Director: Todd Haynes
** This blog contains spoilers**
Last week I was lucky enough to be able to see Carol with a group of friends at my locally refurbished cinema. It was an opportunity to catch up and be entertained. After watching the film, I didn’t think that I would write about it. This is not to say that I did not enjoy the film. It is beautiful and seductive and as someone who is easily distracted by well-cut clothes, I would definitely recommend the film. However, it was not until I wrote about control in the last blog, that I found something to say about the film beyond the aesthetic.
But let’s start with the aesthetics. This is a film about seduction and it is no accident that its opening scenes are about selling. The first encounter between Carol and Therese is in a department store. Therese, wide-eyed, looking lost is surrounded by ideals of femininity of static, baby dolls in pretty dresses but instead suggests the moving train as a girl’s gift. This is a big clue by the film’s standards about the role and constraints of identity. Every other detail is controlled. Every movement, every gesture is small and careful. The seduction is slight: lipstick on a cigarette, well-timed glances, half-spoken sentences. The dialogue is minimal.
The tension, the control with which the main actors interact could be seen and dismissed simply as ‘old-fashioned’. But it would be more accurate to say it is ‘of its time’. This is a post-war era where McCarthyism was allowed to flourish, with growing prosperity, but pointed insecurity. The film is set at a particularly poignant era for women coming out of the ‘liberation’ of the war, but not quite forced into the defined femininity of the later 1950s and early 1960s (think Doris Day’s Pillow Talk (1959) or Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)).
Part of the restraint could be a result of the lack of a language to explore their feelings:
Therese: I wanna know, I think… I mean, I wanna ask you things, but I’m… I’m not sure that you want that…
But language is only a small part of the behaviour. Carol and Therese know that they are outside permitted behaviour. That they are seen as deviant.
Therese: Have you ever been in love with a boy?
Therese: But you’ve heard of it.
Richard: Of course. I mean, have I heard of people like that? Sure.
Therese: I don’t mean people like that. I mean two people who just… fall in love. With each other. Say, a boy and a boy. Out of the blue.
Richard: I don’t know anyone like that. But I’ll tell you this: there’s always some reason for it. In the background.
Therese: So you don’t think it could just… *happen* to somebody, just… anybody?
Richard: No. I don’t. What are you saying? Are you in love with a girl?
For Therese and Carol they cannot just be in love, they have to be ‘people like that’. Homosexuality in this era and this story is constructed in a number of ways:
- As a disease – Carol is expected to see a doctor/therapist
- As a silence – ‘people like that’
- As immorality
- As proof of unfit parenthood
The two are forced to act as if they are constantly being watched even when they are not.
But they are. The use of surveillance leads to a raw and angry custody meeting where Carol uncharacteristically deploys emotion and exclaims: “We are not ugly people!”
But their circumstances are ugly.
So, the tension and unease within the film, the lack of dialogue, the nuanced performances, the lingering close ups of unblinking eyes and smoking cigarettes need to be seen as a product of control. This control is far removed from the overt surveillance in Burying the Typewriter (Bugan, 2012) and perhaps more closely equates to Foucault’s (1977: 201) conceptual description of the Panopticon.
“Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power”
The knowledge that one could be under surveillance changes behaviour to act as if being observed and furthermore, produces a new form of internalised disciplinary practice that accepts ‘norms’ and prescribed behaviours.
But has this anything to do with social work, social policy and social justice?
Of course, central to this film, is a social justice issue – the ability to love and have that love acknowledged and accepted. In the 21st century, with legalised marriage and equality laws we could just see Carol as an interesting time piece, but if we look closer we need to think about what freedom really means. Social workers for all the rhetoric of empowerment and liberation, are also involved in social control. Foucault would argue that society with its CCTV, confessional documentaries, paparazzi, below the line comments, practices constant surveillance and this includes social workers with their clients. Social Workers would do well to pay some attention to Foucault who was interested in “the prisoner, the sexual deviant and the insane” (Gray and Webb, 2013: 218). Whilst he does not offer a transformative vision and rarely touches on economic inequality, according to Irving (2009) Foucault’s significance for social work practice is that he moves us on from thinking about rational evidence-based thinking to consider more diverse, contingent, multiple ways of understanding the world and our relationships within it.
“He showed how freedom in every moment of our lives, in its fluctuating intensities, needs to be reinvented” (Irving, 2009: 50 – 51)
Go and see Carol. It is unlikely I will see a more beautiful, seductive, immersive film. Whilst the Oscars have seen fit to ignore it, I think it is a wonderful creation.
Mills (2003, 47) suggests that:
“Perhaps the most productive element of Foucault’s analysis of power is the fact that he sees power relations as largely unsuccessful, as not achieving the goal of total domination.”
Carol is a testament to how unsuccessful that power can be. It does something unusual for mainstream cinema; it allows a lesbian seduction to have a happy ending.
Bugan, C. (2012) Burying the Typewriter: Childhood under the eye of the secret police London: Picador
Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison London: Penguin
Gray, M. and Webb, S. A. The New Politics of Social Work Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Irving, A. “Michel Foucault” in M. Gray and S. A. Webb (eds) Social Work: Theories and Methods London: Sage
Mills, S. Michel Foucault: Routledge Critical Thinkers London: Routledge