The Unicorn Scale: Carol

12/25/2018

Happy Holidays, lovely readers!  I hope this season finds everyone in only the most festive and bright of moods.

The holidays come bearing wonderful pleasures – Fair Isle sweaters, warm cocoa, colorful lights, and more tinsel than you can shake a stick at. And one of those little joys is traditional holiday film fare. Of course, there are all the classics – It’s A Wonderful Life, Charlie Brown Christmas, A Christmas Prince (don’t hate – it’s the perfect background noise while present wrapping. Plus I have a tinfoil hat theory the fantasy became a blueprint for Harry and Meghan tying the knot).

Yet with all this fabulousness, I wondered if there is any non-straight cinema deliciousness to enjoy? Of course there is! Hey, if the nation annually bickers about if Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is), there’s room for exploring queer films that take place during Christmastime.

And that is how I arrived at the focus of this Unicorn review, the 2015 drama Carol. Based on the classic queer novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, Carol focuses on the eponymous character (Cate Blanchett) and her budding (and verboten) relationship with young aspiring photographer Therese (Rooney Mara) in 1950s Manhattan.

Please take heed that there will be SPOILERS sprinkled throughout my review. And if you need a reminder on how the Unicorn Scale metric works,  this will take you to the inaugural article and how the system works. Cool? Cool. Cool cool cool.

What I Liked:

More often than not, in film we see more contemporary depictions of bisexuality – and all the trappings that can come along with assuming that identity. But sometimes it’s good to look back and see how bi people navigated far more straitlaced emotional coding to pursue relationships – ones so dangerous they could alter visitation rights or the ability to get jobs. I appreciated how this screenplay made a deliberate point early on of bringing up the House of Un-American Activities Committee, which often used accusations of homosexuality to delineate someone’s reputation or character. Having that dark cloud looming early on in the tale reminds viewers just how much is at stake for these lovers, even if they are not in the public sphere; those investigations and consequent paranoia bled into the national mood.

That said, for a movie set in and adhering to 1950s culture, there were still perennial nods to flirt culture that permeated Carol and Therese’s dance – the leave-behind of Carol’s gloves, Carol’s careful asking if Therese had a boyfriend, and some elegant double entendre (“I’m starved”). On the surface in passing these conversations, most people would assume these were innocent interactions. But piling it up together, it’s clear there is a strong attraction between the two women.

Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about whether Carol or Therese were bi until my editor suggested this film for a holiday column. I guess I had fallen into the “gay love story” marketing trap that most studios push to sell a film/erase characters’ bisexuality. But looking back on both fact and discussion in the film, it’s clear that Carol is bi, if not Therese. Carol, some could argue, had her husband Harge as a beard. But from their familiarity with each other while they were dancing at a party plus the inside jokes, it’s clear they used to have a love that has simply burned out. I almost want to argue Therese is having a gay awakening, but she has as honest a conversation as she can have about same-sex attractions as the times will allow her with her boyfriend, Richard. Sure, it was theoretical in nature, but it was clear she was testing grounds to find out if her same-sex attractions had any common grounds Richard could understand.

Something else I appreciated – and that the production strived to establish – is that Carol in particular doesn’t question her sexuality; the storyline doesn’t pull her into emotional conflict in any stereotypical way. Carol feels no guilt about her attraction to Therese – she only worries about how it will affect her visitation rights to her little girl. How refreshing to see a character not deny their attractions or feel any shame about who they are drawn to in a narrative.

Finally, Carol and Therese are fairly well sketched-out characters – especially considering how meditative Carol is as a movie, with so much more being said between the words than in the actual dialogue. They have inner lives, fears,  flaws – the works.

What I Didn’t Like:

Yes, yes, yes, they don’t use the term “bi.” And that annoys me, as it always does. But honestly I got so caught up in this underrated gem of a film by the end it was an afterthought. There is so much I like about the romance-drama it seems harsh to get nit-picky.

The Rating:

Carol is a fully realized character committed to celluloid, even though in the novel she is more of an enigma. Even if some of her motivations are elusive, her queer inclinations are not. And there are some actual conversations about attraction I could conceivably see playing out in 1950s conformist America here. That’s no small feat. Great watch for a more thoughtful approach to queer culture during a constrained time. And hell, it even has a happy ending! When do we ever get that with bi characters?! #gimmemyrideintothesunset

I hope this flick gets included in queer cinema syllabuses as easily as its source material. It deserves to be seen and discussed.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.