Editorial note: This is a slightly modified and edited version of an essay that appeared in the author’s personal blog.
Directed by Todd Haynes in a Cincinnati, Ohio made over to look like New York and its suburbs in the early 1950s,Carol is loosely based on Patricia Highsmith’s happily-ever-after 1952 lesbian romance, The Price of Salt. Published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan,” and one of scores of lesbian pulp fiction available at the time from Bantam Books, The Price of Salt was and remains notable for its happy ending; this is because love stories involving gender non-conforming people tend, still, toward tragic plots involving suicide, insanity and murder. Indeed, so accustomed have I become to such plot devices that I was unprepared for the denouement of the film: the moment where the lovers catch each other’s eyes across a crowded bar, and you know that their relationship will continue. That’s it? I think I asked aloud. I was sure that one of the protagonists would have to die, be committed, or go to jail.
The story seems a sweet one, if you go for that kind of thing. Cate Blanchett plays Carol Aird, a mink coat wearing wealthy suburbanite, unhappy in her marriage and her big house, but deeply attached to her daughter and her best friend and former lover, Abby. Rooney Mara plays Therese Belivet, a young aspiring photographer. The two meet in the Christmas rush at the department store where Therese works; their relationship unfolds slowly as mutual fascination over martinis and cigarettes in enclosed spaces−the interiors of cars, restaurants and houses, their faces often in shadow, the camera peering at them through soft focus, rain-spatter and around and across thresholds−not quite voyeuristic, but dreamlike, a bit out of the world, despite overheard occasional chatter and radio broadcasts that refer to Senator McCarthy or the House Un-American Activities Committee.
In the midst of a nasty divorce in which it looks as if she will lose her daughter, Aird (in whose name you would be right to hear “erred”) invites Belivet (“good living”) to go for a car trip “west.” The two become lovers in a small motel west of Chicago, and then part when they discover that Aird’s husband has had them tailed and taped by a private eye. Such evidence allows him, on the basis of an “amorality” charge, to sue for exclusive custody of his daughter−historically a not uncommon event in the lives of North American lesbian mothers.
Nursing her broken heart, Belivet returns to New York, where she finds work as a clerk in the photo department at the New York Times−for to be paid to be a photographer, well, that’s a man’s job. After work, she develops her photographic practice, and wanders, unattached, in a sort of straight village bohemian scene. After a time−Aird has settled some aspects of her divorce and moved to a swank Manhattan apartment−the two meet again for drinks. Aird confesses her love, but gives Belivet time to think about whether she wants to pick up their love affair again. Late that night, Belivet has her answer, and the lovers catch sight of one another across a crowded smoky bar. Fade to black from bright eyes. Riff of American songbook inspired jazz, Jo Stafford’s 1953 hit, “No Other Love.”
Innocuous at worst, right? Possibly even uplifting; a recovery, albeit partial, of some aspects of North American queer history. And yet, the film bothered me. A lot.
What do you think? my partner Marike asked me. Why was this film made now? We both knew it couldn’t be because lesbian love is somehow now worthy of celebration−that remains an iffy proposition at best in mainstream cultural productions. The price of salt remains very high in the lives of most gender non-conforming people. We’ve not yet moved to a place where families don’t frequently toss their queer children or commit them, and closets are simply places where you store your shoes and your extra tights or ties. Some other politics is at work in the revival of this particular version of the queer New York 1950s.
Why so much vaseline and soft focus, the camera that caresses Blanchett’s pale face, her tossing blond locks?
For sure, this is a film about blond allure−as the enthusiastic ride-home commentary from our friend, who describes herself as “partial to blonds,” amply testified. Even more than that, however, I’d say that this is a film about and in praise of whiteness.
Not only can you count the fleeting appearances of silent people of colour in the film on one hand (the walk on by a black couple in a Village street scene, the black maid at Airds’ in-laws), the film works hard to abolish class and ethnic barriers among its principles, to subsume them in affluence, “local colour” and nostalgia, in order to create a seamlessly white world in which no barrier is truly insurmountable, provided we ignore any inconvenient historical chatter at the edges of the screen.
When, at their first meeting, Belivet begins to explain to Aird that her last name is Czech, but misspelled and corrupted by the immigration process, Aird cuts her off; she doesn’t want to know even that much. Therese Belivet, she says; that’s a lovely name. Likewise, the film gathers Belivet’s friends, all of whom are male, and some number of whom might be Jewish or of Italian working-class extraction, into its snowy fold.
Everything is possible in this hopeful world of affluence-polished upward mobility−provided you’re not too leftist, too outspoken, too racialized, too poor. The soft focus and Carol’s flipping blond curls, the close-ups, the peering at pale faces through darkened, rain-streaked glass, the winter landscape as the couple flees west, the expanse of Therese’s white skin as the two women at last begin to make love: these key tropes serve to establish a love affair between these two women as a love affair with whiteness.
As such, the film bleaches away history, political critique, class distinction, financial limits, even loss−it all comes right (or promises to do so) between the protagonists in the end. No matter lost custody or family recrimination; no matter the recently ended Nuremberg Trials, the Rosenberg Trial, or the McCarthy hearings; no matter job loss or gender limits, unequal distribution of wealth or sexual discrimination: Therese can come to live in Carol’s luxurious apartment, and the two will continue to be served by nearly invisible servers, to drive at night along dimly-lit streets, listening to nostalgic and mostly white−Billy Holiday is the only notable exception−crooners, in a world where checks on freedom of speech, assembly and political affiliation and long-running battles around integration at lunch counters, in the military, in schools (Brown vs the Board of Education will begin to mandate school desegregation in 1954), on voters’ rolls, and in sports are so far away as to be non-existent.
Thus, while the film seems to be about queerness, or even a principled and proactive stand−Carol’s quite striking insistence, as she and her lawyers meet with her husband and his lawyers, that how she loves is not immoral, but any law that would sever her from her daughter is−such moments don’t hold up against the cigarette-saturated nostalgia and watery focus of the rest of the tale. In Carol, in short, the lesbian story is a whitewash, a screen blocking out other contemporary and pressing concerns.
Why this film now? I think it is clear: we are living in a time when a certain part of (increasingly mainstreamed) American politics is all about whiteness: there are the birthers and truthers, who persist, against all evidence and reason, with the argument that Barack Hussein Obama is an illegitimate and ruinous president simply because he is black and has three non-European names; there’s Trump’s insane and all-too-popular demagogic vision, where what will make America great again involves ridding the country of immigrants, non-Christians, and people of colour; at this writing there is the band of armed white men who have taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, in protest against First Nations and federal land management strategies that limit their (apparently divinely granted) use of park lands as cattle-grazing territory. And while it might be easy to dismiss all of these phenomena as the last-stand ravings of an outrageous maniac white fringe, that’s too easy. Like them, Carol is all about the celebration of white privilege; we shouldn’t let the lesbian theme or the lovely blond curls of Blanchett (more whiteness) blind us to such snow.
Carol enlists a new fringe (white middle-class or affluent queers) to a new mainstream, to a history in which black and indigenous lives not only don’t matter, they’re virtually invisible. This is a dangerous message and an abuse of history, as well as a turn away from spaces of the present where we, as citizens and North Americans, are called to act. Where #blacklivesmatter; where we look for and count murdered and missing Indigenous women; where unemployment and poverty are rampant; where access to clean water is not a given for all of our citizens, nor is healthcare or shelter; where more than one in five children are raised in poverty; where prisons are big business, and nonwhites are disproportionately arrested, detained and incarcerated; where corporate kleptocrats flout the law and do not pay their fair share; where the 1% continues to make more, while many of the rest do with less; where soft-focus neoliberalism persuades us to cede more and more common spaces, not to mention our critical acuity.
The Price of Salt might have sold a million copies as “the novel of a love society forbids,” but I’m not buying that story today, as Carol tells it, where a love between women forbids not only most of society, but clear vision and nuanced contemporary conversation.
Why should Carol be the big queer tale of the year (and The Imitation Game last year’s offering)? If we’re going to hang about in the precincts of the queer mid-twentieth century, where is the film version of Audre Lorde’s Zami? Or a life of Lorraine Hansberry−To Be Young, Gifted and Black? Where’s the Marsha P. Johnson blockbuster, or the smash biopic about Babe Bean/Jack Garland? What about a big film about Samuel Delaney? Or James Baldwin? I tell you, it had better be The Fire Next Time!