Now that I’ve got your attention, let’s do the smoking lesbian thing first. This is a seriously well-made film and repays watching carefully. One of the visual motifs that runs through the film is the image of smoking.
Smoking features prominently in this film and all of the main female characters smoke. In a scene, which Director Todd Haynes said in an interview was central to the film, Therese is buying a record as a present for Carol and is being observed and appraised by two fairly butch lesbians. They are both smoking and they are standing under a sign that says “Smoking Prohibited”. In this film, smoking is a visual symbol of the rebellion of lesbianism, a badge of courage almost.
She hands him a five-dollar bill and he begins ringing her up. As she waits for her change, she spots two SHORT-HAIRED WOMEN at the listening station, sharing a single pair of headphones. The more mannish of the two, in horn-rim glasses, leans against the railing dressed in tailored trousers and jacket over a button-down shirt. The other wears a sleekly tailored woman’s suit, very professional. They are obviously a couple of some kind: New York lesbians. THERESE observes them for a moment, until the woman in slacks looks over – and THERESE quickly looks down.
In many scenes, Carol smokes with obvious relish.
Carol takes Therese out for lunch to thank her for returning her gloves:
CAROL offers THERESE a cigarette from her exquisite silver case. THERESE notices that CAROL’S hands are lovely and smooth, salon manicured, in contrast to THERESE’S own. THERESE takes a cigarette from the case. CAROL lights THERESE’S cigarette and THERESE proceeds to smoke it, though not without some effort.
THERESE (beat) So, you – I’m sure you thought it was a man who sent back your gloves.
CAROL I did. I thought it might be a man in the ski department.
THERESE I’m sorry
CAROL No, I’m delighted. I doubt very much if I’d have gone to lunch with him.
Smoking (and by connection, lesbianism) is also seen as a form of rebellion against the crushing authority of husbands.
CAROL and JEANETTE in the gardens. The party can be seen going on through a row of French doors. They smoke cigarettes. CAROL takes off her shoes, rubs her feet.
JEANETTE (takes a long deep drag on her cigarette) Keep an eye out, will you? Cy’ll scream if he catches me with this.
CAROL (laughs) What’ll he do? Dock your allowance?
JEANETTE (very matter of fact) He doesn’t like me to smoke.
CAROL So? You like it.
But they both know that it’s simply the way it is: wives defer to their husband’s wishes.
Later in the film, Abby (Carol’s ex-lover) comes to pick Therese up and take her back to New York after Carol has left their road trip unexpectedly.
Abby grabs a pack of cigarettes from the counter, lights one. THERESE watches her. ABBY offers her a cigarette and a light.
ABBY You old enough to smoke?
A beat, before ABBY breaks a smile, and THERESE decides to smile along.
There is another motif that runs through the film. The motorcar is seen not only as a means of escape, Carol and Therese go on a road trip, but also as a sanctuary for the women where they are secure from the outside world. It is also a source of power and independence for Carol. A large number of scenes are shot inside motorcars and many are shot through the windows of cars.
In many scenes, the women are framed by motorcars, beautiful, gleaming and stylish, much like Carol herself. Carol drives a luxurious Packard.
One of the great strengths of the film is the script by Phyllis Nagy (left) based on the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (right).
Many of the scenes between the women in the film, particularly Carol, Abby and Therese are marked by language that is exceptionally economical, with the meaning rippling below the surface. Reading the screenplay, you are struck by how little dialogue there is in this film. It’s almost as if the spaces in between what the characters say carry most of the meaning. Here is the last part of the scene where Therese and Carol are having lunch:
CAROL And what do you do on Sundays?
THERESE Nothing in particular. What do you do?
CAROL Nothing – lately. If you’d like to visit me some time, you’re welcome to. At least there’s some pretty country around where I live. Would you like to come out this Sunday?
CAROL waits for THERESE’S answer.
CAROL What a strange girl you are.
CAROL Flung out of space.
The relationship between Abby and Carol is established with similar economy. After finding that her husband will deny her access to the daughter on the grounds of her “immoral” lesbianism, Carol shares a drink with her ex lover.
ABBY How could he. How dare he… A morality what?
CAROL Clause, he said.
ABBY Carol – If I’m responsible in any way-
CAROL Don’t you dare – don’t you ever.
CAROL downs her drink. She pushes it towards ABBY for a refill. ABBY refills for them both.
ABBY I was thinking – another furniture shop? I’ll need some help with restorations every once in a while, and you’re the varnish master, so…
CAROL You’re serious.
ABBY I’m serious. (beat) Couldn’t be any more of a disaster than the shop we had.
A silence. ABBY looks away from CAROL. CAROL leans in towards her.
CAROL Hey. We weren’t a disaster. It just…
CAROL doesn’t have the words.
ABBY I know. Timing. Never had it. Anyway, I’ve got my eye on this redhead who owns a steak house in Paramus. I’m talking – serious Rita Hayworth redhead.
ABBY gestures to the suitcase.
ABBY You going somewhere?
CAROL West, I was thinking… For a few weeks. Until the hearing. What else am I going to do?
ABBY Well I know you don’t like driving alone. So. (beat; ABBY takes a deep breath, exhales) She’s young.
CAROL nods her agreement: there’s no denying it.
ABBY Tell me you know what you’re doing.
CAROL I don’t. (silence) I never did.
There is another wonderful scene between Carol and Therese where they are sharing one of Carrol’s perfumes that Therese particularly likes. It’s a scene of beautiful and under-played intimacy.
Early in the film, Therese says she likes the perfume that Carol is wearing.
THERESE Your perfume – I’m sorry.
CAROL Thank you. Harge bought me a bottle years ago, before we were married. I’ve been wearing it ever since.
THERESE Harge is your husband?
CAROL Yes. Well. Technically we – We’re divorcing.
THERESE(after a beat)I’m sorry.
CAROL(stubs out her cigarette) Don’t be.
Later in the film, Carol and Therese are on their road trip and have stopped overnight in a motel.
THERESE sits beside CAROL at the dressing table as CAROL carefully applies mascara to THERESE’S lashes.
CAROL Don’t blink. (beat) Now look at you.
CAROL turns THERESE around to the mirror.
THERESE I need lipstick.
CAROL chooses a lipstick, gives it to THERESE and watches as THERESE applies it. CAROL hands THERESE a tissue. THERESE blots, hands CAROL the tissue.
THERESE (CONT’D) Next?
CAROL picks up a perfume bottle, hands it to THERESE.
CAROL Would mademoiselle be so kind as to apply at the pulse points only?
THERESE applies perfume to the inside of her wrists, the crook of her arms, and her neck. She turns to CAROL. CAROL holds out her wrists to THERESE.
THERESE applies perfume to the same spots on CAROL. CAROL closes her eyes, arches her neck back slightly.
That’s divine. Smell that.
A beat, and THERESE leans forward to smell CAROL’S perfume.
In one deft scene, the director has transferred the intimacy of Carol’s marriage to the relationship between Carol and Therese.
In The Price of Salt, Highsmith tells story from Therese’s perspective. The character of Carol is less developed. Nagy changes this and gives much greater insight into Carol’s character. However, we come to understand Carol through the film but it is the character of Therese that develops and changes, primarily as a result of Carroll’s influence.
At the beginning of the film the contrast between the two characters could not be stronger. Here is Therese wearing (somewhat unwillingly) her ” Santa’s helper” hat in the department store.
And here is Carol, sophisticated, rich and beautifully dressed. Her sheer style has swept Therese off her feet.
Nagy is absolutely brilliant at developing the empathy between the women in this film. Here is an early exchange between the two leading characters.
CAROL raises a cigarette to her lips, begins to light it, THERESE interrupts.
THERESE Sorry. No smoking on the sales floor.
CAROL Oh, of all the – forgive me. (beat) Shopping makes me nervous.
THERESE That’s okay. Working here makes me nervous.
CAROL laughs, appreciating THERESE’S commiseration.
CAROL You’re very kind.
As the scene ends, Carol leaves the Doll Department.
CAROL walks away. THERESE watches her, takes her all in – her manner, her style, her walk. CAROL turns back for a moment, and points to THERESE’S cap.
CAROL I like your hat.
It’s a small but significant gesture that closes an emotionally intense exchange between the two women.
It is quite clear that Carol knows what a good hat looks like and the Santa’s helper hat is not one of them. Her little joke is a shared secret, and acknowledgement that she understands Therese’s attraction.
Throughout the film Therese becomes increasingly aware that other women find her attractive. There are the tentative steps towards intimacy with Carol, the two lesbians in the record store and a scene at a party where Therese sees
GENEVIEVE CANTRELL, the woman she spotted earlier. THERESE tries to watch GENEVIEVE without being seen
GENEVIEVE You’re Phil’s friend, aren’t you?
THERESE I am, yes. And Dannie’s.
GENEVIEVE Aren’t you going to ask me how I knew that?
THERESE Aren’t most people here Phil’s friends?
GENEVIEVE smiles – touche. THERESE smiles, too, loosening up, enjoying the flirting.
GENEVIEVE I can see why Phil speaks so highly of you.
THERESE Can you? Oh, definitely. I can see a lot.
Really? What do you see?
GENEVIEVE (gives her a good long look) Great – potential.
GENEVIEVE hands THERESE a beer, and they clink in a toast. THERESE smiles, she enjoys GENEVIEVE’S attention, but she can’t hold GENEVIEVE’S gaze, something about its boldness draws her away from the moment, from the party…
At the end of the film, Therese is heading towards a party at the address that Genevieve has given her.
As she approaches the address, THERESE spots an ELDERLY COUPLE arm in arm, supporting each other, walking down the street towards her. They look like they’ve been together for ever: the ELDERLY WOMAN leaning in to her husband as they pass, the ELDERLY MAN tipping his hat to THERESE.
We HEAR SHARP LAUGHTER from a nearby apartment and THERESE turns to see GENEVIEVE CANTRELL lean backwards out of a window. She holds a bottle of champagne which spills down into the street below
GENEVIEVE gestures to someone inside, and ANOTHER WOMAN joins GENEVIEVE at the window – the two begin to make out. THERESE watches their embrace for a moment; it’s tremendously sexy.
GENEVIEVE pulls the WOMAN back into the apartment, and the window’s slammed shut behind them. The night is suddenly very quiet. THERESE looks off in the direction the ELDERLY COUPLE took. She starts walking, away from GENEVIEVE, toward something else.
And so to Anna Karenina.
There are structural and thematic similarities between Carol and Anna Karenina. Both deal with a woman trapped in a loveless and unsatisfying marriage. Both have a socially unacceptable affairs outside that marriage. Both are denied access to the children by their controlling and possessive husbands. These are the archetypes of stories like Carol and Anna Karenina.
However, one story ends in tragedy and another in happiness.