By Christian DiMartino
The debate over what classifies a Christmas movie as a Christmas movie is one that will probably go on forever. There are people who claim that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie. Well, while it may not have the Christmas spirit, it also features more of Christmas than It’s a Wonderful Life, so again, the debate goes on. Some movies exist as “Christmas movies,” set during and revolving around Christmas. Yet there are some that I’ll save to watch during the holidays simply because they’re set during the holidays. Doesn’t make them a “Christmas movie” necessarily, but it gives me a reason to revisit them.
Take Todd Haynes’ masterpiece Carol, his elegant, fabulous, romantic, intimate and beautiful tale of forbidden love set during, you guessed it, Christmas and New Year’s. Christmas actually sets the plot in motion in Carol, seeing as it is during a Christmas shopping rush that both of our beautiful heroines meet and lock eyes for the first time. So yes, maybe not a complete “Christmas movie,” and not one that needs to be seen during Christmas, but eh, I’ll watch this a million times over horrendous garbage like Christmas with the Kranks. I have class, people.
The film, set in the 1950’s, focuses solely on two characters, and everyone around them is essentially in the background. One is Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), a pretty but quiet aspiring photographer who works in a department store. She is in the middle of a relationship with a guy named Richard, yet the audience senses immediately that they aren’t meant to be, not just because of our knowledge of the story, but also based off of Therese’s blatant lack of interest. It is with the arrival of a fellow customer in which, for the first time perhaps ever, something awakens in Therese. Said customer is named Carol (Cate Blanchett), who is in search of a present for her daughter. As soon as Blanchett enters the film, it’s difficult not to swoon. This is a woman who embodies beauty and confidence, and it is no wonder that Therese is struck by her.
Yet there is something striking about Therese too, and thus, the two begin calling each other and a friendship begins to blossom. As their relationship begins to strengthen, Carol must also be weary in terms of her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler). The two are in the middle of a divorce, yet it seems as if Harge is a bit more on the bitter side of things. Yet there is still more than friendship between Therese and Carol, and, well… you get the idea.
The film is based off of Patricia Highsmith’s great novel, The Price of Salt (what that means in terms of the story is a mystery). Usually, many complain about how a movie never lives up to the book, but Haynes’ film certainly does the novel justice. Highsmith’s novel, written around the time the story is set, was honestly pretty groundbreaking for its time. Most stories of this nature usually ended in tragedy; even today plenty of them do. Yet Highsmith was ahead of the curve, and essentially broke the mold.
I loved Carol the first time I saw it, but have grown to love it even more over the years. Here is a film that, like Carol herself, is classy, elegant, and beautiful to behold. The cinematography from Edward Lachman, Haynes’ usual dp, is gorgeous. The score from the long undervalued Carter Burwell is perfection. Sandy Powell’s costumes, along with the production design, perfectly capture the time period. Yet it’s those two central performances, along with Haynes’ direction, that seal the deal. Blanchett and Mara are in top form here. Yes, the film may unfold slowly for some, yet it’s a film about a blossoming and (for the time period) somewhat forbidden romance. It’s a film about what’s under the surface, and for these two, their passion is just waiting to break free. Yes, there is an erotic scene, and yes, most people will take that as an excuse to watch the movie. Yet while it is hot, it’s also satisfying. The viewer might be into it, but they’re also into it because it’s well earned, and because these two people deserve to be together, contrary to the hands they’ve been dealt.
So while not an all-out “Christmas” movie, Carol is gorgeous, romantic, and utterly exquisite, and if I have to use the “Christmas movie” clause to revisit it yearly, so be it.
Nominated for 6 Oscars: Best Actress (Blanchett), Best Supporting Actress (Mara), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Score, Best Costume Design