Coming-of-age usually occurs in adolescence, when preteens and teenagers begin playacting at adulthood, realizing that they have the bodies, minds, and free choices of the elders they once thought were incorruptible. It is at this age that people first experiment with sexuality and drugs, as a kind of protest to the draconian and irrational restrictions placed on them since childhood. The curtain is drawn, the man behind the machine is exposed, and everyone know the story from here. etc. etc. etc. It’s a cliché, but an essential one.
An atypical coming-of-age story wouldn’t happen when you most expect it to, in adolescence. An atypical setting would be in adulthood, when the majority of people, through trial and error, have by then figured themselves out, what they want, the types of people they’re drawn to, and their tastes and distastes. Todd Haynes’ film, Carol, is no ordinary self-discovery story, and the coming-of-age of its protagonist, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is hardly typical.
Therese begins the film looking like a scared mouse, wide eyed, shy, and homely. The early scenes show her working in the Frankenburg department store, reading “Are You Frankenburg Material?”, everything drowned in beige-blue light, with jarring bells, supervisors wearing constant scowls, coworkers robotically addressing her as “Employee #6158,” all to contrast with the assumed happiness of the Christmas season. Moreover, it becomes very clear that Therese is too timid to make assertive decisions of her own. For example, when she sits down with Carol for lunch, she takes her cue what to order from Carol. When her boyfriend proposes they move to France, she changes the subject. When the “philosopher” Danny moves in for a kiss, she bashfully runs away without giving an honest excuse. She also admits to spending New Years, the most universally celebrated holiday, alone. Therese’s placement, peripheral to the world of adults, the world of real decisions, is highlighted by her tearful train ride from New Jersey, back to her humble New York apartment. After being an accidental bystander to Carol’s confrontation with her husband Harge over their child, Wendy, Therese witnesses a celebratory party on the train, and then breaks down crying. Perhaps this is due to her reflection that she is always an outside observer of mature relationships with their periods of both extreme grief and joy, emotions she has never truly felt.
All of this changes with the introduction of the sophisticated and sensual Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). With Carol, sensuality oozes from every movement: a flick of the wrist, a long pull from a cigarette, a twirl of her hair; as well as every detail of her appearance: bright red lipstick, sharply chiseled cheekbones, a fluid-like walk. With her schoolgirl attraction to Carol, Therese suddenly becomes initiated into a world that, before, she only looked at with indifference. It’s not accidental that her hobby of taking photographs of people, as opposed to blasé subjects like birds and trees, happens in tangent with her dawning relationship with Carol. It’s also through Carol that Therese finds her own voice. For example, when Therese’s boyfriend disapproves of her decision to drive west with Carol, revisiting his early offer to move to Paris, even with the enticement of a new job, Therese screams out, “I never made you [do this]. I never asked you for anything. Maybe that’s the problem.” Therese is proud that she is finally beginning to make her own choices, rather than simply submit to choices made for her by others.
The next act of the movie is extremely reminiscent of the plot to Lolita. The two women drive cross-county. The expectation of sex grows with each new night at a different hotel. The moment sex finally occurs is the film’s climax (ha). Afterwards, the tragedy for the elder partner begins. The younger partner is collateral damage. A hired man has been following Carol, recording her conversations through the wall, mustering evidence of her lesbian debauches, building up a legal case for Harge’s attempt to deprive Carol custody over Wendy, discrediting her abilities of motherhood on the grounds of 1950s American morality. For expedience’s sake, Carol has to distance herself as far as possible from Therese, which proves devastating to the girl who felt both physically and emotionally content for the first time in her life.
The real coming-of-age that occurs in this film is the scene which repeats itself from the beginning. The hotel restaurant scene. A reunion of lovers. Carol wears her excitement on her face, speaks without thinking, inadvertently spits out a proposal for Therese to move in with her, then immediately shoots down the suggestion. “Of course you wouldn’t want to.” Therese blankly stares ahead, then rejects the offer. She is successfully employed at the New York Times, and has a broad circle of friends. She also feels injured by Carol’s abrupt termination of their relationship. But Therese’s rejection here is even less about injury, and more about pride. For once, by fully taking control of a life that was previously decided for her, she is proud of who she is, what she’s become. She doesn’t need to depend on the generosity and convenience of the past, of past lovers and past experiences. Her choices are exclusively her own. End of story.
But it doesn’t end. After her rejection, Therese leaves the hotel, attends a party with friends, makes conversation with another lesbian woman (an unexpected cameo from Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein), but then makes the surprising decision to return to Carol. But notice this. She makes the decision. Not Carol. If she took up Carol’s initial proposal, then Therese would have proved herself to be the same undeveloped person from the beginning. After all, it was Carol who originally courted Therese, not the other way around. Carol is thereby a celebration of individual free will, even if the exercise of this will hinges on other people’s initiation. What truly matters is that you will it.
Carol is the reverse plot of Lolita. Rather than following the Humbert Humbert, the audience’s gaze is cast on the Dolores. We watch Therese grow from meek to mighty. We watch her initial entrapment in a loveless, fluorescent-bathed life, transition into a discovery of her sexuality and by extension, her identity. The film is titled Carol, which indicates that the director intended for Carol’s life, Carol’s tragedy, to be the focal point. Yet, I find that Therese becomes the more compelling character than Carol, because coming-of-age is so universal. Carol teaches us that everyone has a coming-of-age story, some people just take a little longer. And for those still stumbling into themselves, it’s this advice that becomes invaluable.
-Nathan Le Master, April 2016