During a pivotal scene in the 10 p.m. showing of “Carol” that I attended last Sunday, I heard a tinny pair of giggles coming from the row behind me. Initially, I was annoyed. Why was someone laughing during this gorgeous scene, hee-heeing at the consummation of the blossoming emotional affair between the film’s protagonists? How could two people in the same theater as me occupy such a different position than I did — how could they be laughing at lesbians? I turned around and gave my best Clint Eastwood glare at the couple behind me. It was two women, holding hands and wearing the same raptured smile I had a minute earlier.
“Carol” is both a great movie and an important one. The film, based on Patricia Highsmith’s “The Price of Salt,” details the emotional affair between the moody, compelling Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”) and naive department store employee Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). Since “Carol” is set in the early 1950s, their relationship proceeds in a different manner than it would today: Queerness is the ultimate taboo, a symbol of moral deviance. Everything has to happen in secret, everyone who wants to be well regarded in society must operate behind closed doors. The notion of “being in the closet” doesn’t even apply, because for Carol and Therese, there is no alternative on the other side of that door.
But if you’re expecting a tragic queer melodrama à la “The Normal Heart” or “Brokeback Mountain,” prepare to be disappointed. As directed by Todd Haynes (“I’m Not There”), “Carol” is undeniably sweet, offering plenty of moments of levity, maybe even some worth a giggle. Blanchett’s performance as Carol is delectable, especially the way she initially dances around her attraction to Therese: saying “I like your hat” during their department store meet-cute, pronouncing Therese’s name like it’s a line of poetry. Blanchett’s sophistication and boldness drives the narrative forward, winning Therese’s affections and eventually our own. It’s hard to watch this movie and not fall in love with Carol Aird.
“Carol” ’s cinematography and production design are due credit for the film’s dreamy, romantic mood. Cinematographer Ed Lachman (a frequent collaborator with Haynes) frames the two actresses in intimate close-ups, often focusing on a single body part — Carol’s electric pink nails, Therese’s blue eyes. In a film about lesbian romance, the female characters’ preoccupation with other women’s bodies is a subversion of the typical “male gaze” formula of looking at women’s bodies. Carol and Therese are discovering one another, and it makes sense that Therese would be looking so carefully at Therese — she is a photographer and artist, after all. The set design and art direction are likewise intricate and beautiful, especially the visual parallels between Therese and Carol’s six-year-old daughter. (Both have short brunette hair and bangs and are dressed frequently in primary colors and jewel tones.) This is the kind of movie you can watch over and over again and always discover a new and stunning trick of filmmaking.
In addition to “Carol” ’s sophisticated style and award-worthy performances, the subject matter is especially timely. On the heels of the summer’s Supreme Court marriage equality decision, great queer love stories have a special exigency. If Carol and Therese weren’t fictional and if they were alive today, I’d hope that the characters might not endure what they do in this movie. Maybe Therese wouldn’t be dating a well-intentioned but clueless man with whom she has no passion, and maybe Carol wouldn’t be haunted by her boozy, vengeful ex-husband. Maybe the world wouldn’t be so hell-bent on keeping these two women apart, and their romance could unfold in places other than hotel rooms and phone calls where no one can hear. But the secrecy and hushed nature of their courtship depict a harsh reality — people really did have to live like this, and in certain communities, they still do.
One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when Therese broaches the subject of homosexual desire with her boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy, “Obvious Child”). She asks him if he’s ever heard of people being attracted to members of the same sex. Of course he cites knowing of “guys like that,” but it’s not possible for two men to “fall in love suddenly with each other, out of the blue.” According to Richard, you’re either like that (different, taboo, deviant), or you’re not. Simply bringing the topic up is enough for Richard to grill Therese on her sexuality and berate her for not returning his affections. From a 2016 perspective, Richard’s assumptions seem especially coded with gross heteronormativity and hatefulness. He’s just clueless.
When the two women behind me giggled at a love scene between Carol and Therese, I had every reason to be irked. “Carol” is a stunning romance film, elegant and elegiac and undeserving of schoolgirl whispers. It makes your heart hurt, makes you think and makes you understand. I can’t know for sure, but I think the women behind me were laughing because they appreciated all of this. They understood.