Once you get past the troll at the entrance of the tunnel in the form of a banner reading “The Weinstein Company,” Todd Haynes’ 2015 love story Carol takes you by the heavy-wool-draped shoulders and moodily ushers you into a two-hour wrenching of the heart. It is, somehow, the best holiday movie in current existence.
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance novel The Price Of Salt, Carol stars Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, a seasonal shopgirl with aspirations to live a life that looks like anything other than the one she’s currently living. Cate Blanchett is the title character: Carol, a woman on the verge of divorcing her husband, at the end of one lesbian affair and the onset of another. Annual appointment viewing for anyone who likes to be horny and sad at the same time, Carol is like having a bit of a cold while laying in a room that’s a bit too warm and looking at a vintage snow globe, all while being a little bit gay. In other words, it feels like Christmas.
Carol is set in the New York City of the 1950s. Its first half takes place during the pre-Christmas bustle, dreary or dreamy depending on your mindset. When she first meets Carol, Therese is working behind the counter in a toy room at Frankenberg’s department store, using a display of dolls as a barrier between herself and the patrons with either too much money to spend on the holidays or not enough. Shaking her from her privileged ennui is the initial appearance of Carol, with her tidy blonde bob and cold leather gloves that probably smell like cinnamon gum from being in her bag.
Five minutes earlier, the only highlight of Therese’s day was watching a selection of toy trains make their somber route to nowhere. Now she’s filled with Christmas spirit, suddenly eager to insert herself in seasonal activities: handwriting correspondences, selecting albums to give Carol as gifts, photographing her crush beneath a flurry of snowflakes at a Christmas tree stand. All the while Therese knows that, like one of those snowflakes, none of this can possibly last. As with Christmas itself, the ecstatic high of an unrealistic love—mixed with the expectations that hover over it all—is enough to break your heart. It’s also enough to keep you chasing it your whole life, the same way we chase Christmas cheer every December.
“I love Christmas,” Carol wistfully tells Therese during their first encounter in the store. “Wrapping presents and all that. And then somehow you wind up overcooking the turkey anyway.” What the movie understands, much better than time-honored classics like Planes, Trains And Automobiles or Home Alone, is the joy and the sadness of carving out a little moment of holiday cheer separate from the non-holiday drudgery of normal daily life. The heavy weight of self-inflicted expectation to have a perfect Christmas is like toothpick holes in a freshly baked cake: something perfect inevitably botched.
It’s in the weeks prior to Christmas that Carol and Therese become entwined in each other’s lives, in their shared but not altogether vocalized sense of what they never knew they desperately needed. This is a time when the world is shrouded in a cold illumination, pulled out of melancholy by the twinkle of Christmas lights dutifully strung everywhere. People get invited to parties they don’t want to attend, but they go because the feeling of having missed them would be too depressing. And it’s not unusual to return to the office during this time reeking of Phillip Morris cigarettes and one too many dry martinis.
Carol tracks the two lovers across the season, into the post-Christmas week where Carol and Therese’s relationship has gone past their first sexual encounter and into the real problems of life. Their love truly lives within the unbearable sadness of the day the Christmas tree comes down. The vibe from here is tearful train rides home, sitting with a lap full of opened gifts, driven to the brink of crippling despair in some small town like Waterloo, Iowa. No warm oven. No bubbly drinks. Nothing festive to look forward to. Just an unrolled blanket of Monday mornings.
If you’re of a delicate nature, there are Christmas movies for you: childlike offerings like A Charlie Brown Christmas, or Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. Traditionalists can have Miracle On 34th Street and It’s A Wonderful Life. And if you’re just in it for a good yuletide laugh, there’s always A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. These relative classics are safe, sure bets for maintaining a seasonal framework while shielding yourself from any hard feelings. But make no mistake about it, Christmas wants to hurt you.
What cements Carol as not only a powerfully sentimental Christmas movie worth revisiting (at least) once a year but also a strong contender for the best Christmas movie period is that, from top to bottom, it spills it all out. Every last sticky gulp of intoxication that Christmas has to offer, regretful hangover included. It pulls you down into the wintry mix of salty and sweet euphoria that an intense whirlwind romance and Christmas have in common. It takes you high up into the perfume-counter-scented clouds, plummets you quick so that your heart beats in your neck, and then knocks you down on your ass so hard that the puffy ball at the end of your Santa hat goes from right to left. Now that’s a holiday film to fall in love with.
Towards the end of Carol, after the the holiday high has worn off and the dead zone drip of early January has taken hold, Carol herself—the mascot for the season—writes a letter to Therese, stating her case for why, after an interlude apart, she envisions them taking another crack at things. Carol doesn’t want to see their love recede into distant memory, forever frozen within one of the aforementioned snow globes we mentioned at the beginning of this, intended to be experienced and packed away. She writes of a vision she has of the two of them as “lives stretched out ahead of us, a perpetual sunrise.” And Therese takes the bait, just as we do every December 1st when we haul out that same dusty box of Christmas decorations, ready to experience all the holy jolly heartbreak all over again. This time, it’s going to be perfect.