Certain experiences transcend language, and falling in love is one of them. It’s a descent into something unknown; a shared secret no one else understands. It is sweeping and intense and no film in recent history has captured it with as much elegance as Carol. A bewitching romance from director Todd Haynes, Carol is about the way two people can look at each other from across the room. Intercepting that gaze, if only for a moment, is what watching Carol feels like. Set in New York City in 1952, it’s also an atmospheric immersion into time and place with some deceptively nuanced ideas about age, femininity and motherhood. Did I mention the love was between women?

They are Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, actresses whose beauty and grace could make a pencil fall in love with them. Mara is Therese Belivet, a name that sounds so good you have to say the whole thing. She’s young and still charting her course through life, but don’t call her an ingénue. She’s too smart for that. She works as a shop clerk at a department store and hopes to one day become a photographer.

When Carol Aird (Blanchett) walks into the store where Therese works, she earns the right to have a movie named after her. She wears a sumptuous coat, a pillbox hat and the most perfected lips you’ve ever seen. Therese notices her right away and the look they share stops time. Carol approaches and they talk about toys, but the words don’t matter. It’s about the air between them, the glint in their eyes and the subtle suggestion that something more lies behind the folds of Carol’s fur coat. When Therese finds the gloves that Carol left behind, she sends them to Carol’s home, and a couple days later, Carol calls. Suddenly, they’re meeting for lunch.

A curious affection grows along with tension at home. Carol is still married to Harge (Kyle Chandler), a rich guy who isn’t pleased with the prospect of divorce. If Carol tries to please him, it’s only because she adores the daughter they share. Harge knows about his wife’s affairs with women, including Abby (Sarah Paulson), but he’s insistent about staying together. Since his character isn’t afforded much development beyond shouting and drinking, he comes to symbolize the belligerent expectation of women to raise kids, stop talking and look pretty.

Following in the style of Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce, Haynes recreates the midcentury New York with an auteur’s dedication to detail. With its floral set dressings and domestic themes, the film also confirms Haynes as the heir to the great Douglas Sirk, that king of queer melodrama. Indeed, for all its ostensible conventionality (two gorgeous white women falling in love), there are subversive ideas at play. Carol isn’t the older predator to Therese’s naïve nymphet, but rather, Therese, often viewing Carol through her camera or watching from another room, often sees Carol more clearly than she sees herself. Though their romance is passionate, it’s a passion that lives in intimation. This is art, not exploitation.

Adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, Carol shares elements of that author’s gift for suspense. Whether it’s the gun in Carol’s suitcase, or the conspiratorial glances they share, Carol unravels like noir dipped in queer theory. Shot on Super 16mm by Haynes’ collaborator, Edward Lachman, the film has the look and feel of a misty Edward Hopper painting. Characters frequently see through windows, doors and around street corners, suggesting voyeurism and the ever-present eyes of a watchful society.

As a “lesbian” movie, Carol is unparalleled. How lucky we are to have a romance between women that does not end in death, poisoning or eternal separation. Whether suffering from Radclyffe Hall’s “well of loneliness,” murdering our mothers (Heavenly Creatures) or jumping off buildings (Lost and Delirious), it’s a long-running joke in lesbian circles that the protagonists’ lives must end in tragedy. It’s as though a happy love between women is too obscene a reality to spread. As a result, the conclusion of Carol arrives as a quietly rebellious surprise.

“What a strange girl you are,” Carol says to Therese. “Flung out of space.”

The same could be said for Carol, a film that’s easy to love and hard to forget.

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