“Their eyes met at the same instant moment, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist, her eyes were grey, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away. She heard the customer in front of her repeat a question, and Therese stood there, mute. The woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever is was she meant to buy here, and though there were a number of salesgirls between them, There felt sure the woman would come to her, Then, Then Therese saw her walk slowly towards the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment it had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer.”
Patricia Highsmith: The Price of Salt, 1952.
She looks up above the desk to see where the CUSTOMER went and instead spies a glance of another woman - a woman whose green silk scarf tied loosely around her neck and head catches THERESE’S attention. This WOMAN appears to be the only customer surrounded by no one else. This is CAROL AIRD. CAROL bends down to examine the train set, and inadvertently toggles the on/off switch - the train shuts down. CAROL stands up, turns around towards the doll department, smiling, as if asking for help. THERESE meets CAROL’S eyes for a strange split second - until the EMBARRASSED MOM and the screaming TODDLER appear in front of THERESE, blocking her view of anything else.
Phyllis Nagy: Carol, adapted screenplay, 2015
It has been a while since I last read Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, which was published in 1952 under a pseudonym and later under the title of this adaptation, in her own name. From memory, the main difference between the two version is perspective, which goes interestingly with the choice of title. The novel follows Therese closely, she is the sole protagonist and Carol, the woman she first becomes obsessed with and then falls in love with, is seen entirely through her eyes. In his adaptation, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy and director Todd Haynes give both characters equal space, which creates a much more balanced love story than the one that it is based on. In fact, in a way, The Price of Salt in novel form fits oddly into Highsmith's other works which investigate the minds of people who become obsessed, who commit crimes, who, in the case of Tom Ripley, assume other people's identity and steal their lives because they have a greed to become someone else (and her greatest achievement is her ability to have her readers roots for these characters).
There are still traces of that original story in Carol, and in Rooney Mara's Therese Belivet. Her story, here, is that of a young woman who wants to be a photographer but has no faith in her art, who does not know herself well enough yet to make choices about her life and is dangerously closed to being forced into a life she does not want by other people making choices for her. This is Therese, before she happens to meet Carol Aird while working in a department store during the Christmas holidays. She does not know herself, but something changes once she sees Carol - a central moment in both the book and the screen adaptation, because both capture her immediate fascination. The backstory of The Price of Salt is that Highsmith herself worked in a department store, and found herself fascinated with a customer after having a similar encounter. She went home and in a bout of flu wrote the whole story, which is perhaps why is reads like a feverish dream, an imagination of the possibilities of a situation. This is also why Carol remains so distant and unknowable in the novel - Highsmith never actually followed through, or got to know the person that she based the character on, and her interest lies more in showing how an encounter such as this affected the inner life of herself and Therese in the novel.
Nagy and Haynes take this very one-sided story (which is still captivating in its original, and ground-breaking for its happy ending) and turn it into something entirely different. The Price of Salt is about Therese, who finds herself transformed through this encounter that eventually turns into a love affair, it is about Therese absorbing what she desperately needs to become a full person and using Carol as a catalyst to become herself. She realises what she needs out of an emotional and sexual relationship, she flourishes as an artist through finding a muse and the confidence to have faith in herself as an artist, she escapes an engagement with a boy who "wants to marry her" (but whom she does not want to marry, but does not know how to say no to, dangerously close to leading a very predictable, mediocre life without strong emotions). All of this is still Rooney Mara's Therese in Carol, except this version of Therese aspires to be a photographer, not a set designer, but her opposite, the focal point of her journey, is a fully formed character, which creates an actual romance of equals, a story in which two characters grow and change together and apart from each other only to end up finding each other again, but finally at a point where they can be together as fully developed equals. This way, they are entirely different stories, or Carol is a more eloquent elaboration. It still captures Therese's hunger, once she discovers that she can know herself better and become more - and the film beautifully creates a version of events where Therese's becoming is well-connected to who she has always been.
Carol and Therese's initial connection is over Carol's attempt to find a suitable gift for her beloved daughter, which, as we find out more about her story and the fact that her marriage is about to end, becomes even more significant. Carol wants a doll, but in a conversation with Therese in which their mutual attraction to each other leads to more honesty and genuineness, Therese the toy she always wanted as a child was a train set. Intrigued and trusting, Carol buys one, and conveniently forgets her gloves at the counter. What follows could have been an awkward and cliched story in lesser hands, an older woman with experience using her knowledge and her position to seduce a younger woman (and there is a lot of deliberateness in what Carol does, while Therese is more surprised by everything she ends up doing, a newly discovered sense of adventure and spontaneity). Instead, with Cate Blanchett performing a fully formed character, a woman who ended up in a miserable marriage not because her husband is awful but because she is incapable of loving him, a marriage that is failing in a time period where divorce was still scandalous, and led to being socially ostracized - what follows is a sensual spiral, a slow-burning love story. Their connection seems completely inevitable. Therese realises what she wants and needs, while Carol tries to balance the horror of fighting for custody, going through a divorce, with the life-affirming fact of her love for Therese, even though it endangers her connection to her daughter. When she is told that she will not be able to see her daughter, Carol asks Therese to come with her on a road trip, and invitation that ends Therese's engagement to the boy who wants to marry her.
Highsmith's novel is brilliant in how it follows what may have been the usual plot for lesbian pulp novels of that time - all the sensationalism that then ends in inevitable disaster and often, death - the two women are followed by a private detective, sent by Carol's husband who is collecting ammunition for the custody hearing - and Carol does leave Therese, realising that society is asking her to choose between love and her daughter, denying herself and her identity. She leaves Therese behind to be picked up by her best friend, confidante and former lover, beautifully played by Sarah Paulson, who offers perspective and advice in a world that is otherwise lacking in supportive characters. This separation is essential for the development of both characters - it enables Therese to step back and review, to realise what it is that she needs, who she is separate of the person who has changed her so fundamentally. She creates a portfolio - a beautiful symbol, as it contains Carol but also her previous work, as it is an amalgamation of her identity with but also separate of Carol - and starts a career at the New York Times, so that the woman that Carol will meet later on appears much more centred and sure of herself than the one she met the first time around. Carol attempts to deny herself for the sake of gaining custody of her daughter, seeing a therapist to "treat" her gayness, but eventually, in one of the most powerful moments of the film, refuses to deny her feelings for Therese, instead appealing to her husband's sense of decency. She does not want to be a mother who refuses those parts of herself.
In the end, Carol is a deeply, profoundly romantic film. The two women meet again, and now have both found themselves and carved out an identity of their own, separate from each other. They have both faced their demons - Carol the damaged and doomed marriage to a man who has grown bitter over his wife's love for women, Therese her insecurities regarding herself and her identity as an artist. In this beautiful conclusion, they are both objects and subjects and neither of them is denied their own story.
2015, directed by Todd Haynes, starring Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Carrie Brownstein.
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