Any time a movie’s trailer reminds me of that satire Swedish arthouse film from (500) Days of Summer, it’s a bad sign, but Carol rises above the scandalous Oscar-bate nonsense it advertises itself as and becomes the most enjoyable romance of 2015.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film centers around retail temp Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) and her relationship with the eponymous Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Aird buys a fake train from Belivet while going through a tough divorce, and they’re immediately attracted to each other. Belivet is similarly frustrated by her overaggressive boyfriend and stunted professional life, and at one point the two simply run off together to get away from it all.
Carol strikes that apparently delicate balance between artistic integrity and unintelligible arthouse-ism with directorial flair and compelling characters placed in a compelling story. It’s always teetering on the edge of becoming the overwrought bate film it was sold as, but only falls over in select spots.
Primarily reliant on its depressive atmosphere, Carol has all the best elements of a Hollywood love story. It’s not an issue of love at first sight. Aird’s husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), is still hopelessly smitten with her and is arguing for sole custody, using their daughter, Rindy (Sadie and KK Heim), to punish Aird for her sexuality. Belivet is being relentlessly pursued by a man she clearly does not love, Richard Semco (Jake Lacy), and when she tries to get a job as a photographer and get out of her dead-end retail work, it’s with a mutual friend, Dannie McElroy (John Magaro), who really only wanted to make out with her. Aird and Belivet are attracted to each other and they explore that attraction — eventually — but there’s much more going on in the movie and in their relationship than sex.
The biggest identifier of a good love story is whether or not you the viewer also falls in love with the characters, and that happens here. Aird is a titanic bitch, but in a condescending, domineering way. She’s not rude. Throaty and seductive, everything she says feels like innuendo. It’s easy to see the attraction. As the lead character, Belivet grows a lot as a person, both exploring her same-sex attraction and being dumped, both of which are apparently firsts for the character.
Director Todd Haynes does a decent job with the shot selection — decent because much of it was clearly intentional, but you have to question that intent. It’s a frustrating movie to watch at a low level because Haynes keeps putting things in front of people, be it a pillar, a rainy window, blur from focus or other people. You’re always instinctively craning your neck to see around something that’s in the frame. He makes artistic use of it — clutter in the frame represents clutter in the main characters’ lives, and it clears up as they spend more time together. It’s intentional, but it’s annoying.
A month away from the big Hollywood circle-jerk, Carol’s social impact and/or lack thereof is its biggest issue now. Part of what made me dread this movie as potentially an Oscarbate quagmire was that, while there have been films before centered on women and lesbian attraction, there have never been any with this kind of critical acclaim. The thought was this movie would play it as tragic and delicately beautiful as possible, appealing to the Academy’s most primitive liberal sensibilities, in hopes of getting a Best Picture nod. That’s not what happened, but it is an extremely liberal movie, to the point that it crosses that near-impossible line into misandry territory. Men are uniformly portrayed as bull-headed, controlling obstacles to the main characters’ lives. Aird and Belivet are clearly desired as trophies more than as partners, which is why their suitors don’t really care whether or not they reciprocate affection. Success and happiness in the movie are only attained in men’s absence. And since Hollywood’s passive misogyny — movies are made almost universally by men and for men — is so strongly the default option, any derivation from that must be seen as intentional.
This would, perhaps, be a bigger deal if more people had seen it. Carol’s glacial release schedule saw it not attain 100 theaters until Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, stymieing any potential it had for real box office success, and its lack of a Best Picture or Best Director nomination mean fewer people will have it on their list during awards season. These two key nominations, absent despite critical acclaim, have the LGBT community up in arms, though this has stayed in the background since #oscarssoheteronormative never really took off.
Basically, it’s bad that the Academy is snubbing lesbians, but it’s good that it’s snubbing a movie that actually has a pretty slanderous message about gender, but it’s also bad that it’s snubbing what is otherwise a pretty solid movie. However, between Ex Machina and Sicario, there are much better movies centering around feminine sexuality that also didn’t get a lot of Oscar attention, or critic’s circles attention for that matter.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Since this apparently needs to be clarified, retroactively calling something satirical is not a valid defense. I’ve had a change of heart in regard to reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.