Spoilers for Carol to follow.
There was no character in all the movies I saw in 2015 that reminded me more of myself than Therese Belivet, the main character of Todd Haynes’s gorgeous, dreamlike love story Carol.
Now, I am not a woman, I’m not a lesbian, I’m not LGBTQ, I don’t live in the 1950s, I have an unfortunate dearth of cute hats, and I’ve never had an affair with a wealthy older divorcee (yet?), and despite all of that the empathetic connection that I felt between myself and this character who was invented for Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt more than sixty years ago was so strong that it seemed to erase everything else around me as I watched the film. The theatre, the other filmgoers, the fact that I was sitting on my heavy winter coat — all of these details evaporated as I was utterly caught up in the same dream that Therese seemed to be carried away by.
Rooney Mara’s performance in the role is so perfect and conveying the emotions and the emotional repression of someone, and she does it in many scenes without more than just a few words, that any geographic and identity markers cease to matter. There is only the world of the film, and it becomes your world.
Or, at least, my world.
I can’t speak for everyone. There were some who were less impressed by the film than I. Whilst machete-ing my way through the jungles of the internet, I read a person I very much respect refer to Therese as “a dullard.”
This individual said that she couldn’t view the relationship between Therese and Carol to be a real love story. She said that she didn’t see a real capacity for love in Therese, and that Carol was a grown up while Therese was still so much a child.
It’s not that these points are wrong or invalid. In fact, they all have a lot of truth in them. But the story of Therese (which is also the story of Carol and the story of Carol) is a love story, a relationship drama, but several other stories as well — and these stories spring from who Therese is as a person, and who she isn’t.
Therese is someone who has this great capacity for love in her, but she has no idea where to find it or even if she should be looking for it, or where it would come from. She’s young and adrift, wanting to do things with her skills, but not knowing how to direct herself in any particular direction. With her photography, and in her quiet approach to living, she likes to watch people but not does not know how to get involved in their lives.
But then along comes Carol.
Now, the idea that Carol is not much of a love story has quite a bit of truth in it. It’s not a love story of equals for nearly the entire length of the film. And the nature of the love portrayed therein is not the kind of deep and abiding love that will never sever, never break. The thing that was so beautiful to me about the last scene of the film — Therese finding Carol in the restaurant and approaching her, with the audience placed in Therese’s POV, eyes focused on this beautiful, amazing individual — was not that this was the climax of a great love story being fulfilled for eternity. No , this was the first page of an all new story.
Therese, earlier in the film, says something along the lines of “How could I know what I want? I’ve never said no to anything.” It’s that decision that Therese makes prior to the last scene to not accept Carol when Carol comes back to her — that decision where she proves to herself, without any ulterior motives, that she IS able to say no to someone in her life, that she is able to be independent, that she is able to be her own woman; it’s that decision that gives her the strength. She couldn’t really say “yes” to Carol and accept her love until she understood that was able to say “no” to her.
And that’s what’s so beautiful and hopeful to me about the ending, it’s that — as some have said — Therese spends most of the movie practically as a child (she even is costumed similar to Carol’s toddler daughter Rindy for most of the film, with her pinafores and pageboy haircut) and at the end she is a woman. And yes, she is a young woman, and a new woman, but she has her life ahead of her, and for the first time in her life she can make the kinds of mature decisions that Carol has already made for her respective life.
What had transpired before — the road trip west, the dreamy nights together — wasn’t that kind of deep, eternal love that lives are built around, but it was the young, blossoming love from which futures can later be built. The last scene is where the future begins, and there’s no way of knowing for sure what it will hold.
Because in Carol we see not just a love story, not just a relationship drama, not just a story of a failed marriage, but also that most magical of stories: the creation of a person. And that person is Therese Belivet, fully embodied by Rooney Mara’s spectacular performance, and aided by Haynes’s incomparable direction, and a hell of a scene partner in Cate Blanchett.
I’ll close with a quote from another work of art that I love, a work with a lot of similarities to the film: Mad Men. It’s a quote that I think sums up why despite Blanchett’s wonderful and charming portrayal of the title character, it was Therese who captured this writer’s attention and held my focus long after the film had ended.
“We don’t know who [she] is yet, or who [she’s] going to be. And that is a wonderful thing.”