Tuesday, February 23, 2016


Carol tells the story of a woman (the titular Carol) who meets another woman (Therese); they strike up a friendship and go on a car trip. This is the most boring possible plot summary, because I'm not sure how to convey the content of a film which was so deeply visual. Almost the entire plot was carried on in nonverbal facial cues. Carol and Therese chat, and converse, and sometimes just look at each other, and flirt; but the boundary between these things is extremely fluid. At times the camera itself felt like it was flirting, the particular way it framed part of someone's face to shape the way the audience was allowed to read their expression.

The film is a visual and emotional feast, leaving me sated and digesting (mentally).

The setting (1950s New York City) provides a delectable selection of high fashion: heels, crisp and luscious makeup, fur coats, gloves, strict and uniform social rules and roles which everyone ought to aspire to. And the story unfolds slowly, just as the protagonist is revealed slowly: Therese is quiet and reticent. The audience is shown how she moves through her day, but no voiceover frames our understanding. We must read her feelings and thoughts in how she moves, in how she dresses, in how she acts, in her expressions; we must squeeze every drop of substance from her infrequent utterances. This forced me enticed me to pay attention, and probably caused me to be more emotionally invested.

Which is the point of the film (IMHO).

The entire plot is carried on tiny glances, offhand gestures, the way one person walks or tilts her shoulders or touches her hair. It is a film which studies how people assemble themselves from a collection of tiny decisions, and responses, and unconscious tics. How and why are people attracted to each other? Why do they get along (when they do), and why do they clash (when they do)? How do personalities and attitudes change over time? It was fascinating to see characters behave differently in different settings. Carol makes a big impression as a decisive, in-charge, dominant figure, but later we get to see the range of her personality; she is sometimes emotionally weak, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes gives support and sometimes desperately needs it. Therese, when choosing to summarize herself, characterizes herself as "never able to say 'no'" and "I don't even know what I want to order for lunch", but elsewhere we see her repeatedly say no in the face of aggressive and relentless social pressure, and she definitely makes her own choices throughout the film, even if she chooses to hide them or frame them as part of someone else's story.

Inevitably, a story with so much framing involves a photographer. I think this sort of low-hanging metaphorical fruit is unavoidable to directors and writers. The metaphor was applied with a very light touch.

I really appreciated a chance to see women characters who are fully realized, who get to have many dimensions, strengths and weaknesses, who are not predictable, who make their own choices and live with their consequences and don't have to be wrapped up neatly at the end of the film. And I appreciated that for once --- for once! --- the male characters, even those with immense influence (as any realistic 1950s plot cannot avoid the fact that social structures give men power over women), are not allowed to elbow their way to the center of focus. The men were okay; some were despicable, some were sad, and as a nice boondoggle, all of them also got to be fully-dimensional characters.

Easily my  favorite summary came from Q., who said, "Some male reviewers described the movie as 'Two women stare at each other for two hours.' But I realized: it's a movie for people who can read faces."

This post's theme word is polylemma, "a choice involving multiple undesirable options." The specter of divorce is a polylemma hanging ominously over Carol.

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