Their eyes first meet across the busy floor of a department store around Christmas — an electric moment that's followed by a mundane conversation about what present to buy for a child.
Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) are the eventual lovers in Todd Haynes' tremendous, sumptuous new movie, Carol, which just had its premiere at Cannes and is set to open in theaters at peak awards time on Dec. 18. These two women do a lot of talking with their eyes. It's saying things out loud that gets tricky. Gloves are forgotten and returned, a lunch date is arranged as a thank you, then there's a visit to Carol's castle-like house in New Jersey, where Therese gets a glimpse of a troubled home life.
The words the women exchange remain circumspect even after they've essentially run off together, driving into the Midwest in Carol's sleek silver car, drawing a little closer at each stop. It's as if, right up until their heart-stopping first kiss and tumble into bed, they're keeping their romance off the record, holding on to the option of recasting what they're doing as something other than falling in love.
Carol, Haynes' first feature in eight long years, is adapted from Patricia Highsmith's novel The Price of Salt, where it's the 1950s, and Carol and Therese can't just fall in love out in the open. The film, which was written by playwright Phyllis Nagy and shot by Haynes regular Edward Lachman, is set in a world that looks like an Edward Hopper painting. Its colors are rich and its characters are lonely as they try to carve out spaces for themselves in diners, at parties, or within the imperfect sanctuary of automobiles. Its leading women are often shown through the glass of restaurant, apartment, office, or taxi windows, as if they're on display in the same manner as the dolls at the counter in Frankenberg's, where Therese is working when she and Carol first meet.
Carol's bound to receive comparisons to Brokeback Mountain once the Oscar race gets going, and Blanchett and Mara do similarly next-level work as a divorcing housewife tired of living a lie and a tractable shopgirl finding a sense of self in her first brush with love. But it's as much a companion to Haynes' earlier period piece Far From Heaven, in which the interracial relationship between Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert was another sort of forbidden romance.
The setting of Carol is just as opulently detailed, right down to its title character's perfect coral fingernails, but it's a slightly less stylized one — we see that its gleaming exteriors have to be reapplied each morning. A scene in which Carol asks Therese to bring her a sweater, post-shower, is more intimate for its brief glimpse of her bare face than any other glimpse of skin in the film.
Carol simmers with unspoken emotion and desire, condensing volumes into the Brief Encounter-style touch of a hand on a shoulder, into the offer of a whiff of perfume on a pulse point, into Billie Holiday recordings and Carter Burwell's expressive score. Its world is repressive — of its characters' sexuality, but also of their gender, with the story dealing as much with how the two jostle up against the sides of the paths toward which they've been herded.
Carol, regal and assessing, is trying to separate herself from a husband (Kyle Chandler) who knows about her past affair with a female friend (Sarah Paulson) but tries to hold on to her anyway, first with pleas and then with threats, declaring his love as if that's the only part of the equation that matters. Therese, quiet and uncertain and a few class rungs below Carol, is drifting through a humdrum job and a pleasant enough relationship with a co-worker (Jake Lacy), toward a marriage in which she has no particular interest. Her scenes with Carol have the jolt of someone experiencing what it's like, for the first time, to choose something rather than just agree to it.
Carol is bookended by a scene at a hotel bar in which a young man who's wandered in spots Therese, whom he knows, so he stops by to say hello — and why wouldn't he, when it's just two women catching up over a drink? When we arrive back at that scene toward the conclusion of the film, seeing the moment from the perspective of the pair at the table, it's devastating, the puncturing of a bubble, a reminder of the yawning divide for these characters between the public and private. But it's not, thankfully, all we get — the film saves up an image that demonstrates how much swelling emotion it's possible to transmit on screen without saying a word, while the indifferent world teems on. It's magnificent.