Todd Haynes’s themes of sexual outsiders and repressive social mores have seen him associated with the New Queer Cinema — a trend which redefines cultures of sexual transgression.
His 2002 film Far From Heaven, a homage to the technicolour melodramas of Douglas Sirk, told of a white, middle class 1950s Connecticut housewife who discovers her husband is gay and then falls in love with her African American gardener. In Carol, he revisits that tense, upheaving American decade. Carol is an adaptation of the only lesbian-themed novel by Patricia Highsmith, the highly successful thriller writer who mined real-life relationships to configure dark motives and startling plots.
Carol, originally entitled The Price of Salt, was published under a pseudonym in 1952 by a small publisher. However, in paperback it immediately sold a million copies, gained cult status and drew appreciative letters from women who identified with its theme of illicit love and its remarkable ending. Highsmith describes a society in which women struggle under stultifying gender conventions.
Aspiring photographer Therese is selling dolls and dollhouses in the run-up to Christmas. Across a crowded shop floor she spots the eponymous Carol: older, perfectly coiffured, swathed in fur and seeking a present for her daughter. They are instantly attracted and collude to meet again. Both are attempting to live “normal” lives. Therese is engaged to good-natured Richard and Carol is separating from her investment-banker husband, Harge.
The sexual tension increases as the women decide to go away together — and this is when the combined forces of society, the state and the bourgeois family close in.
The film is set in a dark, wintry, greenish-lit Manhattan that draws on the forlorn freeze-frame paintings of Edward Hopper. Images of the characters through rain-streaked car windows evoke a sense of loss, longing and things being washed away. The transitional nature of the 1950s and the “homelessness” of the women’s relationship is underpinned by journeys, motel rooms and time shifts. Carol and Therese don’t fit into conventional society or underground subculture. They have only themselves and the space they are able to carve out with Carol’s wealth.
Despite its sultry beauty and restrained, certificate 15 sex scenes, Carol tells a story of real oppression. Carol’s parental and privacy rights are obliterated because of her sexuality. Highsmith developed this aspect directly from the experience of one of her own partners. She wrote in a postscript to a later edition of the novel, “Those were the days when gay bars were a dark door somewhere in Manhattan, where people wanting to go to a certain bar got off the subway a station before or after the convenient one, lest they were suspected of being homosexual.”
In an early scene, a friend of Therese obsessively studies Hollywood films for “the correlation between what they say and what they really feel”. Carol’s power is in evoking the pain of not being able to be who you are or know what you want. It’s no outcry, but a lament against the disparity between emotional truth and social appearances.