I have had long-standing love for Todd Haynes. One of the first films I studied and found as a film student was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (watch it at this link) that Haynes directed when he was a student himself. The 50 minute film is a recreation of the tragic story of Karen Carpenter filmed with Barbie dolls. The film is so vivid and visceral that you don’t realize you’re watching plastic figures. Immediately, Haynes became my hero.
A couple years later in another film course, I studied the correlation between Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows in conjunction with Haynes’ Far From Heaven. At that stage as a student, I was floored with the innuendos that peaked through the censorship code during the 1950s when Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman shamelessly flirted on screen with lines like:
“I suppose these old beams are rotted.”
“No, they’re oak. They’re good for another hundred years.”
When I saw Haynes had done a new film with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, I was so excited to see what he was up to. Waiting impatiently for Carol to finally come out in the cinema, I found myself at a book re-sell shop in Notting Hill. Casually walking up and down the aisles of cherished and discarded books, I found Carol by Patricia Highsmith sitting for a single pound waiting to be taken home. I held it close to my chest and read through the novel with bated breath.
The story begins with Therese in the break room of Frankenberg’s, a massive department store, days before Christmas. She’s been hired for the holiday rush, and she is assigned the doll counter in the toy department. We immediately understand that she would rather be anywhere else than among the manic mothers demanding a doll with real hair or one that wets itself, but living in New York does not come cheap. With her sights set on theatre set design, she is waiting for that first break to get her out of retail hell and into show business.
All of that goes out of her head when a graceful and confident woman walks into her department asking for a doll for her daughter. Carol seems to notice the same spark as Therese as she orders the doll to be delivered to her home before Christmas Eve. But it’s when Carol leaves her gloves (by accident, or on purpose) that Therese gives in and falls down the rabbit hole.
With this catalyst, Therese and Carol begin an intense flirtation. But things get complicated when Harge, Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, uses Rindy, Carol’s daughter, as fodder in keeping their marriage together. Adamant about leaving Harge and living her life, Carol invites Therese on a cross-country Christmas trip. Blindly, Therese agrees, leaving her in-between theatre set internship, her counter job at Frankenberg’s and her sort-of fiance in New York.
The story quickly heightens in action as they make their stops from New York to Washington State, stopping in a town called Waterloo, which will forever hold fond and disastrous memories for them. Harge has sent a detective to follow his wife for information to use against her in the divorce proceedings.
Written in 1952 under a false name and different title, The Price of Salt was the first novel Highsmith wrote after her blockbuster success book Strangers on a Train, which as adapted into one of the most successful Alfred Hitchcock films (and stage plays). Highsmith had to keep her identity secret because of her sexuality, but also because she and her publisher did not want The Price of Salt to affect her success and thriller-genre standing with Strangers. But this novel became a success in its own right and a beacon for many readers.
The book is very methodical, and it reads quickly without challenge. But at its core, it’s a 1950s romance novel with the same set up and tension as modern-day romance complete with with car chases and gun-threats. Mix in the holidays as a picturesque backdrop, and you could have told me this was a Harlequin paperback, and I would have believed you.
But despite not being challenged as a reader, I was swept up in the romance and heartbreak. I felt for these two women and rooted for them all the way, and I couldn’t put the book down.
* * * * *
Phyllis Nagy adapted Highsmith’s novel for the screen back in 1997 and waited all this time for it to finally be made. While she doesn’t have an extensive film profile (she is a successful and celebrated playwright), she was close friends with Highsmith. But she says that having that advantage did not work in her favor. She worked independently of Highsmith’s notes while writing, and she managed to come up with something new from the bones of the book.
Many details were changed to make it more cinematic and symbolic. For example, Therese’s profession went from a theatre set designer to a budding photographer. This change allowed her to bring more symbolic imagery to the screen through a lens. We the audience get a chance to see more of Therese’s story of how she feels about Carol when she allows herself to break her rules of never taking pictures of humans.
I feel strange, I think…taking pictures of people.
It feels like–an intrusion or a —
Invasion of privacy.
When reading the script, I was pleased to see so much of the original book intact with the tensions brimming between Therese and Richard juxtaposed with Carol, Abbey, and Harge. This story wasn’t affecting two individuals. It was affecting many more people than that, and Carol’s focus was on her daughter.
Rindy was somewhat diminished in the book. She was more of a presence or factor in decisions rather than a physical character. You rarely see her in the pages, but in the script and on screen, the child is a force that controls Carol with the slightest phrase.
There’s room for you in the car, Mommy. You can come with us!
Other characters also made it to the script from the book like Theresa’s equivalent to Rindy: Richard. Her fiance was all over the script as a constant reminder of how different and uncharacteristically Theresa is acting. Both main characters need someone to bounce off of, and make them realize how much they mean to each other. But other minor characters like Ruby, a colleague of Theresa’s at the department store, did not make the final cut. Each time I saw a section she was talked about or included on the pages, I was relieved I didn’t see it on screen. It was just filler.
Another main issue I found in the script was the constant use of flashbacks. When the entire story takes place inside of a year, it is jarring to go back and forth so frequently. In the final film, the film begins in 1952, but then we transport back to the previous Christmas and follow the story through to the end. It was so much smoother and easy to follow this way. The sprinkling throughout seemed to be a crutch for breaking the tension rather than just owning it.
* * * * *
When I finally made my way to the cinema, my expectations for the movie were set very high. So, I settled in and soaked in every single second of celluloid.
The film begins with a 1950s opening title sequence reminiscent of the Douglas Sirk films Haynes loves so much, and we follow Jack through the New York streets until he spies Theresa and Carol sitting in a hotel restaurant having an incredibly tense and important conversation. But we don’t know the gravity of their discussion until we go back to their first meeting at Frankenberg’s when Carol strolls in searching for a Christmas gift for her daughter.
Flirtation begins immediately, and their meet-cute has occurred with sly glances from Carol and Therese’s fumbling about like a giddy schoolgirl. Like the book, Carol leaves her gloves, either on purpose or by accident, and Theresa returns them as an inciting incident for their relationship.
Throughout the film, the vast majority of the story is told through windows and glass whether it be train windows, hotel windows, or car windows. It creates a voyeur effect like, we the audience, are spying on this “taboo” love affair much like the detective sent to spy and report back to Harge and his divorce lawyer.
The whole film was shot in Super 16mm giving a dated, 1950s feel to the film, only accentuating the grainy and clandestine feel. In the 1950s, this “behavior” was much more hidden than it is now. With the grain exposed, I felt like I was watching something exposing.
“…Super 16…would feel like looking at a photograph from the past. So that was the real idea. Then this feeling of another layer of seeing their emotions through grain captured, I thought, another emotional quality of their performance.” — Ed Lachman, Cinematographer for Carol.
The film was truly one of the most beautiful pieces of cinema I have seen in the last decade. It wasn’t overly graphic or gratuitous which is so easy to do in this day and age to attract viewers. It’s refreshing to know that not everyone is looking at the bottom line when using buzz words like “lesbian film.”
The difference between a woman and a child is a woman has secrets.
Some things are still left sacred.
FILM > BOOK > SCRIPT
4.5 out of 5 stars