Queerness and Narrative: Todd Haynes’s Carol

This Is Where We Came In

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This is one part in a series of short essays on Todd Haynes’s Carol (2015). This part is on narrative structure and the film’s relationship to an older film, David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945).

Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy restructures Highsmith’s novel, originally titled The Price of Salt (later retitled Carol), extensively, and, in doing so, quietly reconstructs the narrative chronology to resemble David Lean and Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter. To begin at the end, and wrap back around is a tired trope in storytelling, admittedly, and the fact that it still is in use is a testament that it simply is very narratively compelling. Haynes’s temperament when it comes to narrative is difficult to gauge though. Sure, Far From Heaven is a pastiche of the rather lucrative romantic melodrama genre from the 50s, but that’s a genre that has metamorphosized greatly since then (manifested currently in soap operas), now something of an oddity, not nearly as accessible; Roger Ebert asserted in his review of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind—who perfected the Technicolor romantic melodrama—an audience needs to be more sophisticated to appreciate and analyze Sirk’s film than those of art-house heavyweight Ingmar Bergman. Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, likewise, is a redrafting of the James M. Cain hardboiled novella from the 30s, and instead of following in the footsteps of the 1945 Joan Crawford film—one that aged quite well, meeting many of our contemporary demands of entertainment—he devised a six-hour slow-burn miniseries that draws more upon the source material’s subtle Marxist-feminist critique than the luridness of the material. And I’m Not There, the closest thing we have to a Bob Dylan biopic, is less biopic than cubist reconceiving of one of the most dramatic of 20th century pop figures.

So, this narrative trend—beginning at the end and wrapping around—is it really for narrative efficiency? Perhaps when Nagy initially wrote it, but the value that comes from invoking Brief Encounter is far greater than only picking up a good storytelling technique. To suggest that Carol is a loose remake, or inspired by, the Lean film is not too inconceivable. The Lean film (another wonderful romantic melodrama, released by the Criterion Collection in a gorgeous restored print on Blu-ray) is a story of a brief adulterous romance between a bored housewife Laura (Celia Johnson) and a tender doctor Alec (Trevor Howard). Aside from being an examination, if one takes a postmodern stance on Brief Encounter, on the boredom and ennui of modern life and the struggle to find a morally satisfactory alternative, it is a remarkably efficient demonstration of queer spaces, if only to use the term as it would have been used decades ago (strange, obscure). The illegitimacy of an extramarital affair reflects rather cleanly that same nature of the lesbian romance in Carol. Dissatisfaction at home (read: the normative space), between Carol’s husband Harge and Therese’s boyfriend Richard leads them to seek out non-normative, or queer, spaces. In Brief Encounter, Laura and Alec meet in town and go boating or to the movies to escape from their apparently stodgy home lives (admittedly, and it breaks my heart to say it, Laura’s husband Fred (Cyril Raymond), while sweet and kind, is a bit of a bore). In Carol, the two leading women eventually escape to the open road to find some refuge from their overly patriarchal partners.

But to both Lean and Haynes’s credit, the domestic sphere has a complicated portrayal in both their works. In Brief Encounter, it is that very space where emotional support and stability is found. Despite being a bore, Fred is indeed kind and caring, and around when Laura is left heartbroken by the departure of Alec, whose relocation to South Africa both lovers agree is a necessary sacrifice in order to maintain moral rectitude. Yet, Laura is something of a more sympathetic Madame Bovary, unable to incur in herself a passion as either a wife or a mother. But Carol’s major passion, even greater than as Therese’s lover, is as a mother, and her daughter Rindy is without a doubt the most important thing to her. She, likewise, isn’t bored with the domestic sphere, or even care especially to escape it at its essence, but rather the heteronormative hegemony that in the 1950s was essentially undivorcable from it. One could, and should, easily see Carol, Therese and Rindy as a picture-perfect happy family, satisfied with the monogamous bourgeois lifestyle so picturesquely identified as the American Dream (sans husband).

The presence in Brief Encounter of Myrtle and Albert (Joyce Carey and the incomparable Stanley Holloway) as workers at the pivotal train station who have a hopelessly-indiscrete but probably lasting sexual and romantic relationship act as a idyllic standard that Laura can’t help but desire, but ultimately will never achieve. It is non-normative, non-domestic, but at its essence morally unimpeachable. So, while Laura and Alec’s queer romance is interrupted and denied its happy ending, and a bittersweet return to the loving, if boring, domestic sphere is what is reached at the conclusion, that return to the domestic sphere is what is exactly desired by Carol and Therese.

Carol and Therese comprise the queer, but morally unimpeachable couple akin to Myrtle and Albert—morally unimpeachable only when viewing Carol as a period piece, but queer within the historical context of the narrative. Perhaps we see the same issue here that we have seen in the political movement for same-sex marriage: a yearning for the same heteronormative traditions and structures, if only to demonstrate the true normalcy of same-sex relationships. Carol and Therese, in their bourgeois way, have no real resentment of the suburban domestic space, only the toxic nature of the society that inhabits it. Haynes does deny an unqualified happy ending, sparking some subtle contemporary critique: Carol and Therese get each other, but at the expense of true custody of Rindy, just as same-sex couples today have won the victory of same-sex marriage, but without the safety of a wholly accepting society around them.

Noah Fusco

I like old movies and new movies and all kinds of movies.

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