I love the movie “Carol”. It is one of the best movies of the year, masterful on all levels. While I was watching it, I kept on thinking: “How exquisitely swoony”. Refined and restrained on the one hand, yet also stealthily lush and rich in its depiction of attraction and romance. And both subtle and incisive as well as brutally devastating in the limning of the danger and consequences of pursuing an outlaw love. And finally simply a triumph of cinema.
Being in the midst of rehearsals for the reading of “Speakeasy” when I saw “Carol” I couldn’t help but find the parallels to my musical. Now, I don’t want to overstate any comparisons. The obvious similarities may really be the only truly legitimate ones: both “Carol” and “Speakeasy” are about homosexual love during the more repressive eras in 20th century America (1950’s for “Carol”, 1930’s for “Speakeasy”). Other than that there are huge differences in medium (movie vs. musical theater), genre (intimate drama vs. big ensemble musical comedy) and more especially tone (serious, realistic vs. absurdist, magical realist). Not much in common there. A bit self serving perhaps to want to make comparisons between my musical theater workshop and an instant modern movie classic, just because they both depict lesbian love. Or lesbian love in repressive times.
And yet indulge me just a little. There were moments in “Carol”, especially in the depiction of Therese, played by Rooney Mara, where I felt echoes of the character of Jane Allison from Speakeasy as well as her inspiration “Alice” from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
Both Therese and Jane find themselves attracted to and attracting the attentions of an unlikely, older, alluring woman who also has a very commanding personality. In “Carol” this is Cate Blanchett’s Carol, in “Speakeasy” this is Duchess Bentley. One is an upper society suburban housewife, the other an outspoken black lesbian nightclub singer. About as different perhaps as two people can be except for their lesbianism, and the first adjectives one might use to describe the two (haughty, elegant, silky for Carol; bawdy, brash, fun for Duchess) are unlikely to duplicate; yet both women similarly appeal to their younger more reticent counterpart with their commanding personality, the life force they contain in surplus, and the deceptive ease with which they appear to take their mutual attraction for granted.
Therese and Jane also have in common that they both superficially appear to be like leaves blowing in the wind of circumstance beyond their control and the force of another’s personality. And yet there are crucial moments when both make definite choices that will take them on the path towards their unexpected love. Therese chooses to send Carol’s misplaced gloves back to her, initiating further contact that will lead to their first “date”. Jane kisses her neighbor Roberta, and then rushes after her in a search that will lead her to Duchess.
Many other choices Therese makes as well as her pointed avowal of her inability to make any choice regarding her boyfriend speak volumes about her secret inner life, even if she can’t yet articulate that part of her self in words. Jane too may not be able to acknowledge her secret inner life, but every step she takes in her “Adventures in Wonderland” inspired storyline, always moving forward with the help of sips from “Drink Me” bottles, speaks to her subconscious quest of self-discovery (unlike her husband John, who in his “Alice Through the Looking Glass” inspired wanderings is initially trying to get back home, so actively denying his inner life that at one point he even forgets his own name).
Late in the movie Therese may cry about how she always says yes to everybody, as if that was the sole reason she ended up on a fateful road trip with Carol, but there were many instances Therese had been saying no to getting closer and taking trips with the nominal man in her life, and even then she managed to do it without explicitly saying “no”. And Jane may at first resist Duchess’ aggressive flirting, but once Jane has concluded that she won’t be able to get any further trying to patch things up with Roberta, she chooses to go on to the Wonderland instead of safely heading home. When she reconnects with Duchess at the nightclub, she is much more open and relaxed in her company. Like with Therese, decisive subconscious choices have long been made before they are articulated. When the inevitable love making happens, it will be Therese saying to Carol “Take me to bed” in “Carol” and Jane urging Duchess to her bedroom in “Speakeasy”. Therese and Jane appear to be the seduced one only to those viewers who do not watch and listen closely.
Later, when both Carol and Duchess in their respective stories suffer the brunt of their eras’ animus against homosexuality, devastating turns of events that threaten them at the very core of their existence, Therese and Jane are both first sidelined and helpless eyewitnesses at best to the fate of the woman who they once loved but from whom they now stand separate. But while given the ostensibly comfortable option to retreat quietly and relatively unscathed into conventionality, both Therese and Jane will ultimately take definite, active steps towards affirming their full identity (as a lesbian or bisexual woman) and their love and loyalty to the women in their lives.