Carol—or, as I like to call it, Sexual Tension: The Movie—is a wonderful and all-too-rare film. The story, which began as Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian pulp fiction novel The Price of Salt, follows a clandestine love affair between two women living in Manhattan. While Therese (Rooney Mara) is an aspiring photographer who pays her bills working at a toy store, Carol (Cate Blanchett) is an older socialite going through a messy divorce. Throughout the 118-minute film, we see Carol and Therese fall in love while struggling to define an attraction that, in their era, has scandalous and heartbreaking consequences. Oh, and it’s Christmas.
Maybe this summary makes Carol sound like a gayer version of a Cameron Diaz movie, but in reality it’s stunning. The film adaptation written by Phyllis Nagy and helmed by director Todd Haynes has been in production for an incredible 11 years. That hard work played off. Watching Carol, I was utterly transported back to a cold and confusing post-war era. The unique cinematography frames each scene from either Carol’s or Therese’s point of view, so we see the story unfold through their very own eyes. From their vantage points, we see Carol and Therese drawn to each other by something that’s hard to explain, but undeniably felt. I, too, felt this magnetic connection emitting from the screen: When Therese sees Carol’s hand hesitating near her own, I held my breath for a moment, as well.
“Gay” and “lesbian” are two words left unsaid throughout the entire film. There is, however, reference to homosexual conduct and “those people,” which gives a pretty clear idea of the atmosphere Carol and Therese are living in. Carol and Therese meet at a toy store, where Therese helps Carol pick out a Christmas gift for her daughter. From there, their relationship develops and the sexual tension between them grows painfully slowly—the majority of the film is spent in “will they/won’t they” mode, and it felt like the credits started rolling too quickly after the question was finally answered. While Carol is the first woman Therese has ever expressed attraction for, Carol’s divorce began after her husband (played by Kyle Chandler) discovered her having an affair with her best friend.
Since its limited release last month, Carol has garnered well-deserved praise and recognition. The film is currently nominated for five Golden Globes, including best drama, best director, best actress (for both Mara and Blanchett), and best original score. A. O. Scott at The New York Times praised the film for shedding light on the phenomenon that is human magnetism. Heather Hogan at Autostraddle wrote, “I was so intoxicated by Carol I wanted to sit down in the middle of the sidewalk on the New York City street and close my eyes and relive every detail, over and over, until I could play it backwards and forwards on a loop in my own imagination for forever.”
But what I loved most about Carol were the subtleties that made it a Classic Christmas Movie: there were cookies to be decorated, toy store workers wearing Santa hats, and a montage of snowy New York City scenes with “Silver Bells” playing peacefully in the background. Most Christmas tales don’t focus on two women falling in love—not to mention that practically every man who appears on screen is framed as a complete homophobic villain. My family has watched The Family Stone every Christmas for the last 10 years, and I’m prepared to argue for Carol being added to our tradition, effective immediately.
Plus, I really enjoyed seeing all of the 1950s sexual tension unfold while, only a few hundred miles away, young Ralphie was begging for a Red Ryder Range 200 Shot BB gun in A Christmas Story. Talk about the flip side of the same coin.