The Histories of Todd Haynes's Carol
Camille E.B. Boechler
Camille E.B. Boechler is a recent graduate of Louisiana State University, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Film and Media Arts. While at LSU, she completed rigorous coursework related to film theory/criticism. Her primary research interest is Queer theory, which led her to complete an independent study with Assistant Professor Phillip Maciak centered on Queer film. For the final assignment, she was to research three distinct histories of any film of her choice: the production history, the critical history, and the popular reception history. She was drawn to Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015) and thus selected it for her three essays.
Carol’s production history is perhaps as complicated as the film itself. Adapted to screenplay from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Phyllis Nagy in 1997, Carol remained in production for another eight years until it was finally released by The Weinstein Company in 2015. Beginning in 1996 as the endeavor of executive producer Dorothy Berwin, Carol saw multiple revisions in its screenplay, changes between its producers and directors, as well as several stalls and halts along the way before the project fully came into fruition.
In an article for The Hollywood Reporter, Seth Abramovitch discusses the entire history of Carol from its original source text to the film’s wrap in a detailed and thorough timeline of the film’s production. Abramovitch touches on many of the complications in the film’s development and production, such as the lack of interest and funding from Hollywood when it came to a mainstream lesbian movie. Also included in his article are quotes from the cast and crew on the production of Carol and on the film itself as a whole. One of the quotes referenced in the article is a statement made by actress Cate Blanchett, who played Carol Aird, a wealthy New Jersey socialite: “the challenge with Carol is that we’re viewing this same-sex relationship through the prism of a 2015 film,” touching on a tendency for contemporary viewers of the film to label Carol as a universal love story because of the progression of Queer acceptance since the film’s time period of the 1950s.
Carol’s development and production did not begin to fully pick up momentum until 2011 when Berwin’s rights of The Price of Salt lapsed, giving producer Elizabeth Karlsen the chance to obtain the rights. Under Karlsen’s production, Nagy was brought back on to the project, despite Nagy’s initial rejection out of fear that the project would never gain traction. By early 2012, Blanchett was not only cast in a lead acting role, but she also served as one of the producers through her own production company, Dirty Films Ltd. Though Blanchett’s enthusiastic involvement was one of the more helpful selling points of the project, there were still difficulties in securing a director for the film. By 2013, Todd Haynes (who had previously heard about Carol in passing) had an opening in his schedule, prompting his recruitment to the project. Shortly following the crucial hire of Haynes was Rooney Mara in the other lead acting role of Therese Belivet, a vaguely dissatisfied shop-girl with larger ambitions of becoming a photographer. Upon hearing of Haynes’s involvement, Mara readily accepted the part, despite having rejected it when initially offered the role earlier.
Once Carol had finally gotten through its lengthy development period, preproduction began in early 2014. Miriam Bale, for Indiewire, interviewed Haynes on the sources from which he pulled his inspiration for both Carol’s narrative structure and its visuals and aesthetics. Ever the meticulous and careful filmmaker, Haynes kept an image book on hand to compile various influences for Carol’s signature visual style. Haynes collaborated with cinematographer Ed Lachman in order to create the film’s trademark “soft, muted look,” working with a “soiled color palette,” and pulling inspiration from women photojournalists from Carol’s time period, such as Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, and Vivian Maier. Lachman also shot on 16mm film, stating that the “grain created a certain emotional quality.”
Another primary influence for Haynes while he directed Carol was the abstract photography of Saul Leiter (whose work was so important, in fact, that Somerset House featured a display of Leither’s photography alongside stills from Carol), which Haynes cites as integral to developing Carol’s stunning cinematography. Typically capturing subjects behind, through, or reflected by varying surfaces, Leiter’s work is known for its motif of mediation. Haynes discusses the ways he thought Leiter’s work appropriately fit the atmosphere of Carol, as characters Therese and Carol are frequently seen through varying layers of mediation, which places an emotional lens on the story.
In yet another impressive feat in Carol’s production, the film was completed in a thirty-four-day shoot entirely in and around Cincinnati (which Haynes notes has “striking architectural similarities to midcentury Manhattan, right down to its signage”) with a modest budget just under $12 million. Despite this and several other triumphs, Carol’s long and complicated production history still demonstrates many of the contemporary issues in Hollywood. Since its inception, Carol has undeniably been carried by its lesbian involvement, from initial producer Berwin to screenwriter Nagy. However, if it were not for male director Haynes’s involvement (who actually was not even familiar with the legacy of The Price of Salt prior to taking on the project), it is unclear if Carol would have been completed, much less to have gone on to achieve the critical acclaim that it has. Though Haynes mentions that for every film of his, he has had to “struggle [it] into being,” Carol’s production is exceptional in the incredible amount of roadblocks it faced, which prompts questions concerning Hollywood’s interests and priorities.
Having only just premiered two years ago at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival (and even later for mainstream audiences in late November of 2015), Carol still does not have many academic and critical texts written about it. With the exception of Patricia White’s essay “Sketchy Lesbians: Carol as History and Fantasy,” the closest texts surrounding Carol are the multitude of scholarly writings on director Todd Haynes’s filmography in general. Coming from a subsection of Brown University’s English department called Semiotics (an appropriately vague label given the subject’s fluid and often highly subjective nature), Haynes has a reputation for his intellectually dense films that prompt a thorough archive of academic texts. Because of the lack of similar texts written about Carol thus far, it is useful to examine the various essays written on Haynes’s other works. In addition to illuminating Carol’s current status as a critical text, this collection of scholarship can also be used to identify patterns in the academic writing surrounding Haynes, which can then be used to predict a future for Carol’s forthcoming critical legacy.
In “Pathos and Pathology: The Cinema of Todd Haynes,” Mary Anne Doane discusses Haynes’s treatment of pathology, a theme that is investigated in many of the other critical texts on Haynes, although it is approached differently by everyone. Doane identifies Haynes’s affinity for melodrama, irony, and subversion, which are also commonly cited in other surrounding texts as modes through which Haynes manifests the theme of pathology central in his works. In this essay, Doane argues that Haynes frames pathos and pathology together in order to discuss and navigate marginality, which for Haynes is always either in the form of “the woman… or the queer” (17). While Carol is notably subtle and offers little in the way of melodrama, Therese and Carol encounter marginalization throughout the film as they are faced with Harge’s (Carol’s jilted husband) rage, the private investigator hired to expose Carol, and Harge’s attempted implementation of a “morality clause” against Carol in the custody battle for their daughter Rindy. While a “morality clause” suggests a discretion more in the ethics of Carol’s character than in her psychology, it still carries implications of Carol’s perceived pathology via her homosexuality.
Marcia Landy similarly focuses on the subversive body politics of Haynes’s films in her essay “The Dream of Gesture: The Body of/in Todd Haynes’s Films,” which details the roles that the “young and adult body, the cinematic body, and the body politic” play in his films. In a thorough account of Haynes’s filmography (as of 2003, when the essay was published), Landy examines how each of his films’ treatments of the body “destabilize normative responses to the world that conventional forms of cinematic representation produce.” Haynes’s early short from 1988, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story sets the precedent for his fascination of and relationship with the body in his later films. Superstar is frequently given large amounts of critical attention due to Haynes’s experimental use of Barbie dolls and sets for the film’s characters and locations. Landy argues that Haynes’s depiction of Karen’s illness in Superstar becomes a challenge for viewers, not just in the physical implications of it, but also in the way it fundamentally upsets and “affront[s] the aspiring normality of the middle-class Barbie world” (125). Landy summarizes Superstar’s impact on the remainder of Haynes’s filmography:
Superstar indeed reveals symptoms and offers clues to a body in crisis, but the film’s investigation involves connecting the crisis of Karen Carpenter’s illness to larger social, political, and cultural crises through the insistent insertions of catastrophic images that invite a rethinking of reductive pseudoscientific conceptions of health and illness based on a different consideration of symptoms and clues. In its insistent probing and complicating forms of representation of the body as derived through media representation, Superstar provides a map to travel through Haynes’s later films, which are also critical of historical and scientific knowledge that passes via media as the common sense of the time. (126)
While Carol is less experimental, it too has the potential to offer a “destabilization” of “normative responses” to convention and form. Although there have been many great strides in the Queer rights movement, the representation of Queer love and desire is still, in many ways, political and controversial. The radical nature of Therese and Carol’s relationship is augmented further by the time period the film is set in, pre-Stonewall riots and before Queer visibility was anywhere near the levels it is today.
In an equally thorough interpretation of Haynes’s filmic techniques, “Coming Around Again: The Queer Momentum of Far From Heaven,” Dana Luciano explores Haynes’s development of what she identifies as “queer time” in his 2002 film Far From Heaven, once again focusing on the ways in which Haynes subversively works against cinematic conventions. In Luciano’s account of Haynes’s filmography, the “queer slant” Haynes offers to history (cinematic history, in particular) repositions contemporary viewers, who are likely accustomed to a culture in which Queer identity is increasingly visible and accepted, back into a period of time in which heteronormativity was even more pervasive than it is today. Queer time is also embedded with the “homoerotic possibility” of (re)reading texts and extracting potential narratives that “rewrite or look away from the hetero happy ending” (251). Carol, both in its 1950s setting and in Haynes’s narrative and stylistic choices is an example of Queer time in Haynes’s cinema; Haynes mentions one of the potentialities present in Carol in an interview where he comments on Therese’s encounter with vintage record store lesbians, which suggests a different trajectory that Therese’s story could have taken but did not (Bale).
Central to these works is the assertion that by “exploring the misappropriation of images of illness and health, normality and pathology,” Haynes “diagnose[s] the crisis of contemporary society” (Landy, 123). However, White’s “Sketchy Lesbians” offers a drastically different take on Haynes’s filmmaking. Whereas other critical writings on Haynes’s films argue and discuss the ways he works against cinematic and social conventions, White asserts that nothing about Carol is fundamentally political. White addresses a pattern in the film’s popular reception in which Carol is described as a universal film that is, at its core, about love (as opposed to being a more specified portrait of same-sex desire). Although most reviewers cite this universal quality of Carol as one of its many triumphs, White argues that this actually limits the possibilities of the film’s narratives. White laments the “movie that might have been,” claiming that Carol’s focus on middle- to upper-class white women purposefully casts a shadow on the reality of what the lesbian scene in early 1950s New York would have been.
Given Carol’s immense complexities and the vast archive of critical texts about Haynes’s other films, it is doubtful that Carol will fail to inspire anything short of a plethora of academic writing. It will be interesting to follow Carol’s critical reception, especially in the ways that it will compare and contrast with previous scholarly writings on Haynes’s filmography. It is possible that Carol will prompt a shift in the rhetoric surrounding Haynes’s work, potentially exploring the ways that, despite his intentions, Haynes is also guilty of perpetuating limiting and oppressive cultural traditions.
Popular reception history
Highsmith’s The Price of Salt has over time garnered a highly devoted cult following amongst lesbian demographics as well as cultivating a complicated history. The Price of Salt is a novel that stands out in stark contrast against other works by Highsmith that have since been adapted to film (Strangers on a Train and the Ripley series being two notable examples). Similarly, Carol is, in many ways, not a typical release from Haynes. Carol stands out aside other films by Haynes because even underneath all of its complexities and nuance, its overall plot is simple: Carol is, at its core, a story about love. Though its primary focus is centered around the romantic connection between two people, Carol is at once concerned with so much more. Carol is not just a love story, but a specific love story – a lesbian love story.
Because of the film’s long pre-production period, Carol was highly anticipated for years before its release. It was met with a largely positive response from mainstream and critical audiences alike after its premiere in May 2015 at the Cannes Film Festival and then again shortly after its (extremely limited) release in theaters in the United States around the end of 2015. Applauded for both its technical expertise and its incredibly touching storyline, Carol received several award nominations and went on to win many of them. It came as a surprise to many of the film’s fans when it was not a candidate in the Best Picture category in the 2016 Academy Awards. Perhaps even more perplexing was the Academy’s choice to not nominate Mara as a contested Best Actress, even though Blanchett was nominated for her equally leading role in Carol.
Overall, the lack of racial diversity in the Academy Awards nominations over the years has been met with dissent by many, prompting the viral #OscarsSoWhite movement (a fault of which, admittedly, Carol is also guilty). The controversy surrounding Carol’s nominations is yet another aspect of the larger contemporary issues in Hollywood. In the case of Carol, the Academy’s distinction between Blanchett for Best Actress and Mara for Best Actress in a Supporting Role is only one of several examples of Hollywood’s undeniable problems with misogyny, homophobia, and even more specifically lesbophobia.
The troubling aspects of Carol’s popular reception do not just begin and end with the Academy Awards, however. While misogyny and homophobia are perhaps most clearly visible in the example of the Academy Awards, the rhetoric in Carol’s popular reception is arguably not much more progressive, despite the film’s widely positive reviews. Several reviews of Carol describe the film as universal, which is to say, it ultimately does not matter that the film’s protagonists are Queer women who are romantically involved because Carol actually speaks to everyone’s experiences of love and relationships, which are not limited to Queer people.
Although certainly an important aspect of the film, the relentless focus on Carol’s universality raises questions about the people writing these reviews: is it more comfortable to view Carol as universal because it is just too isolating for mainstream heterosexual audiences if the focus is on Therese and Carol’s Queerness? Is the particular specificity of these women’s identities still somehow too jarring in post-marriage equality America that it cannot be critically discussed despite being integral to the film?
Many of Carol’s reviews also demonstrate a tendency that critics have to define Carol by what is not, rather than by what it is: Carol is not a traditional “boy-meets-girl” love story, it is not an erotic portrait of lesbianism, it is not a political film… With an overwhelming archive of lesbian films that are either too bad to be taken seriously or are beautifully crafted masterpieces that inevitably end tragically, it is not surprising that people are noting that Carol is a rare exception. While it is certainly gratifying to discuss the ways that Carol departs from the unfortunate tradition of lesbian films, centering all criticism around on the ways that Carol is specifically not a bad lesbian movie dismisses the many ways that Carol is, on its own, a beautiful and captivating portrait of a lesbian relationship in 1950s America. With a misguided focus on the film’s universality and subversions from stereotypical lesbian-related media, the clumsy treatment of Carol’s complexities in its popular reception demonstrates critics’ fundamental inabilities to critically assess the film and its larger cultural context in a constructive way that does the film justice as well as provide insightful social commentary.
Since Carol made its way into mainstream public attention, it has spurred comparisons to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), another film featuring a Queer love story that was met with large amounts of critical praise. Several speculations arose regarding whether Carol would leave a legacy as the “lesbian Brokeback.” In a way, Carol is indeed similar to Brokeback Mountain, at least in its popular reception: both films are frequently discussed as being more about love itself than their characters’ sexualities. Zach Gayne, interviewing Haynes for Twitch Film, likened the two films, stating that though tension and conflict surrounding characters’ Queerness “has driven many a great film… the triumph of Carol has less to do with the ‘gay dilemma’ than the problem of good old-fashioned love…” Gayne then shifts his attention away from Brokeback Mountain, going on next to compare Carol to David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter (a movie Haynes cites as providing his inspiration to bookend Carol with an opening sequence that is also at the end of the film): “Much like Lean’s film ceases to age on account of its central truth, Carol deserves to stand the test of time.”
Gayne and Haynes also discuss the impact that Carol’s source text, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, had on Haynes when he read it in preparation for directing the film adaptation. The two talk about some of the differences the film’s screenplay had with the original novel, one of the biggest differences being the characterization of Carol. Gayne observes that Carol is a “softer” character in the movie than she is in the book and that she “wounds [Therese] throughout the entire story.” The two also discuss the role that gender and sexuality plays in the story, Gayne claiming that “far more relevant than the characters’ sexual orientation is the age gap.” Though most other people’s discussions of Carol also center around beliefs that more important to the film is the subject of love, and that it does not necessarily matter that the main characters are two Queer women, Gayne is even more adamant on this point. Gayne may have good intentions in directly attributing Carol’s impact to the film’s universality, but he fails to consider the many other reasons that Carol is an exemplary film.
David Sims, writing for The Atlantic, defends Carol in yet another one of the film’s many favorable reviews. Sims makes a case against some of the dissenting reviews the film received for being too “cold” or “chilly,” arguing that Carol is actually a film that is extremely invested in depicting the depth of the characters’ feelings, the initial repressions and the eventual emergence of which make the film so powerful. In his emotional appeal, Sims also takes note of Carol’s universal treatment of love, claiming that “Therese’s devastation when [her] relationship [with Carol] falls apart should be painfully familiar to anyone who’s ever experienced heartbreak.” Sims, however, makes an important distinction from Gayne’s central claim, which is that “Haynes’s genius is in the ways he taps into universal anxieties about love and relationships without ever letting go of the sense of imprisonment that came from being gay in the 1950s.” Gayne’s discussion of Carol’s universality, intentional or not, dismisses the importance of the film’s Queer representation, in a way that Sims does not by acknowledging that Therese and Carol’s Queer identities are still important.
However, Sims’s discussion is still centered around an objectifying heterosexual male gaze despite any attempts to reject it. Of particular interest to Sims are the interactions and conversations between Therese and Carol throughout the film. He mentions that the film has many instances where the two women have fleeting touches and glances, a lot of their affection showing through the subtle nuances in their pleasant small talk. Sims points out that Therese and Carol never “remotely stoop to the level of innuendo,” which is a bit of an unnecessary detail to include – after all, why bring this up if it is not something brought up by the film itself? Sims writes this to make the argument that one of the reasons Carol is good is because it does not produce an image of a lesbian relationship as an erotic spectacle. Although it is true (and important) that Carol does not create an objectifying view of Queer women, Sims’s blunt attention to the fact that Carol is not “that kind of film” still suggests that, because it is a film about Queer women, it lends itself to becoming another exploitative lesbian movie. This is yet another way of erasing and belittling Queer women’s experiences by subjugating it to a male heterosexual gaze.
Rather unsurprisingly, much of Carol’s cast and crew also frequently talk about Carol in a casually homophobic manner. In an interview conducted at the Cannes film festival, Mara, Haynes, and Blanchett discuss the film’s reception at the festival, as well as the chemistry between Mara and Blanchett. The actresses make tongue-in-cheek remarks that Haynes needs to sit between them and that Blanchett needs to be “all covered up.” Their jokes are indicative of a common trend of casual lesbophobia in which straight women pretend to be sexual and/or romantic partners of each other for humorous purposes. But what exactly is the joke here – an intimate relationship between two women? Queer women’s relationships with each other are already too frequently dismissed and rarely taken seriously and although Mara and Blanchett’s intentions likely were not to discount the experience of Queer women, their remarks still have the same implications.
Mara also comments on Carol’s sex scenes, claiming that she did not think that gender made much of impact because, from an actor’s perspective, any love scene (regardless of gender) is always different just because different people are involved. Mara noted this in a tone that suggests she felt that the sex scenes were not worth discussing, but Blanchett provides a slightly more complicated point of view:
We can [still] talk about [the sex scenes]. Todd was very clear what the function [of the scene] was and what was going to be shot. You know, I think it’s [an issue] when you’re in those situations where you think “who’s this for? How is this advancing the story?” But people focus on that stuff, you know, and I don’t think they’d focus on it if I were a man or if Rooney were a man. It was just another scene, but you know, you want to make sure it’s done in a way that is in no way gratuitous – that it’s beautiful and it’s erotic and it’s conflated – the things you want it to convey.
Blanchett and Mara both frame their statements around the universality of the scene (“we’re all just humans rubbing up on each other,” says Mara), but reach different conclusions. Blanchett even mentions later in the interview that she “think[s] [Carol] is simultaneously an outsider film and an insider film.” Here, Blanchett acknowledges a frustration (perhaps similar to Mara’s) with invasive questions about the sex scenes in Carol, though she simultaneously recognizes that scenes like these are not entirely irrelevant to the film, or within their larger context in popular culture as well.
Carol is in many ways a film that is about the universal experience of being in love. It is not incorrect to identify this when writing about the film, as it is one of the film’s standout qualities. However, the ways in which Carol’s universality is discussed are worth considering in any readings of the film. B. Ruby Rich identifies “two ways to dismiss a gay film” in her essay “New Queer Cinema”: the first is to claim a film is “just a gay film” and the second is to claim a film is “a great film that just happens to be gay.” Harmful ways that Carol’s universality is discussed align with Rich’s second form of dismissal. Ideally, issues such as sexuality would not necessitate specific attention drawn to them, as no single expression of sexuality should be viewed as either “correct” or “incorrect.” However, this philosophy is not actually progressive within the current political environment where, despite having achieved marriage equality, Queer people are still faced with multiple challenges, including (but not limited to) ongoing violence against the community, discriminatory housing practices, and lack of job security. When basic human rights are still a struggle for a certain class of people to achieve, it is irresponsible to dismiss and erase their identities and lived realities, even if under the guise of being a proponent for “equality.”
A second trend in the popular reception of Carol is a tendency to define the film in negative terms, to explain what the film is not doing, the intention being to somehow shed light on what the film is doing. In a rather rough history of lesbian-related film and popular media, traditionally there are two incarnations a lesbian story can take: low-grade erotica or a tragic cinematic masterpiece that, in the end, glorifies lesbian suffering. One of the contributing factors to all of the hype around Carol is that it noticeably exists outside of this binary. It is not technically incorrect to claim that Carol is not a film that “titillate[s], scandalize[s], or shock[s],” as Abramovitch notes in his thorough account of Carol’s production timeline. Likewise, it is also true, as Sims notes, that Carol is “ultimately a story that dares to hope when the formula of a period gay romance might demand tragedy.” Carol’s existence as outside of this paradigm is not unimportant. However, as is the case when discussing the film’s universality, the way Carol’s subversion is discussed in popular reception of Carol indicates a clumsy and reductive take on the film itself.
As previously mentioned, it is not surprising that much of Carol’s reception would focus on the ways that it is not like most lesbian films. Even the film itself has a complicated relationship with the different paths the narrative could pursue. In arguably one of the most crucial (and poignant) moments of the film, Therese meets the gaze of two women (who are coded as lesbians through their style of dress and their demeanor) from across a record store. This brief encounter introduces the possibility for the story to take an alternative route – one that involves a focus on Therese’s awakening sexuality coinciding with the discovery of a readymade community in 1950s lesbian New York. The story that unfolds instead is about Therese and Carol’s intense romantic bond. Haynes notes the importance of this scene and Therese’s distancing from the record store lesbians in the Bale interview:
Whoever those women are who Therese looks at in the record store… make her in some sense feel a kind of aversion, [leading to] an absolute moment of wanting to distinguish herself from that kind of representation of difference. What you see is that those women and their rejection of traditional feminine garb and manners and self-presentation, that's a different story. And that takes place in a different world than Carol, so you're learning about women who are still very much codified by the society.
The distinction Haynes makes here shows that on top of not being an erotic thriller nor a tragic masterpiece, Carol is also not intended to be a political film motivated by any central pedagogy (although it is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that insightful political commentary cannot still be extracted from the film).
Despite the film’s affliction to subvert against tired lesbian film tropes, however, centering criticism around Carol in an apophatic manner is ultimately limiting not just to the film’s several cinematic triumphs, but to mainstream audiences as well. Limiting rhetoric surrounding the film in this way sets a precedent for Carol (as well as other Queer films) to be viewed through a restrictive lens in which stories about Queer people can only exist in opposition to heteronormativity. Framing Queer people’s marginalization in this way only further enforces the dominant hegemonic views on gender and sex because it establishes a single default from which one can either deviate or follow, rather than the vast multiplicity of a fluid spectrum. Marking Queerness only through the ways in which it departs from heteronormativity denies Queer people agency to independently identify themselves: we already know what Carol is not, but what about what this film actually is?
Carol is a complex film and it can be difficult to pinpoint much of what it is doing. Many of Carol’s triumphs are indeed because of how universal its story about the deep love between two people is, but it is also important that those two people are specifically women. It is also a long-due film about Queer women that does not end in tragedy, but at the same time Carol is so much more than a (somewhat) happy lesbian film to which all audiences can relate regardless of sexuality – it is an honest and gentle portrait of lesbian women during a time in the United States when it was even less acceptable to be Queer. Engaging even beyond its narrative, Carol is provocative and elegant with extraordinarily masterful cinematography and beautiful sets, perfectly matched by its touchingly emotional musical score. Limiting the way that Carol is read and interpreted ignores and dismisses many aspects of the film that are actually worth discussing.
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