“Carol” is the perfect queer Christmas movie

Cate Blanchett in "Carol"
Cate Blanchett in "Carol" Photo: Screenshot

Openly gay filmmaker Todd Haynes has always been an artist in-tune with queer interests. His first film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, brought together elements of documentary with heightened camp, telling the story of songstress Karen Carpenter entirely with Barbie dolls. It’s brilliant, creating a film of remarkable emotional intensity despite using literally lifeless dolls, but it’s practically impossible to see, as a copyright lawsuit has kept the film largely under wraps.

Haynes’ work has been considered a key fixture of the New Queer Cinema movement of the 1990s. It’s a mode of filmmaking all about subverting the norm, particularly when it comes to sexuality. The director’s films like Poison and Safe are best seen as allegories of living with AIDS. In 1995’s Safe, Julianne Moore stars as a woman who becomes ill, and winds up only being able to survive in complete isolation – nobody wants anything to do with her anymore. Sound hauntingly familiar?

While Haynes’ films are powerful metaphors for the queer experience, he rarely makes films about clear-cut LGBTQ+ relationships. That changed in 2015 when Haynes made quite possibly his most accomplished film to date. Carol is a sumptuous, heart-rending romantic film set in 1950s New York City, a time when homosexuality was deeply taboo. It stars Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett as women desperate to be with one another in the face of a society that’s determined to stop them at every opportunity. It also largely takes place on Christmas, making this brilliant miracle of a film the ultimate queer Christmas movie.

From the moment the longing, hopelessly romantic score by Carter Burwell begins, it’s clear the audience is in for something magical. The film follows Therese Belivet (Mara), an aspiring photographer who works at a department store, and her chance encounter with Carol Aird (Blanchett), a frustrated housewife who adores her daughter and is trapped in a loveless marriage with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler).

Carol is exquisite for a multitude of reasons, but it’s so effective because it understands the era it takes place in from a queer perspective. Lesbians couldn’t exactly hold hands and walk down the street in the 1950s, even in a liberal haven like New York City. Even today, many queer people in big cities (let alone small towns) are afraid to be open with their affection. But all those decades ago, it was an impossibility. In something extremely familiar to queer people, Carol understands that affection and flirtation is subtle, done through glances and knowing smiles – everything must be under the radar, so as to avoid punishment from the ruling (heterosexual) classes.

This secretive nature allows queer people – and in Carol’s case, lesbians – to exist in public without persecution. In the film, these secret public displays are charged with lust and eroticism, and frankly, are devastatingly hot. Consider the department store scene where Therese and Carol meet for the first time. Therese notices Carol from afar, clearly struck by her beautiful clothes and elegant beauty. Carol soon returns her glance, and amongst the noise of the department store, you can practically hear the sparks in the air.

They stare each other down from opposite sides of the room, practically entranced by one another. The camera sweeps Therese back to reality, forcing her focus onto a woman asking where the bathroom is. The camera briefly takes the perspective of Therese’s eyes, and she glances back to Carol’s location as soon as humanly possible, but she’s nowhere to be found. Some time has passed and Therese’s humdrum day is interrupted by the slapping down of Carol’s expensive leather gloves on the shop desk. There’s no opportunity for them to state any potential romantic intentions, and we know from a previous scene that Therese has a boyfriend.

Their conversation goes straight to business, with Carol enquiring about a doll for her daughter. Subtle hints are dropped. When Carol asks Therese what doll she loved as a child, she implies that she was never one for dolls. Instead, she was interested in train sets, a toy very much angled towards boys (times have changed when it comes to gendered toys, but the old ways are more entrenched than you may think). Carol, after purchasing the train, turns back for one last glance, flirtatiously whispering that she likes Therese’s hat. She also leaves her gloves behind, leaving Therese wondering whether the decision was deliberate.

It’s clear that this chance encounter has stirred something in Therese. In the next scene, a projectionist friend of Therese says, while they watch Sunset Blvd. from the projection booth, “I’m charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they really feel.” It’s one of many perfect lines in Phyllis Nagy’s ingenious script, perfectly reflecting Therese’s interiority, as she herself wonders if there was more to her conversation with Carol than met the eye.

The following day, Carol calls and sets up a lunch with Therese to thank her for her assistance. The scene is flush with passion. The two are clearly taken with one another, and Carol, as the older and certainly more experienced woman, takes the lead. But Therese willingly and happily follows. Even an off-the-cuff comment like Therese saying she likes Carol’s perfume is charged with erotic desire. If you read between the lines, the unspoken desire is laid plain before your eyes. Carol informs Therese she’s married, but getting a divorce, which she seems genuinely pleased with – of course she does, as the tantalizing opportunity to live her life genuinely is coming.

She asks Therese, almost in a hushed tone, so as to not alert anyone else around, if she lives alone, clearly attempting to pry into her personal life and figure out if she’s interested in women. Therese mentions Richard, her boyfriend, with casual indifference, smiling at Carol as if to say, you’re the one that I want. That opens up Carol to ask Therese to come and visit her on the weekend. Therese doesn’t hesitate for a moment. Carol responds looking straight at Therese with a smile: “What a strange girl you are.” She looks down, excited about this thrilling new opportunity, and says, “Flung out of space.” As if by magic, these two have found each other, and they won’t let each other go easily.

In the night, after a challenging encounter with Harge (her husband), Carol calls Therese on the phone. “I want to ask you things, but I’m not sure if you want that,” Therese says. “Ask me things, please,” replies Carol, a line weighted with such sadness that it practically takes your breath away. These women are opening their hearts to each other as much as they can without inviting ruin into their lives. They know they’re playing a game with devastating consequences, but their passion for each other is too strong to ignore.

After a great deal of letting their desires out into the ether, a road trip and hotel stay finally give the lovers a chance to act on their passions for each other. Their long-awaited sex scene is incredibly sexy, without a doubt, but never once feels exploitative. It’s shot sensitively and with purpose. It’s one of the most effective sex scenes in cinema’s history, as a lifetime of passion and secret desire explodes off the screen before our very eyes. In a film where longing glances and thoughtful stares provide so much passion, seeing these two lovers finally entwined feels unbelievably rewarding.

Of course, their love is not that simple. They can’t exactly just kiss each other at the table. If they have any chance of success in their love, they must be quiet, meeting in a clandestine fashion. They both deal with their own personal demons. Therese feels stuck, not knowing what she wants from life, nevermind what kind of person she finds attractive, while Carol is fighting to escape a loveless marriage and retain custody of her child, which may prove impossible if her true desires are made public.

Brilliant performances from Mara and Blanchett remind us that great acting is great acting regardless of the performer’s sexual orientation. There’s always bound to be a bit of controversy when straight actors play queer roles, but a film like Carol proves that a truly gifted actor can play anything. There’s not even the slightest desire to lean into any sort of stereotype here. Mara is brilliant as Therese, a woman whose stifled existence finally starts to make sense when she meets Carol. And as the titular role, Blanchett is downright spellbinding, channeling a lifetime of longing and passion into each and every line.

Together, the two possess a chemistry that most long-term married couples dream of. Everything just comes so naturally, so easily to them. Their conversations, even when electrified by nervous excitement, feel so natural, as if Therese and Carol are kindred spirits that have known each other for their entire lives. The rest of the cast is uniformly brilliant, and Sarah Paulson particularly shines as Abby, a bold, brazen lesbian longing for her own magical romance – something that continues to elude her.

Everything about Haynes’ film feels so authentic that you’re practically transported straight back into 1950s New York City. It’s as beautiful as it is stifling. Carol lives in a beautiful home with her daughter and husband. While Carol is a passionate, fiery woman, at home she’s far more demure, forced to keep her real desires in check as her husband is desperate to keep their clearly failing marriage afloat, furious with the reality of his wife’s sexuality. This struggle is beautifully reflected in Ed Lachmann’s staggering cinematography, which all but eliminates the striking color of Carol’s clothing and makeup when she’s with Harge.

Carol is filled with magic, from its period-accurate costuming, unforgettable performances, and monumental score. It proved immediately popular among critics and audiences alike and wound up with six Oscar nominations, though somehow winding up without a single win. Unlike many great films in the queer canon, it was appreciated immediately. But this brilliant film will only receive more respect over time, as more people uncover its magical treasures. It’s the perfect film to add to your holiday rotation, but its timeless tale of star-crossed lovers makes it a valuable movie any time of year. Queer love stories so often end in tragedy, but Haynes offers something more enticing – there may just be hope for Therese and Carol after all.

What a strange little film Carol is. Flung out of space.

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