The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.

Closer to Heaven
Chris Wisniewski on Carol

As the film draws to its conclusion, a fair-haired woman named Carol looks towards the camera in a medium close up and musters the strength and self-possession to say the words, “I love you.” Remarkably, this accurately describes the two finest films by the American director Todd Haynes, Safe and Carol. The movies are separated by exactly twenty years, and in the decades that intervened, Haynes built an impressively adventurous oeuvre featuring two or three towering achievements, depending on where one might rate Far from Heaven, I’m Not There, and his HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce. Still, Safe and Carol feel like unrivaled twin summits, and together, they help us understand one of our most important—and, I would argue, one of our most underappreciated—living movie artists, a filmmaker whose work is grounded in a deep knowledge of genre, as well as semiotic, feminist, and queer film theory, while being equally driven by a profound human compassion. Watching Safe and Carol, one comes away with the sense that Haynes is a brilliant, sometimes cerebral filmmaker who can nevertheless make us feel to our core the desperate isolation and the constant threat to the self that society imposes on those it casts in the role of Other.

Safe is an undeniable “auteur text,” one of several in the Haynes filmography. It is more difficult to mount that case for Carol, which was adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s landmark 1952 queer novel The Price of Salt, marking the first time Haynes did not claim a writing credit on one of his feature films. Still, it’s a Haynes movie through and through, one that asks us to think hard about signs and symbols; camera placement, lighting, and genre; gender, queerness, and the pressure to conform. It announces all this with subtle brilliance in its opening sequence, which picks up at the end of the movie’s narrative and establishes, with every directorial choice, a visual language that both subverts and contains the ravaging emotional drama of the film.

Carol begins with a close-up of a patterned gate, the sound of traffic and street noise in the background. As the camera tilts up to reveal an evening winter cityscape, we realize that we’ve been staring at the ground as the somewhat ominous tones of Carter Burwell’s score played over the credits. On a narrative level, Carol has much in common with Far from Heaven: both tell stories set in the 1950s of a love that is forbidden because it transgresses social mores. But Carol inverts the opening sequence of Far from Heaven, which descended from the air upon a lush autumnal suburban tree-lined street over Elmer Bernstein’s swooning score. With immediacy, Carol declares that we are not in the realm of overheated melodrama, where self-sacrifice and catharsis will win the day, but somewhere perhaps more dangerous and gritty—more Hitchcock than Sirk.

The movie also adopts, in its opening moments, a bait-and-switch approach to its storytelling that establishes a break between heteronormative, masculine space and feminine queer space. The camera follows a man, Jack (Trent Rowland), around a street corner and into a bar. His actions motivate the movement of the camera, and his is the film’s first point-of-view shot. He scans the room, and notices two women at a table, one blonde and one brunette. The blonde is Cate Blanchett, facing toward the camera. When Jack goes over to the table, though, he engages the other woman, Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet, who introduces her companion as Carol Aird. Jack has no interest in Carol. And though this opening scene will become more complicated when Haynes revisits it at the end of the movie, this time from the women’s perspectives, already he has toyed with our expectations, our familiar ways of seeing, of entering and making sense of movies. In any other film staged in this way, the audience might naturally be aligned with the male figure, and that alignment would probably suggest narrative prominence or at least significance. But Jack has no narrative function, and he isn’t played by a movie star. We notice Cate Blanchett because she’s Cate Blanchett, but he does not pay any attention to her. We know, when she is introduced as Carol, that she is the movie’s title character, but she’s of no interest to him. This dissonance produces an immediate fissure, a rupture in how we would otherwise find our way into a movie’s narrative world.

Haynes thus invites his audience to read against the way he has directed his scene, to look for signs that signify the real story. That is, to actively read his movie queerly. When Carol gets up to leave, she puts her hand on Therese’s shoulder. She stands behind Therese, her face and upper torso cut out of the frame. If the director’s decision here might suggest, again, Carol’s seeming insignificance, Therese’s face as she turns at the gesture contains volumes of meaning. The camera’s indifference to Carol is not shared by the character. When Jack touches Therese’s shoulder a moment later, she doesn’t react at all. The contrast communicates all the audience needs to know about what really matters in the scene. Jack is incidental; Carol is Carol.

In the next scene, Therese rides with Jack in a taxi, but she’s clearly thinking about Carol. Haynes cuts to a flashback, a point-of-view shot from Therese’s perspective of the first time she saw Carolwhile Therese was working as a sales girl at Frankenberg’s department store. And with this flashback, Haynes’s movie creates an alternate visual space, one dominated by Therese’s perspective, breaking decisively—and definitively—with Jack’s. Carol tells the story of the love affair between its title character, a divorced suburban mother, and a much younger woman hoping to become a photographer (in the book, she’s an aspiring set designer). As Haynes depicts this love affair in its nascency, Therese’s gaze controls his camera. She stares at Carol when she first arrives at Frankenberg’s. Later, they drive to Carol’s house in the country, and the dreamlike visual reverie in the car captures Carol’s hands and mouth, all from Therese’s point of view. They stop to purchase a Christmas tree, and Therese snaps a picture of her movie-star-gorgeous date with her camera. Then, when they finally get to Carol’s home, Therese spies her from another room adding a top to the Christmas tree and, after, watches through a window as Carol fights outside with her ex-husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler), who has shown up unannounced.

The glance, the look, the gaze. It contains desire, an impulse to know, and an attempt at carving out a queer, female-centric space in a straight man’s world. In The Price of Salt, Carol is an inscrutable figure—unknowable, and an object of Therese’s almost obsessive affection. In Carol, she comes across more as a lost and desperate soul, a woman who knows who she is and wants deeply for someone else to see her in the same way. This is precisely what she seeks in Therese. Their first trip to the country ends after Carol has a bitter fight with Harge that leaves her bereft of her young daughter, Rindy, whom Harge shuttles away for a Christmas holiday with his family. Disappointed by her inability to offer Carol comfort or connection in the absence of her daughter and the aftermath of the fight, Therese cries on the train ride home. When Carol calls her that night, Therese bashfully confesses that she might embarrass herself by asking Carol too many questions. “Ask me things,” Carol begs quietly, earnestly. “Please.”

Many of the choices Nagy and Haynes make in adapting the novel grant the viewer more access to Carol and her life than Highsmith allowed. Where the custody battle between Harge and Carol plays out secondhand in the background in the book, here it moves to the center of the film’s final act. Where Carol’s relationships to Harge and her friend Abby (Sarah Paulson) have a flatness in the novel, Nagy’s script rounds them out, lending both characters more nuance and humanity. But most importantly, where Highsmith largely uses Carol as the catalyst for Therese’s self-discovery, in the film they both clearly get something out of this relationship. Therese learns who she is; Carol is seen for who she is. Haynes offers very few point-of-view shots from Carol’s perspective in his movie. One is telling: she stares at the photo Therese took of her at the Christmas tree stand, and is able to see herself as Therese sees her. After a long pause, she tells her, “It’s perfect.” Blanchett’s face marvels at the photograph in close-up, communicating everything we need to know about the hunger Therese responds to, the need she fulfills.

The film’s title alone conveys the shift in narrative focus from page to screen, and Blanchett, delivering one of the decade’s most perfectly calibrated performances, locates multitudes of complexity in a character Highsmith keeps at arm’s length. During a custody hearing, Carol makes a choice between denying her sexuality and making a play for Rindy. Unexpectedly, she foregoes the custody battle with an admission couched in a rhetorical question, “What use am I to her if I’m going against my own grain?” Carol’s strength, vulnerability, and profound sense of self may make her something of an anachronism. They also make her an uncommonly fascinating and affecting protagonist.

No wonder Therese falls in love with her. Carol doesn’t jettison the bildungsroman conceit of the book, but it does complicate it. This portrait of the artist as a young woman casts Therese as someone who doesn’t quite know how to communicate with Carol—she doesn’t know how to read the signs, how to speak the language. At their first lunch, Carol orders a strange meal of creamed spinach and a poached egg with a martini, and all Therese can muster is to say, “I’ll have the same. All of it.” As they flirt over their spinach, Carol tells Therese that it’s like she’s been “flung out of space.” It’s a compliment, but it also underscores Therese’s foreignness in the queer world she is about to enter. Like an alien in a foreign land, Therese continually misreads and misunderstands the situations in which she finds herself. When Carol sends her away after her fight with Harge, Therese cries, seeing it as a reflection on herself. Later, when she and Carol are on a road trip out west, she discovers a gun in Carol’s bag. (In the source material, the gun is stashed in the car’s glove compartment and plays a pivotal role in Carol’s efforts to extract evidence from a private detective). The movie’s gun is a MacGuffin, a vestigial holdover from Highsmith’s book that is literally tossed aside, robbed of its narrative function it held in the source material. In the film, Carol brings it to defend herself from potential intruders or interlopers hired by Harge, but Therese thinks Carol has brought it to defend herself from Therese. When she asks Carol if she’s afraid of her, she is trying to make sense of that gun—and failing spectacularly.

As the movie progresses, Therese builds her capacity to navigate this strange landscape. Carol transcends character study and ascends to sublimity as Carol and Therese achieve mutual understanding. There are several moments when Carol touches Therese’s shoulder: in the opening sequence and again while Therese plays piano at Carol’s house. In neither do we see Carol’s face as she places her hand on Therese. Haynes takes a different approach later in the film. In a hotel room on their road trip, Carol approaches Therese from behind, and we see both of them in a mirror as she once again places a hand on the young woman’s shoulder. From here, they’ll make love. This being a Todd Haynes movie, the directorial choice matters. It is meaningful that we see both of their faces reflected in a mirror at the moment of intimacy that initiates their love affair. Similarly, when we return to the scene in the bar that starts the movie, it is now from Therese and Carol’s point of view. We hear their conversation—Carol apologizing to Therese for cutting her off during the custody battle; Carol asking Therese if she would consider moving into the apartment she’s taken in the city; Therese, now an elegant and self-possessed young professional with a job at the New York Times, turning down Carol’s offer; Carol telling Therese that she loves her. When Jack enters the scene, he is the intruder, violating the space between these two women, the space defined by them. The straight man has been relegated to the sidelines of the narrative—an empty vessel, without purpose. By now, Haynes’s Carol exists on an otherwise marginalized plane.

Like many of Haynes’s films, Carol is infused with an aching desperation. It investigates the agony of liminality and the price the dominant culture extracts from those who are different. Rather than ending on a note of exquisite pain of unrealized love, however, it takes us beyond the scene in the bar where Therese rebuffs Carol’s offer. Therese goes to the party that Jack is attending. She sees her ex-boyfriend and even flirts with a woman. Then she has a change of heart and dashes to the Oak Room, where Carol has told her she would be having dinner with friends. Fittingly, this movie of stolen glances and longing stares ends with Therese scanning a room and seeking out Carol in a corner, the camera closing in on the two of them as Therese closes the distance between them until, finally, they see each other. Wordlessly, Carol and Therese say everything they need to say. It’s like they’re the only two people in the world. If Carol White’s and Carol Aird’s declarations of love function as moments of self-possession and self-affirmation, the silent exchange between Carol and Therese does those scenes one better: beyond language, these two lovers achieve mutual understanding.

Go to #16.