‘Have you ever been in love with a boy?’
‘But you’ve heard of it.’
‘Of course. I mean, have I heard of people like that? Sure.’
This is the conversation that Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) has with her partner Richard (Jake Lacy) in the 2015 film Carol, indicating that the focus of her romantic and sexual interest has shifted to the film’s namesake. Carol chronicles the stories of Carol Aird, played by Cate Blanchett, and Therese Belivet, as their lives intersect in 1950s New York.
Inspired by Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, the film introduces us to aspiring photographer Therese as she works in a department store over the Christmas holidays. She exists within a relationship with her partner Richard, which she clearly finds unfulfilling. The narrative truly begins on the day Therese meets Carol: a wealthy, married woman going through a rocky divorce and custody battle, who is shopping for her daughter.
It takes some time before the mutual attraction becomes obvious in both characters, but their initial fascination in one another is instant. The above quote demonstrates how quickly Therese begins to explore ideas around sexuality, even in front of her boyfriend, who would not take Therese’s attraction to anybody else lightly, regardless of their gender.
The sexualities of Carol and Therese are never established in the film; all that can be taken from it is my speculation. Therese’s clear unhappiness in her relationship with Richard, paired with her attraction to Carol, may be interpreted as a realisation that she is, and always has been, a lesbian. On the other hand, Therese may identity with another sexuality, such as bisexuality, and is only discontent with Richard due to his specific personality. The same can be said for Carol, as we learn about her controversial relationship with her best friend Abby (Sarah Paulson), but are not given the details of her divorce from husband Harge (Kyle Chandler).
It is tempting to read into these women’s sexual preference when there is so little LGBT+ representation in the media compared to the attention devoted to only those who identify as simply the L or the G. With the popularity of films such as 2018’s Love, Simon and recent release The Favourite, which both explore LGBT+ relationships, it is clear that the stories of those who identify as anything other than straight and cis-gendered are becoming more accepted. However, I think there is still a long way to go and a lot of further education needed, as films such as the ones I mentioned tend to explore only gay or lesbian relationships.
Carol also acts as an example of the on-screen suppression that surrounds same-sex relationships. Although the film does feature a couple of scenes of a sexual nature, the execution of these is such that the shots are more suggestive than revealing. It feels as though there is a reluctance to portray sexual acts between LGBT+ people in the same way they would be between heterosexual couples. To return to my earlier example of The Favourite, just compare the intimate scene between Colman and Weisz to the exposed bodies in the brothel, which is visited later in the film.
This sense of secrecy and withdrawal runs through Carol: many exchanges between characters are filmed through blurred, dirty windows, partially closed doorways, or in rooms where the characters are not given centre stage. Despite the film’s hopeful ending, the overall tone is sad and, although it gives Carol and Therese some freedom to be together, has an overwhelming sense of the restrictions which have been enforced by wider society. The film is careful and nuanced but brings to mind how the characters narrowly escape the ‘bury your gays’ trope, which sees the loss of so many LGBT+ characters on the screen. Carol is not so extreme as to end in the death of either of our female protagonists, but the acknowledgement that they can only be involved together alone, hidden in the privacy of an apartment, away from the rest of the world taints the optimistic ending which Therese and Carol’s final reunion brings.