“Carol” and the New Morality

“Carol” and the New Morality January 16, 2016

I saw Carol, the Todd Haynes/Patricia Highsmith ‘5os lesbian drama, at the tail end of last year. I haven’t written about it until now because it was so jagged–parts really worked, although I wasn’t sure I wanted them to, and the remainder was so off-putting that I just didn’t feel like talking about it. But writing that review of Rat Bohemia helped me figure out why the film didn’t work for me: It’s really two movies, set in two entirely different moral universes.

In the first universe everything serves Eros, the violent young god. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (“Katharine Hepburn/Audrey Hepburn erotic fanfic“) don’t have personalities; what they have is power difference, wishful thinking and willful projection, and electricity. The power and age difference is what gives their relationship its heat and pressure. Carol is at its most successful when it’s most ~*~problematic*~*.

ETA: Final Girl is onto something when she suggests that Carol would make a good Carmilla.

This xojane post (which I am not recommending you read, since it’s nuanceless and vulgar, but I stole this post’s title from there) complains, basically, that the love affair lacks realism. Sexual realism, realism about “what love really feels like.” Yeah, you know, they do not talk things out and learn to fight well and get to know one another as people. Their passion plays out on the road, in escapes from the everyday world of cold feet under the covers. They never go through that long attrition where you slowly agree to ignore more and more things about the person you love, and call that “acceptance.” They never find out what there is to dislike about each other–or to love.

But the movie wants to eat its morality and have it, too. This is most obvious in Carol’s speech in the lawyer’s office: How dare you ask me to deny myself in order to see my daughter! I am a good person, and my love is moral!

By positioning herself as the defender of gay bourgeois righteousness, Carol invites us to judge her love affair on moral grounds. And what we see is an older person, caught up in the narcissism of erotic passion, seducing a younger person and pretending everybody else will be happy if she’s happy. It is as if the film expects that the lesbianism will sanitize the creepiness of this distorted perspective–Carol’s love is only moral, if it’s moral, because it’s lesbian. (That’s basically where Noah Millman’s ambivalent review comes down.)

It’s a very pretty movie. The use of period music was especially pleasing (“One Mint Julep”!). It’s a Christmas movie, rubbing the audience’s nose in how isolated ’50s homosexuals were from that ideal of family and fireplace.

I love this bit in the intro to The Problem of Pain, where CS Lewis says that the Hebrew God is so shocking because He combines two incompatible elements of religion: universal morality and personal divinity. Goodness and power, goodness and sublimity. What if Zeus were the Platonic form of the Good? That bizarre, incomprehensible collision of morality and sublimity is the opposite of what happens in Carol, where the two layers separate like oil in water.

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