Strangers on a Train Set

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

This is a haunted film.

It’s based on a pseudonymous and groundbreaking 1950s novel by Patricia Highsmith — got but not read — who is better known for those queer crime thrillers Strangers on a Train (filmed by Hitchcock from a Chandler script) and the Ripley trilogy (filmed in various versions). Groundbreaking because — spoilers — it has a happy ending unlike the gay gothic ending of most other gay and lesbian novels of most of the twentieth century. The instinct is It Can’t End Well.

And the Chandler link and the gun one of them has points towards the noir version of the tale, more suitable for pulps, with the ordinary Jo seduced and ruined by the femme fatale. It Can’t End Well. And Haynes has made the pulpish Mildred Pierce for TV, which I really must watch.

And then there’s the best film by the Wachowski Siblings, Bound, the best lesbian gangster money-in-a-suitcase movie yet made.

But here we have the linked lives of working class shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) with sort-of boyfriend and monied older woman Carol (Cate Blanchett) with disintegrating marriage. We begin towards the end, with an apparently parting assignation in a hotel bar, and Therese seeing Carol walking through the New York streets from the back of a car. This scene anticipates a similar car journey with the roles reversed.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol inadvertently leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

And then I remember a decade or two years old reading about butch femme power dynamics.

Then we cut to their first meeting in the toy section of a department store — Carol wanting to buy a doll for her daughter, Therese suggesting a train set, and Carol deliberately leaving her gloves behind creating an excuse to meet again.

Hmm. I think it’s an accidental meeting but Therese is always already masculine and fancies Carol and Carol recognises a kindred spirit in her. The affair feels like it should be doomed given the clichés of narrative. Therese dreams of a career in photography, either as artist or journalist, although fails to name check any of the female photographers active in the fifties. Somehow it was a suitable job for a woman.

We’re spared the worst of it, but it is hinted that Carol has to go through some pretty severe therapy to cure her of her moral laxity (the l-word is not actually used), but desire will out in the end. I’ve not read the novel, so I’m not sure if the narrative stays with Therese or allows us into Carol’s world. I wonder if it would be better viewed from the outside of Carol’s life, but we get more Blanchett with the double focus.

If I’m honest, I suspect the film is a little too long, too leisurely and fetishising the 1950s detail. I miss the mischievousness of Haynes’s earlier Velvet Goldmine. But clearly Haynes has fought for twenty years to get this made and it is glorious in its performances and luxuriating in a Carter Burwell soundtrack.

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