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“When we do not know why the photographer has taken a picture and when we do not know why we are looking at it, all of a sudden we discover something that we start seeing.”

– Saul Leiter

Manhattan in the 1950s: a metropolis of fog and early-morning commutes; grey days of rain thudding on the pavements and stray cats surveying from the fire escapes; overcoats and umbrellas, tartan sensibilities and Rockefeller glamour, and through the faded drizzle of it all, the flash of a fur coat and carmine lipstick. Very much a seamless component of the urban landscape, yet unmistakeably distinct from her surroundings, Cate Blanchett’s Carol is as captivating as the subject of Edward Hopper’s “New York Office”. Hopper’s gift lay in capturing the still-life moments of the city: that moment in which the animation of urban life is briefly suspended, haste and unrest come to a standstill, revealing rare and unexpected beauties. Similar to Hopper’s paintings, Carol is not so much a film, but an observation of the rare intimate moments of life: an absent glance, a feather-light touch, a forgotten word…While its exquisite attention to detail renders the film ever-so slightly overly mannered, its documentary-like portrayal of a mutual fascination and courtship make for an unhurried and ruminative viewing.

The influence of master photographer Saul Leiter is undeniable, and perhaps even a bit of David Hamilton and Frank Oscar Larsson: a muted tapestry of city life as though seen through a gauze veil, forging an intimacy between the viewer and subject through masterful use of the grainy Super 16 film. The excellent screenplay wastes no time in establishing exposition – we are in the middle of an ongoing narrative almost immediately, at once immersive and organic. Like voyeurs, we simply observe the daily lives of the characters as they happen, who need hardly go into detail establishing their narrative significance.

It is, perhaps appropriate then, that the camera and the act of photography plays a central motif in the film. Therese’s interest in the camera is her conduit into Carol’s world, one that is slightly removed from her own and entices with the promise of the unknown. The incrementally intensifying nature of the relationship between the two women is both subtle and satisfying, punctuated by lingering looks and gestures. Their relationship is not ‘forbidden’ in the traditional sense of societal pressure as the inclination would be, but rather by the characters’ own reticences and insecurities. When they at last come together, the film carefully avoids the cliche of making a political statement, but merely follows the action where it leads, as natural as you like. There are no explosive moments, and instead the film revels in the quiet moments that seethe with latent intensity and longing. Things are not said, but implied. Indeed, the relationship is instigated by the forgetting and returning of gloves – there is much to be said about the reserved yet erotically charged language of gloves in Victorian society; as in dropping a handkerchief, leaving behind one’s gloves was clearly a flirtatious indication of romantic intent.

Carol is a careful and considered film, very much a mirror of the social circumstances in which the relationship takes place, cautious yet brimming with passionate reserve. It is lazy and reductive to denote it as a ‘lesbian romance’ (as Highsmith herself would have no doubt loathed), but rather the spark of a chance encounter that is blown into something more. It is the story of connections and strangers, that curiously erotic moment of locking eyes with eyes with someone with little thought for how one’s world might be transformed from that instant.

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