Set during the Christmas season of 1952, Therese (Rooney Mara) becomes smitten with housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett) who comes into the department store she works at. The feeling is very much reciprocated. After a second encounter, the two grow closer and it would seem nothing can hold them back from advancing their relationship into a love affair. But this is the 1950s, a conservative time when a queer romance had to be kept to the shadows. Carol and Therese navigate these rough waters but something has to give. The affair is discovered and the consequences prove devastating at first. During the entirety of Carol, there’s something familiar to the proceedings. It’s a film noir, hitting the typical story beats belonging to the genre although with far more restraint.
A forbidden love affair is often a major narrative force in film noir movies released during the 1940s and 1950s. In an NPR article, the genre was narrowed down to what it was at its core, stories tainting the once so clear and majestic “American dream.” A film that fits perfectly under the umbrella term of “noir classic,” was also the one that set the standard. In Double Indemnity, an insurance salesman gets pulled into the hypnotizing allure of an unhappy wife. She wants his help in killing her husband and framing it as an accident. Once the deed is committed, she will be able to live off a death claim. The crime corrupts the two entirely and they are doomed to a grim fate. Released one year before the end of World War ll, a pessimistic feeling was shared across the nation, not just in Hollywood.
Although it may seem the opposite, a significant taboo associated with film noir may not even be the conspiracy to commit murder nor even the actual deployment of the idea. Murder is nothing more than a byproduct of an illicit affair, full of heated passion which throw morals out the window. A fractured marriage is once again an igniting fuse to what follows in the romance between Carol and Therese, the true crime at the center of the story. Although no spouse is killed, nor is the thought even brought up, the egos of the male lovers who the women can’t shake off are damaged.
For Carol, it’s ex-husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) who at first is needy, trying to persuade Carol to attend a family gathering. When his efforts are rendered useless and he stumbles upon Therese with his ex-wife, his frustration boils over. Not only does Harge file for sole custody over their child, he orders a private investigator to gather evidence of his wife’s sexuality to use against her in a “morality clause”. For Therese, boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) presses her on plans to travel overseas. During their interactions, it seems Therese is really only with Richard because it’s the easier option than figuring out a way to break things off. When she becomes more involved with Carol, Richard is slow to catch on but eventually he does realize there’s something happening between the two. Not only does Therese spend more time with her, but when they make plans for a road trip, Therese is prepared to spend money that she was saving for the trip overseas. Looking at either Carol or Therese from the point-of-view of Harge or Richard, the “femme fatale” trope of film noir is evident here.
The term belongs to an icon of the genre, a devious female who manipulates men with her sexuality. Carol, from her hair to her physique, closely resembles Barbara Stanwyck, the icy blonde from Double Indemnity. It’s easy to see why Therese’s crush spirals so quickly. Carol radiates a confidence Therese has not yet conquered in her own self, she’s far more meek and innocent. From Harge’s view, Therese is a “femme fatale,” an obstacle between his desire to be reunited with his ex-wife. But from the women’s point of view, they’re forced to turn their love into a forbidden romance due to the conservative and intolerable times. In doing so, they make decisions that the men closest to them can’t grapple with. Harge and Richard turn the two into villains because that’s the easiest way to look at the situation.
This all comes to a head when Carol and Therese take a road trip. At this point, the two haven’t even kissed. Their hands have touched one another’s shoulder, their eyes have met in longing stares, but on the road trip heading further into the United States, they finally consummate this romance. They collapse into each other’s arms and have sex on New Year’s Eve. Even though the midnight celebration should be the sign of a bright future to come, the mood is soured when a betrayal occurs.
Secret recordings of them are taken in a nearby motel room by the private investigator Harge has paid for. Upon realizing this, Carol confronts the man, pulling out a gun she’s brought for protection. Aiming it with a kill shot, Carol demands the tapes. The potential for the gun to fire is high, after all, Carol has a good enough motive. If those recordings are given over to her husband, she will lose her daughter. “Chekhov’s gun” comes to mind, a writing rule that states a gun should be shown previously as a setup so the later use will act as its payoff. When it’s revealed the private investigator has already sent the recordings off, in most film noir, a gun blast would have followed. Carol does pull the trigger but this time around, there are no bullets. Carol is not the dastardly criminal Harge and society’s “morality clause” want to make her out to be. In the end, she’s only able to use the unloaded gun to destroy the recording equipment in anger and acceptance.
In 1952, when the film takes place, it was still a little under 20 years before the Stonewall Riots would kick off the civil rights movement for the LGBT community. Carol leaves behind the black and white scheme of noir classics, choosing to show off lush colors of green and red. But it finds another solution other than deep shadows to lock in Carol and Therese. Over the course of the film, the two are framed inside phone booths, in between doorways, and within the corners of hallways, visualizing the restrictions placed upon them. Carol was adapted from a novel that was published in 1952, the year that the film is set. From 1920 to 1970, censorships were placed onto film productions, infamously known as the Hays Code. It was accepted that the two leads in Double Indemnity were the film’s villains because, in the end, justice was served. LGBT characters were allowed on screen as long as they were negative stereotypes and weren’t rewarded with a happy ending. Yet, despite the Hays Code dominating and controlling any kind of positive LGBT representation, the ending to Carol isn’t a grim one.
The forbidden lovers distance themselves from each other until the final sequence brings hope that the two will finally be able to create a life together. Therese approaches Carol, navigating a sea of heterosexual couples. Even with all the other bodies in the room, when the women lock eyes, everything and everyone else becomes a little less important. The ending is the same one taken from the original source material, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. An author well known for crime thrillers, several of Highsmith’s most famous works have been adapted for the big screen. Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley are about men with murderous intentions, perfect for a genre Highsmith knew how to articulate. The Price of Salt was Highsmith’s second novel and the only one she wrote which didn’t include any kind of violent crime. She published it under the pseudonym, Claire Morgan, but despite being careful of her relationship to the subject matter, both The Price of Salt and its adaptation purposely subvert the standard noir trappings. Carol and Therese are never villianized and their fate doesn’t match that of the doomed murder conspirators of Double Indemnity.
The Price of Salt could be seen as a piece of wish fulfillment. Highsmith tried to see a light at the end of the tunnel with the novel’s hopeful ending. That set it apart from her other crime novels, where there was a heavier emphasis on violence and darkness. When Carol was finally made in 2015, it was a much different social climate, released only a few years after same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States. Coupled with the original source material’s own looseness, Carol is a noir and it also isn’t. The genre elements are all there but the focus is different. The love between Carol and Therese is criminalized due to nothing more than societal ignorance and discrimination. Highsmith may not have lived in a tolerable time but she certainly hoped for it.