Carol Made Me Realize I Want to Be in Love Again
A wisp of her curly black hair, the frayed edge of her short jeans shorts, the funky ring on her pointer finger, and the glint of her green eyes in the sun.
These are the images I remember most about the woman I fell in love with at first sight. It wasn’t just that these details about her stood out, but also, because I could only bear to catch glimpses of her for fear she would catch me staring and rebuke me. Later, after we discovered we’d fallen mutually in love, we were careful not to allow others to catch us looking for too long.
It was the summer of 1997, and I was an administrator at the Girl Scout Camp where I’d grown up. She was an international counselor from England. It wasn’t necessarily the dark ages for gay people, but we weren’t out about our affair. I was 29 and an out lesbian for about 10 years at that point, and she was 22 and had never been with a woman. Mostly though, we had to be careful because we worked together, and at a camp, no less. So I learned to take mental snapshots of her out of the corner of my eye in order to reassemble the pictures in my mind and save them for whenever I wanted to think about her.
Fast forward to 2015…
The crook of her elbow in her blond fur, her coral lipstick against the interior of the Packard, her leather glove on the steering wheel, the glint of her green eyes in the sun. This is how Therese dares to gaze at Carol on their dizzying drive through the Lincoln Tunnel, in which they enter as acquaintances and come out on the other side forever changed.
But it’s not only Therese who falls for Carol. I fell for her too, as I suspect so many women have. I fell for both of them during their drive from Manhattan to somewhere in north Jersey, and I hurtled headlong for Todd Haynes’s exquisite adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s revolutionary 1952 novel, The Price of Salt.
As a self-appointed cinephile with a degree in film theory and an unabashed fan of Todd Haynes auteur sensibility, from Far from Heaven to I’m Not There to Mildred Pierce, I knew going in to Carol to expect a work of art. I’d have been shocked if Carol, with Haynes at the helm, and Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, and Sarah Paulson in the cast, and the source material I had already obsessed over decades ago, did not meet my expectations.
As evidenced by my barrage of Carol-related social media posts since I first saw it at a press screening in early November, the film surpassed all of my hopes. I’ve subjected friends and followers to endless praise for the film and screeds about the Oscars snubbing it for best picture, and Haynes for best director. In return, my wider circle has very lovingly teased me for my obsession, referring to me as “Carol,” and often quipping, “How many times have you seen it now?” The answer, for the record, is five.
Quite simply, I fell in love with Carol, but it wasn’t until the second time I watched it, when a friend invited me to join her at the Producer’s Guild screening at Los Angeles’s Skirball Center, that I realized Carol, and that car trip through the Lincoln Tunnel hadn’t just altered the characters’ lives, it had changed mine as well. In the film, Carol commands her Packard through the tunnel as screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s pitch-perfect dialogue becomes muted and Carter Burwell’s glorious score swells. As they reach the other side, I realized I was filled with longing. Carol made me want to be in love again.
In my life I’ve been lucky. I’ve been seriously in love five times — breathtaking, all-consuming love. That sort of love that when you take a weeks-long, cross-country road trip there’s no need to speak — much like Carol and Therese’s trip from New York City to Waterloo, Iowa.
My last girlfriend and I broke up two years ago, although we held on for about a year too long in our five-year relationship. At 48, this is the longest I’ve been single in my life, and I’ve been OK with it, even OK with having seemingly few prospects for dates, let alone finding all-consuming love. I’d embraced the idea of spending my weekends riding my bike with my cycling besties, and my nights with my Netflix queue and my cat Jolene, stereotype and all. My mantra had become that I could have taken all of the energy I spent on women when I was younger and gotten a Ph.D. or written a couple of screenplays and a memoir, but then, what would I have written if not for those experiences?
The day after my second screening of Carol, I had a meltdown. In this whole huge city of Los Angeles, where I know seemingly hundreds of people, I couldn’t find anyone available to go to a movie, my favorite pastime that I often do alone. But that day, I had no desire to sit in a dark theater by myself shoveling popcorn into my mouth. For an irrational couple of hours that day I even convinced myself that I had nothing in common with anyone in L.A. and I should move back east to Connecticut. And then it hit me. It wasn’t my friends, it was me. I was lonely. Deeply. Carol, in its tacit way, had broken down my defenses about being single. And even though theirs was movie love, I wanted what Carol and Therese had.
To be sure, I loved being single for a while, and I believe there is great strength and power in autonomy. Still, while 1950s-set Carol is a world away from my days as a nascent lesbian in the mid-‘80s, their love affair, played close to the vest, at turns parrying and testing each other for what they will or won’t reveal, brought me closer to recalling my first, heady loves than I thought possible. The memories Carol evoked in me are visceral, as are my reactions to those who dare to eschew it. “It was boring, they had no chemistry, the plot was too simple…” are the refrains from those online who didn’t find it masterful.
For the first time in my life, and that includes a 15-year career working online, I’ve logged on to various websites to fiercely defend this bit of celluloid that has not only inspired me to love again, but has also become the object of my love. I logged into several sites and performed admittedly condescending, film-theory heavy takedowns of Carol naysayers. I even Tweeted with a gay male reviewer who had the gall to suggest that he couldn’t understand how anyone would leave Kyle Chandler (who plays Carol’s estranged husband). Eventually I had to take stock of why it all felt so personal.
Since I came out nearly 30 years ago I’ve screened at least 100 lesbian-themed short and feature films, and while I’ve always been grateful for representation, no matter how spare the production values, as a lover of cinema, Carol is the movie I’ve waited for my entire life. A story I’ve long loved, in which I feel represented, in the hands of a director I greatly admire, and starring three of the most nuanced actresses working today. For me, cinema can’t possibly get any better.
Like Carol’s personal life, my feelings surrounding the film are complicated. My adoration of the film cannot be extricated from the possibility of love that it’s aroused in me and the memories of past love that it's brought forth — like my curly-haired, green-eyed English love from the summer of 1997. Carol is the lesbian-themed film I’ve waited for since coming out, that also excites in me those sensations of burgeoning, often forbidden love so deeply associated with coming out.
In the words of Carol Aird, “Dearest, there are no accidents, and everything comes full circle.”
TRACY E. GILCHRIST is the deputy editor of Pride.