My wife asked me, after we saw Carol together, if I would have married a man had I lived in an earlier time. It’s hard to say, really. The choice faced by so many women who lived in Carol Aird and Therese Belivet’s time was often between romance and children, and I didn’t know before I had children how much they would mean to me. How crazy in love with them I am. How I would tear down the heavens and rip a hole in the fabric that separates us from hell, letting lose hordes of demons, if someone tried to take them from me. The shattering choice Carol faces, between living her truth and being a mother to her daughter, makes me ache for the real women who faced such a choice not so very long ago.
Those who have seen the film and aren’t wild about it mainly find fault with its slow pace, its lack of dialogue, and the flavor of chemistry between Carol and Therese. I agree with those who read something vaguely predatory in Carol’s disposition toward Therese, and with those who also see their interactions as reminiscent more of mother/daughter than of lovers (Carol brushing her daughter’s hair, then Carol brushing Therese’s, drew a fairly explicit parallel). What worked for me about their chemistry was precisely these many dimensions of it. It seems to me that may young women learned what it meant to be a lesbian from older, more experienced ones, putting women like Carol in the position of teacher or guide—part predator and part maternal figure. It would be creepy, except that I think it’s exactly what Therese wanted.
The other thing that makes Carol’s behavior toward Therese sweet, even while it’s heartbreaking, is how fractured Carol is as a character. She strives to exude a glamorous confidence, but the cracks in her veneer are glaringly obvious with every gesture, every hesitation, and every break in eye contact. She knows what she wants, but is terrified of what it might cost her, and one misinterpretation of Therese’s signs—one misstep—could destroy the fragile threads holding Carol together. The pressure that comes with her beauty and standing in society (pressure that Therese puts on her as well) seem unbearable to Carol. In this way, Therese actually has the upper hand; she doesn’t wrestle with fear, and her hobbies and interests allow her to develop as an individual.
I can’t fathom the invasion of privacy at the hotel room. The recording equipment, the smugness of the PI. I wanted so badly to sympathize with Harge and the many men he represented (it helps that he was played by Kyle Chandler, because who doesn’t love him after Friday Night Lights?). That scene erased any sympathy I had for him, though. Therese’s boyfriend was much more likeable, immediately recognizing Therese’s “crush” (and I love that he used that word—so perfect) and warning her that she’d get hurt (because we all saw that coming). Mostly, though, I like that the story had such a small supporting cast. It captured for me the way your entire world narrows when you fall for someone and everyone else slips away, blurry on your periphery.
I didn’t expect them to end up together. It doesn’t seem to me that they have a sweeping romance, or that their connection rises to the level of epic love stories like Gone with the Wind or Doctor Zhivago. But in a society where lesbians didn’t live openly, they found each other, and that was enough. It might even be enough to heal the hole left in Carol’s life when she, for all practical purposes, loses her daughter. But I don’t see how. Given the choice she faced, there’s no hope for her to ever be whole. So at least she gets the girl.