Like many other women-loving-women, I was incredibly excited at the prospects of the movie Carol. I mean, how often is an amazingly talented (not to mention sizzling sexy) star like Cate Blanchett and a big Hollywood production budget dedicated to a lesbian-themed film? Especially a film where the girl gets the girl (spoiler, sorry) and especially one that’s beautifully crafted.
No one can deny the importance of movies like Go Fish in the oeuvre of lesbian representation in media. Who among us didn’t run to the video store and abashedly sneak into the porn section behind the curtain where the scant selection of LGBT films could be found? And who among us didn’t watch every bad lesbian movie that came out of Hollywood, all of which either maimed or killed or mocked lesbians, or else were produced through the obvious male gaze and ended with the woman realizing the err of her ways and running back into the arms of her man?
We’ve had a painful film history. The movies made by us and for us were all pretty low budget and sometimes hard to watch. The sound quality and mediocre acting in many lesbian films were so bad, I’d watch with one eye; granted, one eye that was hungry for content reflective of who I was and who I loved.
That’s why I bought a ticket to a screening the very first day Carol hit the big screens. I waited in a city-block-long line (something I generally avoid at all costs) to get into the theatre, standing amid the many other lesbians who likely felt the way I did. We were full of hope, not unlike how we felt the first time we saw a real lesbian on TV (or in our beds), the sense of possibility tickling the edges of us, wanting desperately to explode into cinematic magic. I even felt the anticipation rise into my throat as the lights lowered in the full theatre and the buzz of chatter quieted. Suddenly, the plethora of lesbian content that I can find on my smartphone melted away and I was right back to where I was as a budding adolescent, excited to consume something new, with all the vulnerabilities of inexperience and optimism.
To see Cate Blanchett’s face light up the screen as she first appears in the corner of the busy toy section at the department store! To know that this was the beginning of something explosive that had the potential to move me to tears, to arousal, to the moon and back!
And then it didn’t.
It felt like someone had taken a big sewing needle and popped all my birthday balloons. The plot was too formulaic. I could anticipate what the next scene would be. There was no buildup. And the last scene felt as though it was thrown in hastily as an afterthought in efforts to present itself as unpredictable.
Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, while beautiful in their own rights, didn’t act their best. At points, their rapport appeared contrived and their lines seemed like the writers were trying too hard to squeeze them back into Patricia Highsmith’s dusty book jacket rather than speak to the truth of the characters. We learn too much about Carol too soon. It would have been much more effective to showcase a slow unfurling of Carol’s seemingly debonair and forceful presence into the much more vulnerable woman we should gradually come to know. The genius that is Cate Blanchett would have reveled in the ability to hint at, but not reveal, her familial problems until much later in the plot (much as she masterfully did in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine.)
The film also failed to convince me that the two women were actually in love, or at least in lust with one another. Mara’s character, Therese Belivet, batted her big eyes from her little frame in efforts to relay her attraction for Carol, but that too felt contrived. We’re not brought along on the mating ritual journey in a way that feels authentic. Carol is clearly on the hunt and has Therese in her sightlines from the beginning, but we’re not clear on whether Therese is clued in, or how she takes the leap from naive hetero to willing queer. We’re also not privy to what makes the wealthy and experienced Carol so interested in the awkward retail employee to begin with.
I will shamelessly admit that, like with all mediocre lesbian films, once I realize the plot isn’t going to hold me, I immediately wait for the sex scenes. At least seeing two women naked together might have some redeeming value and validate my investment of time and expense. In the film, the two women embark on a cross-country road trip so largely incredibly platonic, it leaves me believing Thelma and Louise were more lovers than these two. About 80 percent into the sequence, we finally see some action, and on the whole, it’s largely disappointing.
Of course, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the Philip Glass-esque score and roomy aesthetics of the cinematography, which created a stunning venue for any film. And the idea of creating a mainstream film that is award-worthy with leading actresses and a plot ripe with potential is worthy of praise.
One could argue my expectations were too high. Why should I expect any Hollywood film to depart from the formulaic safety or profit-mindedness? And there’s the need to accept that we’ve come an incredibly long way from the ghosts of Bound and Lost and Delirious past, and should celebrate this moment in lesbian history. Straight actors can play LGBT roles and anticipate Oscars rather than typecasting. That is progress.
But then again, isn’t it time we demand excellence at every turn? We have every reason to let go of our need to cling to and uplift anything and everything that tells some aspect of our lives. True equality may one day include the luxury of critiquing a film as such, not simply because it’s a gay film.
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