Early on in Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, we see Rooney Mara’s character, Therese Belivet, perched in a projection booth watching Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Sunset Boulevard. While Therese’s boyfriend makes hapless advances from behind, another boy is vigorously taking notes, proclaiming that he’s seen the film six times, and that he is currently “charting the correlation between what the characters say and how they really feel.” Perhaps the joke is that Carol plays out mostly through scenes of smoldering innuendo, but the sight of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond for a fleeting moment might cue even a casual movie enthusiast to think about Carol through the smoky lens of film noir.
The director of Carol, Todd Haynes, has definitely taken good notes on genre styles of the past, whether he’s experimenting with the superstar bio-pic via movies about Karen Carpenter, Bob Dylan and the Bowie/Eno glam-rock era, erecting an homage to the technicolor melodrama’s of Douglas Sirk in 2002’s Far From Heaven, or intertwining three genres at once with his first feature length film in 1991, Poison, a poetic commentary on alienation, punishment, and queer desire that manages to juggle noir horror in the tradition of Don Siegel or Herk Harvey, a 1980's TV Docu-expose of the Bizarre, and an Andre Gide prison tale designed in a lavish, theatrical style reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's final film, Querelle. The lineage of queer cinema that runs through the work of Sirk, Fassbinder, and Haynes has reached a strong point of culmination in Carol, which may prove to be Haynes’ most effective film since the rise of the new queer cinema he was such an essential part of in the early 90’s.
Carol is punctuated significantly by the shared name of the central character of Haynes’ most acclaimed film from that early period, [Safe], where Julianne Moore played Carol White, an American housewife suffocated by aerosol and affluence. Cate Blanchet plays Carol Aird, a wife and mother of the 1950’s whose home environment is similarly suffocating and threatened, but where Carol White’s character was trapped by the cold, symmetrical architecture of the suburban 1980’s, Blanchet’s Carol is immaculately trapped by a series of brooches, gloves, hats, and hairstyles that also mark the difference in social status between her and her younger lover, Therese.
It was only late in the film, when Carol and Therese make a somewhat desperate move to seize their desire for one another in the present, ignoring the consequences of the inevitable future, the rainy streets and subway grates of the film’s opening having given way to the dusty parking lot of a remote, Midwestern roadside motel, that I was reminded of that earlier flash of Norma Desmond, and how subtly Haynes had transformed Carol into an unexpected noir. In her influential work on “Women in Film Noir,” Janey Place defined Desmond as “the most highly stylized ‘spider woman’ in all of film noir as she weaves a web to trap and finally destroy her young victim, but even as she visually dominates…she is presented as caught by the same false value system.” Blanchet’s Carol Aird certainly dominates visually, yet she is played at a pitch nowhere near the delusional narcissism of Norma Desmond. Still, how intentionally her web for Therese is woven is ultimately a question whose answer is as discreet as one of the lover’s initial conversations over a glass doll case in a department store. Of course, the more important entanglement to Haynes and Highsmith is one of a false value system in relation to sexuality, one that treats them like dolls under department store glass. This is highlighted by Haynes’ persistent presentation of the characters through rainy car windows, streaked glass, windows and frames, which Place also writes about as “one of the most common motifs in film noir.” The film’s circular chronology, along with what Paul Schrader described in his “Notes on Film Noir” as “an almost Freudian attachment to water” are also utilized in Carol, but the ultimate effect of the film is not one stuck in the repetition of past styles. And, even though a gun is introduced in the 3rd Act of the film, the violence of Carol is ultimately not at all physical, but emotional. Haynes blends these conventions into the film in such a painterly, subdued way that what we are left with is not just a period homage, but what feels like a new chapter in progressive, queer cinema.