Carol and The Dressmaker

Kate Blanchett in Carol (2015)

In light of the praise from colleagues and friends, it feels heretical to confess my ambivalence towards Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015). There is a lot that makes it special. A lesbian love story that ends well, released at Christmas (aka Academy Awards season) feels like cause for celebration—even if films focused on queer women should be a commonplace occurrence. Moreover, the exquisite beauty of its costume, set designs, and leads, bears mention.

But despite, or possibly on account of all that, Carol felt rather cold for a love story. I just wasn’t feeling it. Of course, this coolly calculated assemblage is fitting for the topic. The near fetishistic arrangement of authenticity places everything under glass and cautiously distant from any touch or chance for disarray.

As such, this mise-en-scène communicates the repression of women and their yearning. The clothes are stunning, offering up the objects of desire. It is acceptable for women to covet and consume these, if not each other. The distance and displacement makes sense when expressing the challenges of a love that could not be shown or even acknowledged.

However, there was little sense of craving beyond that consumerist surface. Glimpses of desire intrude in close-ups that disrupt the precision of the wide shots. Close-ups of Carol’s (Cate Blanchett’s) carefully manicured hands might burgeon with meaning, but they also grant an image of wealth: of the leisure time and disposable wealth (or lack of need for manual labour). Therese (Rooney Mara) might be aching for these hands on her body. She might also be aching for hands showcased in ways already made familiar in commercial photography.

Gifts given or exchanged become the means through which emotion is communicated. Objects take on heavy emotional meaning. But the sentimentalisation of consumerist consumption is nothing new for women’s films.

Given Todd Haynes’ cinephilic knowledge and sensibility, I’d expect that the genre play and formalist indulgence offer modes of social critique. This is certainly the case in his other films, including two of his gems: Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) and Safe (1995). In Superstar, the use of a Barbie doll to play Karen Carpenter, who died from complications of a severe eating disorder, provides a brilliant occasion for expressing the violence of consumerism and idealized femininity.

But in Carol, that potential feels muted if even present. Possibly too much of what is on display fits too easily into an established masculine and capitalist order of things. The idealized femininity here—skinny, white, and even classed as wealth and upward mobility make their way in—is not questioned for a moment. It is interesting, even, that Therese’s ascent to professional job (after her service position) narratively coincides with Carol’s declaration of love. Both are part of the happy trajectory.

The sex scene, too, suggests a troubling economy. One would expect some sense of emotional or physical release as displacement and secrecy can give way to physical abandon. Instead, the sequence places Therese’s body, really just her naked torso, on display in a manner that is fragmented and static, subject to that capitalist patriarchal gaze that loves slender, white, naked, and interchangeable bodies. It becomes, like so much else in the film, something that fits in a catalogue or advertisement.

And make no mistake: stylization is no enemy to expressions of rapture, even within repressive conditions. The Wachowskis’s Bound (1996) is a masterpiece of design and genre play, but is nonetheless suffused with emotion and desire. In the sex scene, bodies are on display—it is cinema, after all—but the women are enmeshed and carried away. A fitted sheet pops off the mattress corner expresses with great efficiency the disruption of repression and order.

Even the type of sex speaks to forms of the gaze: Carol is predominantly oral, suggesting both consumption and alignment with male fantasies of lesbian sex. Bound (which brought in sexpert Susie Bright as consultant) emphasized hands as sensuous actors, thus bringing to the fore both practical and metaphoric appeal.

Overall, then, there is a passivity throughout Carol, that makes sense in some ways. These are lesbians in the 1950s after all. But this aesthetic repression offers pleasure instead of frustration. It perpetuates the treatment of women in film. But perhaps such is the man-made woman-centric film, whose popularity can be attributed to women starved for stories of themselves, and men happy to have an auteur to wank over. (I won’t even begin to touch on the issues of race, as I have been increasingly suspicious of the ways period pictures naturalise the segregation that continues to plague the industry and its product.)

The role of the male auteur in the popularity of this women’s film is made all the more likely when one considers The Dressmaker. What should have been hailed as the return of another auteur—Jocelyn Moorhouse, who was responsible for the brilliant Proof (1991)—has instead been treated to some truly rubbish promotion. The multi-genre film is forced into a broad comedy trailer, whilst there is no mention made of its director (at least in the UK).

Like Carol, The Dressmaker offers some truly stunning frocks for viewing pleasure. But unlike Carol, these are foregrounded as products of women’s labour and tools for social navigation (or sensuous pleasures). And even as it addresses such functions of the garments, The Dressmaker does not valorise upward class mobility.

There is much to gaze upon here as well. In addition to costume and design, Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth offer their own delights. Although Winslet does not quite pose a departure from white normative femininity, she functions differently than the sylphs and ciphers of Blanchett and Mara.

Indeed, Winslet’s (rather constant) subjection to digital alteration makes her an embodiment of the resistant body in a persistence of patriarchal vision. As for Hemsworth, he is made the object of the gaze multiple times throughout the film, particularly by the joyously raucous Judy Davis as Mad Molly, self-described ‘hag’. In fact throughout the film, Moorhouse may be placing the act of gazing under scrutiny.

More subversively, Winslet and Hemsworth are romantically paired in the film despite an age-difference that goes entirely unmentioned and unremarked upon. In this story of a woman, Myrtle ‘Tilly’ Dunnage (Winslet) who returns to her home town after many years way, Hemsworth’s Teddy appear to be playing her contemporary or someone a few years her junior at most. Such narrative or casting elements pose a reversal to the usual, and thankfully, it never goes to engage a rescue fantasy either. This film envisions a more incendiary happy ending.

Carol, too, involves a striking age difference in romantic pairing. Of course, here it is remarked upon and more than that, it seems denaturalised or even pathologised, as Therese seems to be surrogate daughter during a Christmas holiday when Carol’s ex-husband has taken their child to Florida. This age difference, and potentially unseemly familial dimension is brought further to the fore in a cross-country trip and pursuit. As the brilliant feminist scholar-critic-poet, Sophie Mayer, notes, there is something of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) here (although perhaps not enough to go somewhere truly interesting).

Carol and The Dressmaker suggest companion pieces in need of thorough combined analysis. The two are period pieces and women’s films, preoccupied with genre play, design, and queer desires (of different kinds). Yet the former conveys something almost typically repressive and patriarchal: sentimental consumption and idealised femininity are upheld, and a male auteur granted pride of place in distribution and promotion.

Its celebration is not without merit—it is a beautiful film—but it also points to so much that is wrong with mainstream cinema and its economies. The Dressmaker, as such, becomes doubly appealing, taking pleasure in the style, but taking it apart as well.

Screenshot courtesy of Todd Haynes. All rights reserved.