in the real world of 1952, where few observers view the two women's attraction with empathy. When they meet, Carol is already struggling to divorce her possessive husband (Kyle Chandler), who knows she's had a previous same-sex affair and soon starts using their daughter as a bargaining chip. That conflict gives the film its conventional dramatic core: rebellious lovers against an oppressive society. It all leads to a resolution that was bold and rare for the era — and won Highsmith many fans in the gay and lesbian community.
Haynes presents plot developments such as legal battles in low-key fashion; often they feel like no more than background static to the two women's intense connection. While Blanchett is impeccably groomed and glamorous in every shot — sometimes almost to the point of caricature — Mara plays Therese as half-formed, awkward and tentative, still finding herself as an artist and a person. It's a memorable performance, though not the kind that tends to garner awards.
The screenplay by Phyllis Nagy omits Therese's backstory, as well as conversations between the lovers that might have fleshed out their relationship, in favor of long silences that reinforce the general trance-y mood. Viewers may get the sense that they're witnessing the whole story through the eyes of the infatuated Therese, even when she isn't present. To the very last shot, Carol never quite loses her luster — or her perfectly applied lipstick.
Of course, "visions" like the one Highsmith saw rarely survive the later stages of a relationship, when flaws and foibles start to appear in the merciless light of day. Carol never brings its characters to that point. But it does remind us that, until fairly recently, gay romances in fiction and film tended to end tragically when they happened at all. It's a mark of progress that we can now judge this one not as a "statement" but simply as a story about two people in love.