A-salt on Convention
Acclaim came to Patricia Highsmith with her first novel, though fame today is more from stage and over two dozen screen adaptations than from the printed writing that is far more critically esteemed in her adopted Europe than here. By most accounts an impressively nasty person quite beyond rudeness, miserliness and alcoholic anti-Semitic and racist tirades, she based her second, pseudonymous full-length, The Price of Salt, on two lovers and one event in her own life in which she was what nowadays would be called a “stalker.” Authorship acknowledged and renamed Carol four decades later, under that title and scripted by Highsmith friend Phyllis Nagy, it has been Todd Haynes’s latest selection in the New York, Cannes and other festivals.
Of note is the film’s fine feeling for fashions and mores of time and place, when cigarettes were very sexy, and for music worked in rather than easily played behind, though too much is observed through private automobile -- luxury Packards favored -- and taxi windows dotted with raindrops or snowflakes. The characters in this, a love story of discovery, self-sacrificial separation and promised happy reunion, are really only two, the others existing to be reacted to or against or to supply information.
Done with admirable restraint and avoiding the sensationalization of most flesh love scenes, the story offers wishful thinking/wish fulfillment for Highsmith, who was not happy or enduring in her love affairs, as her diary says, “more [women and] times than rats have orgasms.” Pixieish short-haired brunette Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) clerks in Frankenberg’s Christmastime toy department, just as her creator-authoress had in Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s, and is attracted by cool, monied in mink, tall, long-haired blonde Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), looking at electric trains and dolls to be delivered to her suburban address but, by design or not, forgetting her gloves on the countertop. “Terry” mails the gloves along with her name, usually a male ploy as face-saving come-on semi-pick-up invitation.
The fifteen-year age difference between the two actresses -- what Oscar politics has nominated Mara as “supporting”? -- reflects the curiosity and naïveté in one woman and lonely experience and more than a bit of calculation in the other. A diffident aspiring photographer who all but sleeps in a girlish tam-o’-shanter, the younger woman so far has sidestepped “going all the way” with a slightly “experienced” marriage-minded boyfriend (Jake Lacy, as Richard Semko), is not open to being kissed by another male, and feels “useless,” confused and wishy-washy.
The older woman dotes on daughter Rindy (Sadie Heim) and is among what Dorothy Parker termed those “society ladies not yet quite divorced,” for she and estranged husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) still bite and scratch but have not gotten down to legal settlement and custody proceedings. As in The Great Gatsby, the little-realized child serves as tangible proof of the intimate side of a marriage. Mother Carol has had at least one past same-sex liaison, with now best friend and confidante Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson) -- herself currently pursuing a Rita Hayworth-type redhead -- and, knowing what she wants, invites Therese to her fancy suburban house and then on to a two-week ladies’ drive west.
It has proved impossible to confirm or disprove an assertion that “Carol” was a slang or code word for lesbian, as the female name “Sheila” is Australian and Kiwi for “young woman,” but it is certain that sixty-some years ago, lesbianism was not a taken as a recommendation for child rearing. In the film at least, Carol renounces the two persons she loves most, though one comes back here and the other will likely do so at some future time if only emotionally. The authoress’ alter ego is sweetened up and, her surname hinting at “beautiful life,” rewarded. Despite the writer’s deep personal drawbacks, a revolver brandished and the lack of such prurience as some may seek, screen Carol is a meticulous low-key reward for audiences.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated "R" for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language.)