It’s Awards Season, which means that if you’re not seeing Star Wars, you’re seeing something old-timey. Something where Christian Bale is wearing a wig, something where filmmakers are showing you a sexier version of what happened a few years ago (Jobs, The Big Short, Concussion), or twenty years ago (Joy), or in the first half of the twentieth century (The Danish Girl, Brooklyn, Carol).
Out of these anachronistic options, I was most excited to see Carol because a) it’s a LGBT love story set in the 1950s, with b) gorgeous costumes and c) talented actresses, which opened wide this week and is a d) “A study in human magnetism,” says the New York Times and “a romantic spellbinder,” says Rolling Stone.
A whole lotta meh, says me, once I saw it.
HERE BEGIN THE VAGUE SPOILERS (OBVS).
One thing I will say for Carol is that it’s all very pretty. Rooney Mara is pretty, Cate Blanchett’s tiny hats are pretty, and the hundreds of shots of rain glittering on cab windows are cute. But taken together, they do a piss-poor job of depicting what love feels like.
Even the most innocuous first-grade crushes are more complex than the love story presented in Carol. The relationship between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara’s characters plays out as if they’re two six-year-olds.
“Hey, do you want to come over to my house in New Jersey?”
“Hey, my husband is being a meanie. You want to run away?”
Yep — since the characters are lesbians in the 1950s, their love is forbidden. They can’t acknowledge it with words, so their bodies, chemistry, and eye contact must do the talking. I anticipated breath getting caught in chests; embraces lingering a half second too long; shimmering hesitation between two bodies that want to fall into each other but have to wait. But instead of looking at each other, these two ladies look outside those endlessly sequined windows.
Granted, it’s hard to fake chemistry and, to be honest, I still don’t understand the draw of Rooney Mara. She always seems detached, flat, confused, and lost. The film even seems to acknowledge this, with Blanchett saying Mara’s character seems “flung out of space.”
But with three characters in Carol fighting to get into her character’s pants, Mara merely seems perplexed by all of them.
I want to help her — after all, the romantic and sexual chemistry is supposed to be the whole story, otherwise Mara and Blanchett are just two gal pals sipping martinis. When the film finally, finally allows them to kiss — after they’ve been alone together for weeks — it leads to a sex scene that’s basically a Renaissance painting. It’s all loose hair and stray nipples. There is no awkwardness, no frantic grasping hands, no fear about what base comes after breast fondling. There’s not one gasp and nary a moan.
Sex is rarely this elegant. And the most emotional, unforgettable sex scenes are typically the most realistic ones. Scenes between queer characters needn’t be an exception to that rule; think about the fumbling of bras and buttons between Chloe Sevigny and Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry. Or the fury — and quick thinking of spit as lube — in Brokeback Mountain. The sweet excitement of But I’m a Cheerleader.
And as much as the graphic, endless sex scenes in Blue Is the Warmest Color stole all the public’s attention, it wasn’t just because it’s hot to see two young French girls banging. There are also the slurping, the sweat and drool, the spasming butt cheeks and hands reaching out to touch anything that will make the other person feel good.
It’s just not enough to have two beautiful women petting each other gently. It’s no longer bold and courageous to release a film about gay stuff, and then sit there waiting for awards to roll in; the folks who coughed out Stonewall know a thing about that. Love stories of all kinds just need a pulse. In my opinion, Carol has none.
Throughout the movie, I kept thinking about a poem I read in college. “The Encounter” (written by unrepentant anti-Semite and general a-hole Ezra Pound) also depicts an unspoken attraction alighting in the early half of the twentieth century, here at a dinner party:
All the while they were talking the new morality
Her eyes explored me.
Oh man, these two are eye-fucking the crap out of each other! It can be done in so few words, see? Carol may very well win Best Picture this year. But it could use significantly more eye-fucking.