The Female Gaze II – Carol: A Movie Review
I usually do not know what I will specifically write in the morning until I sit down at my desk. However, after seeing Carol, I went to bed last evening knowing exactly and completely what I would write. This morning I woke up knowing, not what I would write, but what I need to write, but keep postponing, setting if off for a future hoping it would not come, but knowing, like a biblical prophet of old, that I would have to, must write about it. But not this morning.
Cate Blanchett, when she was touring and promoting her new film, Carol, kept telling interviewers that she wanted to talk about the bigger, more complicated things in the world, like what is taking place in Beirut, in Iraq, in Syria. The situation of the refugees trying to cross from Turkey to Europe in leaky boats is a real issue. So were the Paris terrorist attacks. In terms of those standards, Carol, about a lesbian love affair set in Eisenhower’s America in the early 1950s, seems a luxurious extravagance and an escape.
It is that, but that makes it no less real. I am writing about movies again because I keep postponing writing about the immanent war in Israel, not just a Third Intifada, but a real, full scale uprising that is coming as certain as I sit here. I know it is coming. I skirt around it. I write about Turkey. I write about refugees. Now I obsessively write about movies because I just do not want to face the horror of what I see approaching.
Last night we went to see Carol, Todd Haynes’ re-creation of the unspoken side of 1950s America and his film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s pioneering lesbian pseudonymously semi-autobiographical novel, The Price of Salt. The ostensible author was Clair Morgan. Salt is a fundamental ingredient necessary for life. Children are a fundamental ingredient necessary for love. Is the price of salt, is the cost of keeping custody of your children, worth the sacrifice of who you are?
Seeing Carol was a deliberate choice. I had been talking to my daughter in Miami yesterday about The Danish Girl and the feminine gaze. She had just seen Carol and urged me to see it because it also was about the female gaze. And that is how the film ends, clearly and unequivocally. My daughter did not tell me that. She did not need to. It is so obvious when you watch the movie.
I cannot remember seeing Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven when it came out in 2002. I think I was working too hard trying to get my last five PhD students to complete their theses before I retired; I believe I then avoided seeing films. I might have even said I had more serious things on my mind dealing with Hegel’s Phenomenology. But, in a totally different sense, there is nothing more serious than the images on the cave wall, than the reflections of the surface of life and our reflections about that surface. For that is the only way to get to deeper truths.
If Far from Heaven was about inter-racial love and homosexuality in the 1950s, that is to see the surface of the film I am sure, not what it reflects. Similarly, to view Carol as a film just about lesbian love is to miss the point. The movie had far greater ambitions and succeeds brilliantly in achieving them. Unlike The Danish Girl, Carol is not a complex film. The female gaze is up front and overt. The male gaze is a clear foil with its brutality, its manipulation, its indirection, its power-mongering and its sheer belief in force and revelation about the deep impotence of males. Harge, Carol’s aptly named estranged husband played by Kyle Chandler (who played the sheriff in the Florida Keys Netflix drama, Bloodline), is both a deeply needy brute and a rich momma’s boy who cannot survive without a beautiful blond on his arm. Richard who plays Therese’s would-be boyfriend is not much better, just a younger version living in full expectation that women exist to fulfil men’s fantasies. But the central focus is the female gaze. Wait for the ending of Carol. I do not need to describe it. It is a delicious and perfectly appropriate completion to a film that is almost entirely about the female gaze.
The story is straightforward. It begins in the toy department of Frankenberg’s Department Store where Therese (Rooney Mara, who became such a distinguished presence in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is a shop girl, presumably a temp working in the pre-Christmas rush. But the movie does not begin there. Instead, the opening shots are of New Yorkers emerging to the surface from the subway beneath. It may be the fifties. It may be the era when McCarthy ruled the airwaves as Donald Trump does now. But it was also the era in which America was coming to the surface and breaking out of its racialized and sexualized repressive past. Just the beginnings mind you, but beginnings nevertheless.
What more appropriate place to start the actual story, moving from the street level to the fifth or sixth floor of the “modern” department store that would become obsolete in our time. It may have been far from heaven, but it was also far from the gritty streets of New York and the inhabitants either striving to survive or striving to succeed; one could never decide which was worse. What more appropriate situation than selling Christmas toys for children who had left behind the stage at which they were just toddlers.
Was Frankenberg’s Department Store in the movie supposed to be Altman’s that had been located between Fifth Avenue and Madison at 34th Street? It does not matter. What mattered is that it was not Macy’s. It was not Gimbel’s. And it was not even the neo-modernist Saks Fifth Avenue at 50 th Street, the symbol of New York retail elegance. Frankenberg’s or Altman’s was handsome and understated while also exquisite in its choice of materials in Italo-renaissance style with its flat façades, masonry walls – differentiated for each floor – dentils and decorative detailing, always with a heavy masculine cornice to top it off, Silitto’s department store with its Art Deco style in Cincinnati provided an excellent substitute for its exterior. It was the department store that catered to the carriage trade.
There is a horizontal contrast in addition to the vertical one. For the juxtaposition of the New York pedestrian setting with its striving for elegance contrasted with the road movie shifting from seedy motels on route to the Drake Hotel in Chicago. New York, the mansion in New Jersey, and the highways of the northern U.S. are as much characters, though minor ones, in the movie as Therese and Carol. We are not in the modern up-to-date New York of the seventies of American Hustle, but the tired elegance of post-war America still living off the glamour of the roaring twenties. We are not yet into motorbike rides across a drug-ridden America striving for escape, but the era of travelling by car across a barren landscape.
We are also in the toy department, not the department selling elegant fashions, though Carol wears her elegant full-length mink coat throughout the film like armour plating in a mediaeval movie about war. The portrait reminds us of Melanie (Tippi Hedren), another tall, blond beauty in The Birds who also wears an elegant full-length honey-coloured mink in that film. And we recall how Hitchcock treated Tippi in real life as seen in the biopic about him. The Birds is an allegorical movie about birds in the cockney sense, about women in a cage and about women as birds who revenge themselves on humankind for their past mistreatment. For the women are either trapped or go mad and attempt revenge, for they still believe that they need men and they flock around the emotionally frozen male lead in the movie vying with one another for his affection and attention. Carol is well beyond that. She believes she has escaped her cage. But she will learn that it was not so easy. And it will not be without great cost.
The Birds begins in a pet store as Melanie goes to see if the mynah bird she ordered has arrived. Carol begins on the toy floor. She is shopping for a doll for her daughter, but instead settles on a train set, a boy’s choice for a toy, one recommended as Therese’s dream of a toy when she was four-years-old. This was a period when the mechanical age was at its height and when wood and leather and solid metal had not yet been replaced with plastic. There are two sides to that New York. There is the grimy Greenwich Village in which I lived over Christmas in 1957 and in which Therese probably lived in the movie. And there is the courtesan culture of the West Side that I only saw in movies, but which is juxtaposed – not married – to the grittiness of New York in this movie as in few others.
This is not a movie of the grey flannel suit, of fifties conformity. It is not about repression, but the difficulties of expression. The movie is not so much about coming out of the closet to make the invisible visible as it is about making the visible very visible even when the movie shots are taken as Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman’s famous 1961 movie). We watch the movie unfold through a rainy store front window or a grimy streaked window of a railway carriage or a car. We see through the glass. The characters stare out through the glass. So all is visible from the very start, but it is also streaked and discoloured. It is always about gazing, about our gaze, about the gaze of the characters in the movie, The problem is not in what is hidden in the film, in what the allegory is about, but in our difficulty, and even sometimes refusal, to see a situation very much associated with the male gaze. The story comes alive, not in what is said, but in what is left unspoken, unstated.
On the one hand, we see Rooney Mara, at one time in a cafeteria eating her meatballs and gravy on mashed potatoes, in such contrast to the elegant meals and martinis to which Carol will treat her, places where Therese does not even know what to order. Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet has large soulful eyes that peer out and pierce the surroundings like the camera shots in her later development as a photographer. But the photos are not melancholic; they see directly; they are outspoken even when Therese herself says nothing. Therese with the angular lines of her face and her waif-like body is a cross between Audrey Hepburn and Edith Piaff, without the impish smile and the true lightness of being of Hepburn, but with a heart that sings of loneliness without the cigarette-smoked huskiness to her voice. Instead, her heart sang out like a Billie Holiday tune reeking of an unexpressed depth of emotion and a bluesy uninhibited directness, but as if she carried the weight of the world on her very fragile frame.
Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird is a study of contrasts. It is as if she is a glamorous old-style movie star locked up in elegant suburban New Jersey. If Therese is all presence while inhabited with absence, Carol is all performance – sophisticated and poised with a studied and practiced elegance that Eider so longed to attain in The Danish Girl. Carol’s cigarettes are always cocked at just the right angle. Carol belongs to a world of Packard cars rather than Chevrolets or even Cadillacs. Mercedes an Audis had not yet really arrived on American soil. It is not as if this is a movie about the coming together of two people from two different classes, though it is that, but the coming together of two people who gaze at one another from very opposite angles, but each directly and without inhibition. The first sighting in the department store is furtive when they first make eye contact, but eye contact they do make, reinforced by the double take of the camera as Carol leaves the toy department. Carol exhibits languor while Therese is a caterpillar that has not yet moulted. The back story of Therese is never told in the movie, for the focus is on the future story that has yet to unfold.
Neither is torn because of inner inhibitions repressed by a stuffy and backward culture. Rather, Carol is torn between her intense love for and dedication to her five-year-old daughter and the possibility of true love with another woman which she knows, in the world of the fifties, will cost her a great deal, most specifically in relationship to her daughter. Therese, on the other hand, has to emerge from her cocoon in which she has confined and resigned herself, someone not so much with a hidden past as with an unknown future.
The film is also a contrast of the interior scenes of bright colours and studied wealth versus the dreary overcast and even rainy exteriors shot with all the graininess of super 16 film stock. This is not a romantic movie with florid and extravagant dialogue, but one that is understated, that emerges through looks rather than excessive verbal dialogue, Therese simply says, “Take me to bed.” There is not a single scent of the gushy dime store romance novel. The movie is sensuous but not cerebral like The Danish Girl.
The film moves along at an agonizingly slow path in stark contrast to the rush and mayhem of New York. But it is not a movie of seduction, like Lolita. Nor is it a film of hot and tempestuous passion. The emotions are not complicated. Girl meets girl. Girl falls in love with woman. Girl – see the movie. It is well worth it.