Flung Out of Space: “Carol,” Genre, and Gender

"Carol" is unique among Haynes’s films in that it invites us to witness an intimacy that others have failed to notice.

By John ThomasonJanuary 2, 2016

Flung Out of Space: “Carol,” Genre, and Gender

CONSIDER the following film setups. A universally beloved pop star dies suddenly due to complications from her acute anorexia. A precocious young boy from a seemingly stable Long Island family has murdered his father in cold blood. A glam rock icon has been assassinated onstage at the height of his fame. These are the events that open Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Poison (1991), and Velvet Goldmine (1998), respectively. The films subsequently reach back into the past for answers to the question: “What happened?”

The film scholar Marcia Landy has argued that this question — uttered incredulously by the narrator of Superstar — animates not just these three, but all of Todd Haynes’s films. Though Superstar, Poison, and Velvet Goldmine invoke it most directly with the faux journalistic inquiries that structure their narratives, the question is implicit in all his features. Safe (1995), in which housewife Carol White (Julianne Moore) exhibits an illness seemingly impervious to diagnosis, compels us to identify, against our will, with her gossiping friends who ask: What went wrong? Far from Heaven (2002) investigates yet another suburban nuclear family whose picturesque facade is disintegrating: Why did they stray? And I’m Not There (2007) poses the question to each of Bob Dylan’s incongruous incarnations — stoic folk singer, rock ’n’ roll asshole, born-again Christian: Where did they all come from?

A corollary of Landy’s thesis could be that Haynes’s films are consistently interested in gossip: what we think we know about others as uninvited observers of their lives; how we articulate this knowledge; and the judgments that we draw from it. By carefully but resolutely evading easy answers to the question of “what happened,” Haynes’s films trouble both the explanations we might venture and our presumed right to ask such a question in the first place.

It is from this vantage point that Carol, now in theaters, represents a departure for Haynes. If we find ourselves asking “what happened,” it is not as part of our identification with nosy fans (as in Superstar and I’m Not There) or with minor characters (as in Safe and Velvet Goldmine). This is apparent from the film’s opening scene. A man standing at a bar notices an acquaintance at a table across the room. He walks over and greets her; she is sitting with an older woman. The women’s expressions make it apparent to us that the man has interrupted a discussion of some gravity, and the way the older woman’s hand lingers on the shoulder of the younger as she exits confirms this. The man does not appear to have noticed any of this, but we have. Carol is unique among Haynes’s films in that it invites us to witness an intimacy that others have failed to notice. And when we ask what happened, the film actually provides an answer.

Set in New York City at the end of 1952, Carol documents the love affair between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an elegant, confident, and wealthy New Jersey woman in the process of obtaining a divorce, and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a reserved younger woman who sells toys at a department store but aspires to work as a photographer. The film follows their romance and the complications engendered by the jealously of Carol’s husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who would exploit the women’s forbidden love in order to wrest custody of the couple’s beloved daughter. While this synopsis might seem to position the film as a companion to Far from Heaven, Haynes’s other mid-century period piece, both narrative and style are much more austere in Carol. Its backdrops — the nondescript exteriors of mid-century Manhattan, the unadorned plaster of Therese’s apartment — are a far cry from the baroque suburbia of Far from Heaven. And the earlier film’s oversaturated palette is replaced by a muted earthiness, with pervasive grays and browns punctuated by flashes of color from Blanchett’s costume and makeup. Likewise, Far from Heaven’s excesses of performance are replaced by a kind of restraint and microexpressiveness by Blanchett and Mara that is no less intense.

Indeed, it’s difficult to identify a definitive stylistic precedent for Carol, and in interviews Haynes generally cites a number of mid-century American women photojournalists (among them Vivian Maier, Ruth Orkin, Esther Bubley, and Helen Levitt) as his primary visual influences. The apparent lack of a cinematic visual referent underscores the difficulty of boxing Carol into a genre at all. While it certainly has aspirations to the classic romance — Haynes frequently cites David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) as his narrative inspiration — the film is based on the pulpy, agitated novel The Price of Salt (1952) by Patricia Highsmith, famous today for Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley. One of the wonders of Carol is the way it preserves the feverish quality of the novel (which Highsmith wrote while under the influence of chicken pox), the overheatedness and delirious anxiety and ecstasy of its romance, while avoiding any suggestion of pathology or debilitation.

That Carol seems so unconcerned with genre identification is certainly itself a departure for Haynes. For much of his career he has been a master of genre deconstruction, of stripping a genre’s essential features to lay bare the mechanics of its functioning. So, with its use of Barbie dolls in lieu of live actors, Superstar demonstrates that the pathos of the biopic need not rely on human performance. Safe, a horror film that invokes neither the supernatural nor even a realistic threat of grievous harm, nevertheless prompted Wes Craven to anoint it the most frightening film of the year. And Far from Heaven is a committed pastiche of mid-century melodrama, but one that withholds the shedding of cathartic tears for its subjects. These films, while not didactic, are clearly playing with genre to explore the social issues they invoke: body image, celebrity, and the nuclear family in Superstar; consumerism, gender roles, and self-help culture in Safe; racism and heteronormativity in Far from Heaven. They are what might be called Haynes’s “diagnostic” films: they probe genre in order to more deeply probe the social fabric from which genres arise.

But two of Haynes’s most confounding films stray from this method. Rather than exploring new themes with old genres, tweaked and selectively stripped to make plain their inner workings, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There efface their apparent genres altogether. While they might be described as biopics of David Bowie and Bob Dylan, respectively (though neither are invoked by name), they pay little heed to conventions of the genre, even to expose them. As Velvet Goldmine progresses it moves further and further afield from its narrative setup, a recreation of Citizen Kane, until it seems to have pushed its subject firmly into the periphery. And while I’m Not There plainly traffics in Dylan’s biography, iconography, and songbook, it never even evokes the conceit of a central subject: there are instead six seemingly unrelated protagonists of widely varying ages, races, and genders, all enacting some aspect of Dylan’s biography or, in some cases, the mythology associated with him. The stylistic and narrative decadence of these films allows their characters to forge alternate realities and identities, offering a kind of liberation from the totalizing social structures embodied in the calculated formalism of Haynes’s other works.

What’s fascinating — and troubling — is that, despite these two films’ insistence on the mutability of gender, they depart from nearly all of Haynes’s other films by focusing primarily on men. While Superstar, Safe, and Far from Heaven center on women and the predicaments associated with femininity, Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There push women to the periphery. Is Haynes’s gender identification so narrow — or, more charitably, his conception of patriarchy so bleak — that it is only men whose transgressions can liberate them from this fallen world?

Carol may provide an unlikely answer. Like Haynes’s other films about women, Carol is firmly rooted in a single period and location — New York City in the early 1950s — rather than traversing centuries and continents like Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There. Like them, it does not defy conventions of narrative coherence. And, like his other female protagonists, the women in Carol struggle to articulate the pervasive social fabric that threatens to enclose and suffocate them: in this case, heteronormativity.

As in Safe, mirrors and windows frequently come between the viewer and the actors in frame, underlining this inchoate sense of pervasive enclosure. Unlike Safe, however, there are signs of escape from this enclosure. After a few rendezvous of excited but restrained flirting, Carol invites Therese to drive to Chicago with her over the holidays. The camera’s aerial liftoff as our heroines take to the highway is an extraordinary moment in the film. An unremarkable shot in isolation, in this context it highlights the measured, hesitant quality of the film’s earlier cinematography, as well as the dominance of narrow interiors, shadows, and low lighting up to this point in the film. And though Carol and Therese’s romance continues to be largely confined to close quarters — hotel rooms, cars, anonymous diners — Haynes’s lyrical filmmaking (the simple but expressive scoring, deft camera work, and the incredible care and intensity that Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett bring to even the slightest facial expression) makes these austere backdrops not drab but beautiful.


Haynes has stated publicly that Carol is a film that equates the amorous mind with the criminal mind: overheated, anxious but aroused, attuned to contingency and disaster. But Carol is a crime film without an actual crime. Early on in their road trip, Therese finds a gun in Carol’s bag but returns it without comment. The gun reappears after Carol discovers that a private investigator has wired their hotel room, presumably to furnish evidence that will advantage her husband in their divorce proceedings. She storms into the snoop’s room and aims the gun at him, demanding that he destroy the tapes. Unfazed, he says that it’s too late. Furious and devastated, Carol turns the gun to his equipment and pulls the trigger. There are no bullets in the chamber, a fact she must have known all along.

If crime, then, is nothing more than a mental state in Carol, perhaps it would more properly be considered a film about sickness along the lines of Superstar and Safe. Yet just as none of the characters treat Carol and Therese’s romance as a crime, neither do they treat it as a sickness. The men who desire Carol and Therese are furious at them for desiring each other instead, but they do not express disgust or righteousness, just bafflement and anger. And neither Therese nor Carol responds with shame: Therese is exasperated, Carol defiant.

There’s no denying that Carol and Therese are lovesick. But if their love is a disease, it is because they do not wish to be at ease in a world that would mute their desires. Haynes previously explored both the constructed nature of disease and its liberating potential in Superstar and Safe. While both Karen Carpenter in Superstar and Carol White in Safe are physically debilitated by their (perhaps) self-inflicted sickness, Haynes suggests that it is only from within their illnesses that Karen and Carol can express agency in lives that are otherwise controlled from without. Karen, whose every professional move is dictated by her family, takes refuge in the total discipline of her appetite. Carol, unable to find satisfaction from decisions she makes in the domestic realm, appears energized by the exploration of New Age solutions to her ailments.

But as complex as these films are — as charitable as they are to the agency of their desperate heroines — they cannot help but participate in the sexism that they seek to illuminate. At a recent anniversary screening of Safe, Haynes spoke of the film being about “the way women are pathologized by their dis-ease in the world.” Karen and Carol White may make themselves sick because they are ill at ease in a world that refuses to recognize their discontent, but they are still sick. Disease may be, like gender, a social construct, but like gender it is a construct that these women must live with.

Carol, however, is unique among Haynes’s films because it seeks not to illuminate the discursive construction of desire and oppression but instead to sidestep it. At a preview screening of the film at Lincoln Center, Haynes told the audience that the period was chosen because there was no vernacular for lesbians of the era. Whether or not this claim is historically accurate, its function for the film is clear. It allows nonnormative relationships to evade easy categorization by a society that would dismiss them as debased, perverse, or abject. In other words, if the jealous, spurned men in the film are unable to summon the language with which to stigmatize and thwart Carol and Therese’s relationship, it is as much because of the women’s refusal themselves to name the thing. They do not have access to existing labels or categories, but they also do not desire them.

The inability to articulate passions and desires and unease in an existing language is not a new theme for Haynes. Carol White’s stilted, incoherent speech at her birthday celebration toward the end of Safe is perhaps the clearest expression of this. But ineffability is also key to understanding the more utopian visions of Velvet Goldmine and I’m Not There, both of which celebrate the liberatory potential of the kind of Dionysian rapture that pop music and bodily pleasure can deliver.

Carol’s only aspiration may well be to recreate this kind of rapture on a small scale, under circumstances far more ordinary than in those two films. This means it is kin to neither the liberal polemic of this year’s other gay dramas (like Freeheld and Stonewall), nor to the dense, cynical social commentary of Poison and Safe. It might be justly criticized for ignoring the destruction that social norms can so easily cause outside of the purely legal use they’re put to in the film. It should not, however, be criticized for being overly aesthetic, because its central aim seems to be to promote an aesthetic, rather than discursive, understanding of nonnormative experience. How effective this strategy might be in the face of oppression is up for debate. But with his lyrical adaptation of what the writer Marijane Meaker once called “the only lesbian novel […] with a happy ending,” Haynes has finally given us his first two heroines to emerge victorious after their go with the patriarchy. That alone is cause for some celebration.


John Thomason is a researcher for The Intercept. He lives in New York City.

LARB Contributor

John Thomason is a researcher for The Intercept. He lives in New York City.


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