Movies are a visual art. They tell stories pictorially. A lot of what goes on in “Carol” takes place in the minds of two women drawn to one another, which calls for images to signal their thinking. But there’s little of that in “Carol,” and a lot of pivotal moment go without.
For example, the movie describes one of the women, Therese, as a young, mousy salesclerk in a city department store catching sight of the other woman, movie star-looking Carol across a room mobbed with Christmas shoppers. A brief glance is all you get, that and an equally brief coming together for a sales transaction. Yet, soon after, you see Carol calling the department store to thank Therese for getting her purchase sent to her in the expected time. Who does that? What spurred the call? It’s too early in the story to answer that. As well, what moved Therese to travel outside the city to Carol’s suburban home to return a pair of gloves she left in the store? Director Todd Haynes missed the opportunity to pictorialize the impulse that drove their action. He missed the chance to establish their fixation before he had them act them out.
What could Haynes have done that could be more pictorially telling? He could have sustained Therese’s first sight of Carol in memory – her glistening blond hair and her glistening red lips matching her glistening red nails – as a shiny object in a sea of grim, grey nondescript shoppers. Therese’s quick look at chic Carol could have played like reruns in her head to trigger her visit to Carol.
And Carol’s attraction to Therese’s wide-eyed innocence could have used a pictorial accounting. The young woman’s unworldly air could have been shown replaying in Carol’s mind to suggest the emptiness of her entitled life.
By the way, Haynes is said to be a fan of Edward Hopper’s paintings – you know, like “Nighthawks” – which describes bored, sad figures hunched over a diner counter, isolated from themselves and those around them. Their body language illustrates the aloneness and disaffection common to our rootless time. In contrast, Therese’s body language isn’t all that storytelling. She wears the same hound dog expression throughout the film – even during lovemaking with Carol. And Carol wears her chic without letup even when her ex-husband accuses her of immorality and sets out to take their child from her. Hopper gift for visual storytelling doesn’t enter this picture.
One more thing. While the film suggests these women are gay out of rebellion against a patriarchal society – emphasized over and over by the controlling and boorish behavior of the males – the film could have made a bolder statement. (Note: This column doesn’t count the one sensitive male in the film because he comes across as nerdy. Does a man have to be flavorless to be nice?) This film could have described the males as tender-hearted as the women and Carol and Therese simply preferring one another’s company. Do we really need bad guys in a story to make the women more sympathetic? A portrait of desire without a hint of pathology – what a concept!