Reading “Carol” and “Fire” together

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The most everlasting feature of American film-maker Todd Haynes’ “Carol” is Cate Blanchett. In the film, she is Carol Aird, a charming, but unhappy woman suffering a bitter divorce from Harge (Kyle Chandler).

While seeking out a younger woman, Blanchett acts out Carol’s seducing skills with stunning brevity – an affair that has repercussions for her family. [Review by The Telegraph]

“Carol”, based on novel “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, is set in the New York of the 50s. In its writing, direction, performance and – let’s not forget – the clothes, it’s a beautiful film; a modern-day Casablanca, you can say, in its attention to style and dress.

But it’s a sad film too.

One day, ahead of Christmas, Carol buys a present for her daughter from a department store, where she meets a shop girl by the name of Therese Belivet (Ronney Mara). That meeting – between a costumer and a saleswoman – arouses their curiosity for each other, leading to a secret love affair that eventually jeopardises Carol’s demand for sharing the custody of her daughter with her to-be-divorced husband.

Therese is unsure of her feelings towards Richard, her so-called boyfriend who wants to marry her. Almost dumping the man, she takes a road trip with Carol, where the women drop all restraint and have sex for the first time.

A detective appointed by Harge tapes Carol’s and Therese’s stay at a hotel room. The warning of exposing Carol’s homosexuality – she had had a relationship with best friend Abby years ago – becomes the reason for Harge to seek the sole custody of their daughter Rindy.

On hearing the news, Carol flees the hotel, leaving Therese in the company of Abby, who drives the girl back home. Except for a letter by Carol, the women remain incommunicado for sometime.

In the end, Carol moves to an apartment and becomes a furniture buyer. Therese joins The New York Times as a photographer. They meet. Carol offers Therese to live with her.

After her initial no, later, Therese is seen walking towards Carol, who is in a business meeting. In the final sequence, their eyes meet in what appears to be a happily-ever-after ending.

It’s an end that does not have men in it. What if Carol had been dating a man? Would it still have merited a “morality clause” in the divorce petition? Of course, it has a lot to do with the taboo of homosexuality that existed in America 60 years ago. That was decades before the American Psychiatric Association removed the mention of homosexuality as a mental disorder in the 1970s, even though the discrimination against gays persisted.

“Carol”, whose original text is considered to be a feminist lesbian classic, took me back to “Fire”. Released in 1996, the Deepa Mehta film had two women – wives of two brothers – walk out of their loveless and sex-less marriages to live with each other.

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We don’t know what kind of lives Radha (Shabana Azmi) and Sita (Nandita Das), the main characters of “Fire”, lead with each other, whether are they happy or not. Ditto with Carol and Therese. [Review of “Fire” by NYT]

But in excluding men from their lives, these women challenge the obvious authority that emanates from being married to these men. In “Fire”, for example, the husbands of Radha and Sita neglected them; one practised sexual abstinence, under the guidance of a spiritual master; and his brother dates a Chinese woman. In other words, they were at the mercy of them, not only in financial terms. In “Carol”, Richard and Harge want their women to the point of desperation.

In their rejection of men as partners, are they looking for personal freedom in their search for love and happiness?  It’s hard to arrive at a clear answer, but in the case of “Fire” it is certainly the end of patriarchal tyranny. In “Carol” the women don’t want to be with their men because they are naturally drawn to each other, and less driven by circumstances as in “Fire” and it probably has more to do with free choice. Perhaps it’s a mix of all these factors. But you do wonder if the husbands of Radha and Sita had kept them happy, would “Fire” have happened?

And you still wonder, given the open-ended nature of the endings, whether these decisions and choices are definitive? Cast in stone? Again, there are no clear answers.

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Ankush Arora

Delhi boy; dreamer, nature lover, photographer. Development communications professional. Ex-Reuters, NDTV. This is a personal blog.

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