The New Year period never really feels complete until your able to slip the weatherworn shoes off your aching feet and warm yourself by the fire with a cup of hot coco while watching a classic film on the television. Not all modern movies reach this caliber of comfy couch classification, however, this recent New Year has given us a few stocking fillers that will surely be repeated year in and year out.
The first film of which I’m going to take a belated retrospective is based on the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt” (1952) later reprinted under the title of the story’s lead protagonist, “Carol”. This is a film that tells the story of two women who fall in love during the mid-fifties within American high-society. “Carol” (2015) is a film of delicate subtlety that speaks volumes about the desperate nature of forbidden love under the brutality of social stigma during this era of 1950s Americana. The film communicates the unspoken feelings of bubbling romantic attraction and unrequited sexual tension less through its brevity in dialogue and more in its subtle use of visual nuance and filmic photogenie. This is a film of pauses. Pauses that subtly impregnate each celluloid frame with layer upon layer of infused meaning.
The lead protagonist, Carol, is a character of outwardly abundant class and confidence yet she is also a character of hidden depth and frailty. Cate Blanchet captures her mood majestically: magnetically drawing the viewer into her secret world of private unspoken desires. Her outward visage exudes such vivacity yet hides an inner sadness that yearns to finally find that small piece of happiness within her claustrophobically patriarchal world. This is where Carol’s story truly begins.
Two women’s eyes meet over a sea of holiday shoppers in a tinsel clad toy store. The initial scene is a simple exchange of purchasing a toy train set from a sales clerk. Reading in between the lines, however, the lingering glances and flirtatious half smiles tell a different story. This is the power of truly great acting captured through the medium of cinema. If a picture speaks a thousand words then the camera close up of these two characters could write a whole novel.
In actuality this encounter was this initial inspiration for the book itself. This moment came directly from Patricia Highsmith’s experience as a store clerk during the Christmas of 1948. The affect of a beautiful blonde woman, adorned in a mink fur coat, left such an impression on the writer that she was compelled to go straight home and write the story. In this instance the perspective of the writer is that off Therese Belivet, the character portrayed in the film by the actress Rooney Mara.
Mara’s shy, mousey innocence reveals to the audience the character of a woman desperate to shout her feeling to the skies. From the first meeting she has with Carol we see a gradual blossoming of this shy reserved sales clerk into a fiercely independent and talented woman. Through Therese and Carol’s experience together, and the resulting consequences of their love in their unforgiving society, we are privileged to witness the tragic breakdown and gradual rebuilding of these characters lives. At the conclusion of the film we can barely recognize Carol or Therese, as the changes they have gone through have been so monumental that we have to wonder if their lives could ever be the same again. We are left to speculate, with no clear acknowledgement, whether they find that little piece of happiness or continue to live in isolation within their prejudiced society. Although, is this not the meaning that both the film and book are trying to portray?
“The Price of Salt” is the cost of sacrifice. “If salt looses its flavour, how can it become salty again?” (Luke 14-34). Similarly, if the spark between two people is lost, how do they recapture that fleeting moment? Perhaps the price of that fleeting love is simply that it cannot be regained. It is forever lost, like the kaleidoscopic perspective of childhood innocence, once removed only to see the world in adulterated shades of gray.
You cannot help but end up really caring about these characters lives. We empathise with them because their story is universal. Society is cruel and true love is something you read about in fairy tales. This is a story that makes you wish both were untrue. It’s a story that could only be told during that specific time and place, on the cusp of sexual liberation yet just out of reach. It’s also a story about bravery in the face of losing everything. In order to live in a free world without boundaries sacrifices must be endeavored. This film takes us to the very brink of those endeavors, as well as critiquing the madcap morality of 1950s American society, which forces the individual to either conform or perish. Sometimes the cost of sacrificing everything is the only path you can take to freely do anything.