Carol, directed by Todd Haynes, starring Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as Therese, is a story of love. More deeply, though, Carol is a story about why we’re drawn to love a certain person. In each attraction, something missing is sensed and desired in the other. Love can bring us to ourselves in a way nothing else can – if we’re open to both the questions and the answers. Carol, then, is more Therese’s story than Carol’s. Who is Carol to Therese, a Carol that looms as large in Therese’s mind as the one-word title of this film?
To grow into our fullest beings and into love, we must face difficult questions about why we do what we do or feel the ways we feel. When Carol unexpectedly comes into her life, Therese confronts what it means to love Carol with all of Carol’s problems and her complicated divorce. Carol has a vindictive husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), hurt because she loves women and not him.
As the film unfolds, Therese faces what Carol evokes in her and slowly finds her answers. All growing takes time and patience. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke in “On Love And Other Difficulties” says it beautifully: “… be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue … Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (P. 31)
Bearing the hard questions we must ask ourselves is the only way to live into the answers as Rilke says, but also live into love. To give love a chance, it’s essential we come to know ourselves along the way. What is it that Therese needs to find about who she is and what she is not – in loving Carol?
What Therese Needs
Film critic Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post, in her December 24, 2015 review, makes an observation that opens up the question of who Carol is for Therese. The two women have their first encounter at Christmas time in Frankenberg Department Store. Therese is a salesgirl in the toy department and Carol comes in to purchase a gift for her 4-year old daughter, Rindy (Sadie Heim; Kennedy Heim). When Carol leaves after her purchase, she turns with this parting comment: “I like your hat.”
The hat is a Santa Claus hat Therese feels awkward wearing. Hornaday says this: “Therese, the audience senses, [has] been seen by someone, in a deeper, more knowing way than ever before.”
Since we’re told nothing about Therese’s history, we don’t know why Therese has never been seen before. But it does seem that Carol, with all her sophistication and beauty, has opened a door that’s been closed in Therese’s mind. I don’t think it’s merely her attraction to women that is stirred. It’s something she needs to find within herself that she witnesses in Carol. Therese is trapped in a life that doesn’t fit her, working in a world as unreal as that imposed on her by both “society” and from within.
The fact that she never liked dolls, as she subtly reveals to Carol, is our only clue Therese wasn’t a typical little girl. It’s unclear she’s consciously aware she desires women. Yet, she does know she doesn’t want to be a salesgirl or think there’s nothing more to expect from her life. Therese wants to be a photographer. She doubts her talent and this keeps her stuck.
Self-Doubt and Old Hurts
Carol represents what Therese is looking for: the “more” she needs to believe she is. Can Therese come to feel entitled to have what she wants, as Carol clearly does? If she can’t, she’ll stay shut into a life she doesn’t like and never be the photographer and woman she might otherwise become. Yes, Carol has confidence. Therese does not. “I barely know what to order for lunch,” she replies when Carol asks if she’d like to marry her boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy). She isn’t in love with him. He represents a traditional box she can’t quite force herself into as hard as she tries. She’s full of uncertainties, self-doubt, and hurt from something and somewhere in the past.
At Frankenberg Department Store, the camera pans a number of times to a judgmental department store supervisor. Always watching Therese, always ready to swoop down with criticism. I found myself thinking that this manager mimicked someone from Therese’s childhood. She certainly must be a voice in Therese’s mind that won’t allow her to make any move that might be “wrong.” She treads warily with Carol. Therese faces not only a love forbidden in the 1950s. But also one with a woman who is at times rejecting or suddenly disappears. These are likely repetitions of earlier experiences.
Those we love are often reminiscent of someone from the past too. We see a hint of this in one scene after Carol fights with her estranged husband in Therese’s presence. Carol looks for a cigarette and has none left. Therese anxiously offers to go out and find some for her. Carol lashes out, turns her down, and sends her away. The hurt Therese feels can’t be new. We see it in her face, crying alone on the train ride home.
Too Quickly Saying “Yes”
We don’t know who hurt Therese in the past, perhaps a parent whose love she needed and couldn’t get. I imagine she learned early to push aside her feelings to appease someone else, never believing her needs would be heard. In place of openly expressing what she wants, Therese learned to quickly say, “Yes.”
On Therese’s road trip with Carol, we see some of the feelings underlying this complicated, “Yes.” Harge has filed a morality clause on grounds of Carol’s sexual preference and is contesting her right to joint custody of Rindy. Her lawyer advises her to put off any visitation until they go to court. Upset, she asks Therese to go away with her. In a motel, they make love for the first time.
After Carol discovers a private investigator has sent an audiotape of their lovemaking to Harge, she asks Therese what she’s thinking. Therese blames herself: “I’m thinking how utterly selfish I am. I should have said “No” to you but I never say “No.” It’s selfish because I just take and I don’t know what I want – how could I when I just say “Yes” to everything?”
For Therese, wanting anything is as taboo as being lesbian in 1953. Yet, the guilt she feels in wanting Carol must date back to childhood. Therese’s quick, “Yes,” probably arises out of deep deprivation – an attempt to fill a long unmet hunger for love. She’s left with uncertainties, though; since any “Yes” quickly said to fill an old hunger is a “Yes” that might not actually meet her needs.
Therese must find answers to these questions: Is it selfish or wrong to want anything for herself? If she stops saying, “Yes” out of fear of rejection or loss, what does she actually need and want?
The Answers Loving Carol Brings
Love is a teacher. But love can also be a healer. When Carol disappears in the night while Therese is sleeping, Therese faces the abandonment her “Yeses” were unconsciously meant to prevent. She’s heartbroken and quickly takes on the blame for Carol’s leaving. Enduring and learning from heartbreak, though, is often the way we come to find the answers we didn’t even know we were looking for. Therese does.
With her friend Dannie’s (John Magaro) help and a portfolio of photos she’s taken of Carol, she lands a job at the New York Times. Settling into her new work, Therese begins to realize that having what she wants isn’t too selfish or greedy. Carol returns as unexpectedly as she first entered Therese’s life. She’s given Harge custody in exchange for visitation and avoiding an ugly court battle. She has an apartment on Madison Avenue big enough for two. Will Therese come to live with her, she asks?
“I don’t think so,” Therese initially replies. Not quickly saying, “Yes,” gives Therese time to think about her feelings. She’s been hurt. Later, though, she looks for Carol at a dinner she earlier refused. As Therese walks towards Carol’s table, the two women’s eyes lock only on each other. Therese says, “Yes” to what she wants. She knows it now for sure.
As Rilke tells us: “Love … is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world, to become world for himself for another’s sake; it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things (P.38).” This is what love has called upon Therese to do: to discover and become confident in the vast world inside her – the world that is herself.