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Why 'Carol' Leaves Me Cold

Rhoyce Nova goes rogue with a first-person opinion piece on Todd Haynes’ 2015 romantic lesbian drama, Carol.


Cate Blanchett in Carol
Cate Blanchett in Carol

An aspiring photographer develops an intimate relationship with an older woman in 1950s New York.

 

Women don’t hate me, or do, but Carol leaves me cold. As a lifelong lesbian who has had more than one cross-generational partnership, Todd Haynes’ age-differential woman-on-woman drama has everything I should love. Lesbians? Check. Age-gap romance? Check. Cate Blanchett? Double check. It even has Sarah Paulson, the poster-girl par excellence for queer female age-gap relationships. Meta-check. Don’t get me wrong, I like the movie, I just don’t love it, and I have watched it four times. Well, two. The first time I got distracted. The second time I fell asleep. The third time I finally made it to the end, desperately wanting to find a reason to love it. Then I realised, I like everything about the film, except one, the chemistry between the two leads, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. The fact is, I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy their longing, their lust, or their love, and, for a lesbian romance about irresistible desire, this is a crucial caveat. I decided to dig deep to ascertain why. I watched it again. I read the screenplay, by Phillis Nagy, an out lesbian. I even contemplated reading the classic lesbian novel upon which the film is based, The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith, but, alas, time did not permit. So, whose fault is it that Carol falls flat with me, who should be its archetypal target audience acolyte? Is it the lesbian thespian fave, straight Cate’s, fault? Is it heterosexual actress, Rooney Mara’s, fault? Or is it openly gay director, Todd Haynes’ fault? Let us dissect. Firstly, I will tell you everything I like about Carol.


Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol
Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol

One, I like the fact that it actually exists. Lesbian age-gap films are a rarity, even though statistics show that queer women are more than four times more likely to engage in cross-generational relationships than their heterosexual counterparts. Two, I like the fact that it has had money put behind it. The budget for Carol was US$11.8 million, and it shows. The sets, the costumery, and the cinematography are sumptuous, the sound design, score, and editing, faultless. I like the fact that the screenwriter is, in real life, a queer woman, and I like the fact that an actual lesbian actress, Sarah Paulson, gets a look-in. Finally, I like the fact that the director, Haynes, is gay. At least he’s not heterosexual. Now, before everyone gets on me for “straight-bashing”, I want to say, I am not referencing everyone’s sexual identity to denigrate them, I am talking about it for the sake of “authenticity”.


Saoirce Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite
Saoirce Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite

So, let’s recap. Carol is a film about two lesbians in an age-differential romance played by two straight actresses and directed by a gay man. Moving on, Ammonite, which I last covered, is a film about two lesbians in an age-differential romance played by two straight actresses and directed by a gay man. Shall I continue? Let’s take a look at the beloved lesbian film, Blue is the Warmest Colour. Although the age difference between the two characters is not pronounced, Blue is about two lesbians in an age-differential romance played by two straight actresses and directed by, wait for it, a straight man. You get where I’m going with this. I believe that we, as lesbians, have a right to question why our stories continue to be told by heterosexual actresses and gay, bisexual, or straight, men. Why? For three main reasons: one, liquidity; two, authenticity; and three, sensitivity.


Diane Gaidry and Erin Kelly in Loving Annabelle
Diane Gaidry and Erin Kelly in Loving Annabelle

Carol, as a production, had bank, whilst most independent, lesbian-directed vehicles languish in “no-budget” land. As a result, these films end up looking like refugees from the straight-to-video, bargain basement bin at Blockbuster. This is a shame because many of the titles have authentic stories to tell. The 2006, Loving Annabelle, by lesbian filmmaker, Katherine Brooks, is a classic case in point. The film, whilst controversial in content – it’s about a teenage schoolgirl, “Annabelle”, who falls in love with her much older poetry teacher, “Simone” – screams legitimacy in its storyline, yet it looks like a mediocre midday movie. As a lesbian writer-director, I can't help but wonder what Brooks could have done if she had access to creatives of the ilk of Carol’s production designer, Judy Becker (Brokeback Mountain, American Hustle), and cinematographer, Edward Lachman (Far from Heaven, I’m Not There).

 

So, why are lesbian directors like Loving Annabelle’s Brooks not being bankrolled? Is it because of the sensitive “student-teacher-affair” subject matter of her film? Unlikely. Haynes’ latest release, May December, is loosely based on the Mary Kay Letourneau case and so deals with similar content. But, “Brooks’ 2006 film belongs to an earlier time where such themes were considered more taboo,” I hear you say. Not so. Notes on a Scandal, another Blanchett vehicle, was released the same year and tells the story of an art teacher who has a sexual liaison with her 15-year-old male student. So, no.


Kanchi Wichmann's Break My Fall
Kanchi Wichmann's Break My Fall

A common refrain from Hollywood heavyweights as to why they don’t back lesbian movies is that, “lesbian films don’t make money,” claims queer independent filmmaker, Kanchi Wichmann. In her article by the same name in the feminist cinema journal, Another Gaze, she recounts a tale of being told just that by an influential film sales agent, an out lesbian herself. Hot on the heels of her award-winning debut short, Wichmann was trying to secure funding for her next project, which, in her words, was “not even a lesbian film”. Yet the powers that be refused to fund it on the grounds that queer women made up her fan base, and, according to the agent, “lesbian audiences just don’t spend money on their own culture.” Wichmann ended up making her first lesbian feature in 2011, Break My Fall, without any funding or industry support. The film went on to gain distribution in over 20 territories and was the first British lesbian film to get a cinema release in the UK. Carol, to date, has made over US$4o million. “But that was made by a man,” you say? Okay, let’s look at the box office for The Kids Are All Right (2010), by out lesbian writer-director, Lisa Chodolenko. With a budget of US$4 million, Kids made almost US$35 million. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the lexicon of lesbian flicks is so small that we queer women are desperate for content. I have lost count of the number of times women have complained to me about the lack of fresh lesbian content on streaming giants, like Netflix. So, in my view, lesbian audiences clearly do support their own. Remember that little series called The L-Word, anyone?


Rooney Mara after the sex scene in Carol
Rooney Mara after the sex scene in Carol

Moving onto imperative number two, authenticity. Allow me to compare the sexual dynamic between Blanchett and Mara, in Carol, to the sensual throes of the characters of Annabelle and Simone, played by Erin Kelly and Diane Gaidry, in Loving Annabelle. When Carol and Therese finally get around to intimacy in the film, the result is, in my humble, yet expert, lesbian opinion, thoroughly “milk toast”. After all their longing and lusting, they simply lie down and stroke each other gently. The back-and-forth between Annabelle and Simone, on the other hand, sees the younger woman slam her poetry teacher against the wall and devour her with passion. This is much more in keeping with the storyline of unbridled desire, and more representative of actual lesbian liaisons. Real lesbian sex is raw and wild and vigorous, not passive, as portrayed in Carol. Yes, I know I am purporting to speak for queer women as a whole, but this is an opinion piece, and, in my view, depictions of docile lesbian lovemaking keep stereoptypes like “lesbians don’t have real sex” in place.


Diane Gaidry and Erin Kelly in Loving Annabelle
Diane Gaidry and Erin Kelly in Loving Annabelle

More importantly, in Annabelle, it is the younger woman who is the aggressor, whereas in Carol, the older woman takes charge. This, too, is much more in line with my experiences of age-disparate liaisons. I have questioned many young women about their desire for older women and they all relay the fact that they have trouble convincing older women that they find them genuinely attractive. We mature women have been so inculcated by a “younger is better” magazine-selling, beauty-product-spinning, culture that we believe the hype being sold to us about ourselves. We believe that we outgrow our desirability by a certain age, and it takes a lot of assurance on the part of these younger women to persuade us otherwise. We need to question this preconceived notion that the older woman in an age-gap relationship holds all the power. If anything, in this youth-obsessed culture, it is the other way around.


Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol
"Mummy-issues" in Carol

What’s more, as a lesbian with experience in age-disparate affairs, I have a real problem with many of the gestures between the characters of Carol and Therese in the film. Time and again, Blanchett fondles Mara’s hair and pats her reassuringly on the shoulder. These gestures are decidedly “motherly” in tone and play into the harmful discourse around “mummy-issues” that plague age-gap couples. I can assure you, that is not the manner in which two women in an age-differential relationship touch each other. In addition, I felt that Blanchett seemed somewhat uncomfortable when touching Mara in the more intimate scenes. At first, I was unsure whether this was coming from her, or if it was Mara, or the influence of the director. yet if you watch Blanchett in her other lesbian role, in Tár, there is no such reticence.


Rooney Mara in Carol
Rooney Mara in Carol

Mara, on the other hand, was a poor choice for the role of Therese in my opinion. In a narrative that traces the unfolding of a forbidden love affair between two women who can no longer contain their desire, Mara seems a decidedly cold fish. Throughout the film she had but one expression, her wide-eyed, “deer-in-headlights” specialty. Indeed, it was not until the very final scene, when she approaches Carol in the restaurant, that her limpid-eyed version of love and longing was in any way convincing. The rest of the time she seemed somewhat robotic. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that, inside, Blanchett was going, “Come on, give me something, anything, to work with here!” In my view, Mara shows the same wooden demeanour in her other roles. The verdict? Miscast. Are there not enough queer female actresses to play these roles, or are there plenty and they're just too afraid to declare their sexuality? Me thinks the latter.


Rooney Mara in the final scene in Carol
Rooney Mara in the final scene in Carol

Which brings me to my next bone of contention. Please tell me why the director cast the only genuine lesbian - who has been shown to have authentic age-gap attractions, no less - as the spurned sidekick in this film. Sarah Paulson’s considerable acting chops are so underused in this film that I virtually didn’t notice she was in it. Granted, she hadn’t reached the heights of fame she has now in 2015, but she had certainly completed her run in the American Horror Story series which catapulted her to stardom, especially amongst the lesbian crowd. It's telling that Paulson reveals in a 2017 Entertainment Weekly article that she was advised by industry power brokers to hide her two-year-long, age-gap relationship with Holland Taylor to protect her career. This, of course, means that the pair were already together at the time of making Carol, so people cannot contend that Paulson was not yet engaged in age-disparate liaisons as a reason for not casting her in the lead role. She had both the star-power and the first-hand experience to bring authenticity to this part. No shade on our beloved Cate, but why was Paulson, a real-life lesbian in an age-gap relationship, not cast in the lead role of this film?


Sarah Paulson and Cate Blachett in Carol
Sarah Paulson and Cate Blachett in Carol

Now for my last lament, and it’s a big one. Sensitivity. I’m referring in particular here to men, be they gay or straight, directing lesbian sex scenes. Let me give you some examples of how this can go wrong. As detailed in my last piece on the sex scene in Ammonite, with Kate Winslet and Saoirce Ronan, Winslet recounted how the gay director, Francis Lee, was so nervous that she took charge of orchestrating the sex scenes. Scenarios such as this are not too concerning, however, when we take a look at situations like the one surrounding the famous lovemaking scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Colour, things become more alarming. In a 2017 interview in The Daily Beast, both actresses revealed stories about their nightmare experience with the straight male director of the film, Abdellatif Kechiche, saying they would never work with him again. Adèle Exarchopoulos, who plays a teenager in the film, had this to say:

 

He warned us that we had to trust him—blind trust—and give a lot of ourselves. He was making a movie about passion, so he wanted to have sex scenes, but without choreography—more like special sex scenes… So, he asked me if I was ready to make it, and I said, “Yeah, of course!” because I’m young and pretty new to cinema. But once we were on the shoot, I realized that he really wanted us to give him everything. Most people don’t even dare to ask the things that he did, and they’re more respectful.

 

Léa Seydoux, who plays the twenty-something, “Emma” in the film, later said she felt "like a prostitute" during the filming of the explicit sex scenes, which took ten days to shoot. Exarchopoulos also admitted that she was at a loss as to what to do in the lovemaking scenes because she was “not that familiar with lesbian sex”. To add fuel to the furore, openly transgender and nonbinary writer, Julie Maroh, upon whose graphic novel the film is based, wrote that they didn’t find the sex scenes credible and doubted that there were even any lesbians present on set. I might add that The Celluloid Ceiling Report, which has tracked the employment statistics of women in Hollywood since 1998, shows that women comprise only 11% of all directors and just 4% of cinematographers. Figures on the number of queer women who head productions are unclear, critically, however, The Celluloid Ceiling reveals that when even one female is a key creative on a production, the employment of women rises exponentially. With the paper stating that reports of hostile and discriminatory work practices are still widespread, we can only wonder how different set culture will be when more women, especially lesbians, take the helm.


Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour
Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Colour

Back to Carol. My primary critique of the film is that I just didn’t buy the sexual chemistry between the two characters. I have read the script, and it is fairly believable, and certainly Blanchett gave as good as she could in the face of Mara’s frostiness. While it’s hard to say where the buck stops between actors and directors in terms of forging believable emotional connections on screen, I will say that Haynes has a habit of making films about subjects he can know little about. Far From Heaven is about a 1950s, upper-middle-class housewife who finds herself attracted to a Black man in a time of racial bigotry and tension, whilst his latest flick, May December, is about the aftermath of a female-led, student-teacher relationship with a vastly disparate age gap. Would these vehicles not be better in the hands of a Black director and a female filmmaker, respectively? Given the dearth of opportunity afforded directors in these demographics, I say yes. Likewise, lesbians need to take charge of lesbian stories. If we are to foster authenticity and assure sensitivity in the telling of our woman-on-woman narratives, queer actresses must take the lead in portraying lesbians on screen, and queer directors must take the keys to the cinematic funding vault. We need the liquidity to achieve the authenticity and the sensitivity. Perhaps then films like Blue is the Warmest Colour will be truly warm, and flicks like Carol won’t leave me cold.


Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett

 

 

 


 

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