[Essay] Tender Sexuality: On Todd Haynes’s Carol — Lucas Hill-Paul

It is the performances of Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara that are receiving the acclaim following the release of Todd Hayne’s beautiful film Carol (2015), but Phyllis Nagy’s wonderful script, Edward Lachman’s warm cinematography on 16mm film and Haynes’ direction cannot be neglected.

In a world that hasn’t quite accepted LGBT films as regular love stories, standard entertainment, Haynes has created a landmark film, one that portrays its central lesbian relationship as profound and beyond the physical, our two leads—let’s not indulge the ridiculous notion that Mara’s is a supporting performance—connecting through chemistry and fascination. It’s frankly outrageous that it’s taken ten years for a lesbian equivalent of Brokeback Mountain (2005) to find equal popularity, but this is forgivable given its eleven years in “development hell”- Ang Lee’s film frankly feels slightly dated in comparison, with tender moments at points but primarily focusing on the sex between Gyllenhaal and Ledger as a way to shock the audience, favouring the relations with their wives to further the characters. Carol is not guilty of this and, despite the extraordinary circumstances within the film’s diegesis, will remain applaudable for years to come thanks to its presentation of a homosexual relationship as natural and tender.

There is much here that can be compared to Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013), a similarly complex yet explicit French film, an insight into the lives and relationship of Adele, a timid young woman on the verge of discovering her sexuality and the intriguing, confident Emma, played wonderfully by Lea Seydoux, who would later disappoint us as the love interest in Daniel Craig’s latest outing as Bond. Emma, like Carol, is viewed from the third person, through a lens that transcends her from normality, a beautiful creature whose sharp, blue hair punctuates every scene in the first half of the film until her illusion of perfection is shattered. Carol evokes this feeling of love as fantasy, with Mara’s Therese viewing Carol through a literal camera lens amongst snowy streets and Christmas trees, conversations taking place with clouds of cigarette smoke in the room as an aura around Carol and isolated scenes of Mara, reflecting on her love and staring through car windows at city lights obscured by fog and rain and blooming magically on grainy film. There are no voyeuristic qualities that might be suggested by the camera here, however, as Carol avoids the explicit while Blue is the Warmest Colour celebrates it, its multiple sex scenes stretching ten minutes becoming the primary object of criticism. Carol’s beauty is understated yet angelic, Therese’s attraction for her stemming from her assured poise and confident smile, and her position in a higher class of society.

When it calls for Carol to be explicit, Haynes knows not to leer. Carol’s beauty is kept mysterious, for Therese’s eyes only- Blanchett is rightfully never shown naked- and Mara’s undressing leads to one of the most poignant moments in the film. Carol remarks “I never looked like that” on seeing Therese’s body, a simple line that brings the two to the same level, a realisation spurring in the latter that Carol is human, that she can be as beautiful as a figure whose radiance has hitherto been seen as unobtainable. We then move quickly away from the couple’s nakedness and fix the camera firmly on their faces, close-ups used to emphasise expressions and emotions, small kisses and passionate kisses that should be expected in the portrayal of a new and loving relationship. It is brief, too, the sex remaining heavily implied- enough to earn the film a 15 certificate- but tentative, a slow unravelling of a scene in which two characters discover new sensations and thoughts.

Blue is the Warmest Colour does away with dialogue for its sex scenes, and no tenderness is achieved through the long shots of tangled bodies that encompass the screen. This isn’t to say that the sequences are loveless or without passion- Emma brushes away the hair covering Adele’s face to reveal her eyes for a moment of raw connection and intensity, but physicality is the focal point here. Though some have criticised it for being pornographic, it certainly works in favour of the film, with the second act developing Adele’s life beyond the sexual to serve as contrast. This study of a character who now finds herself lost would not be as effective without the imperative explosion of desperate passion in the first hour and a half. However, the level of explicitness certainly refrains it from reaching the echelon of Carol; the simple factor of time spent with the characters’ sex lives is indicative of each film’s importance as a progressive love story, with Haynes and Nagy not shying away from sex—there is a second, implied sex scene but we cut away from it—but assuring us that it is not the crux of their relationship.

In a year that saw a steep rise of queer representation in the media, Carol stands head and shoulders over the likes of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl (2015), which takes advantage of transgender coverage and exploits it for shock and sympathy, far more egregiously than Brokeback Mountain. Instead, much like Sean S Baker’s Tangerine (2015), Haynes lets his LGBT characters live and breathe as characters, rather than impressions. Yes, Cate Blanchett’s Carol is almost ethereal for much of the film, appearing less like a real character and more akin to a beacon of otherworldly beauty and temptation for Therese, but this is an illusion broken the further Mara and Blanchett interact with each other, Carol becoming more human, jovial and emotional as the film progresses until we know her just as well as the young protagonist Therese. Blue is the Warmest Colour performs a similar shift from Emma as an idol to a flawed human being, and these shifts in character serve as a comment on love itself; as relationships progress, what began as an “object of desire” is now seen as something tangible and relatable.

Compare these subtle changes in the perception of character to Eddie Redmayne’s performance in The Danish Girl. Similar to Adele and Therese, Lili Elbe’s transition to discover her true identity is spurred by her relationship with Alicia Vikander’s Girda (one of the film’s only highlights), but rather than explore a respectful and understanding relationship, Lili’s transition from a man to a woman is trivialised, revealed to Girda through sex and deceptive games, wearing dresses and make up to essentially play tricks on party guests. Once accepted that this is her identity, Redmayne portrays Lili as a cartoon, a woman who cries frequently and loves gossip and clothes, her outfits and rooms swathed in Klimt-evoking cloths of gold and red that reek of sexuality when the focus should be placed on an exploration of character.

Carol can certainly be viewed as a sexy film, with two attractive leads and rich cinematography that enhances its warm colours and bright lights in a temperate fight against the Christmas cold, but this is not the focus. Haynes understands that sex is integral to a romantic relationship, but he never lingers on it. Instead, Therese and Carol explore each other through conversation, with some surprising espionage and intrigue to highlight the war of sexuality between heterosexuals and homosexuals during the more ignorant early 20th Century. Haynes has crafted a highly admirable film, a respectful study of a lesbian relationship and certainly one of the more progressive pieces of cinema in the 21st Century.


Lucas Hill-Paul is a journalist. His work has been published by Film Daily, Screen Rant, and The Daily Express.

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