Rather than a forward-looking lesbian representation, Todd Haynes’s Carol, an adaptation by Phyllis Nagy of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, looks to images and affective investments of the past to explore lesbian representability, the historical discourses and aesthetic codes through which desire between women can be recognised. Set in a grey New York and in an American Midwest of diners and roadside motels, Carol inhabits the terrain of what Heather Love calls “feeling backwards” – lesbianism is associated with paranoia and unfit motherhood. Its heroine and plot are remarkably sketchy, and a reverie-like quality is captured in the film’s exquisite styling, camerawork, and score. But as an adaption of a novel written “back then” that sustains, rather than (only) punishes, the heroines’ and the reader’s desire, Carol takes intervening histories into account. Haynes and his lesbian collaborators fuse preoccupations from the director’s oeuvre, with its “mise-en-scene of desire” or authorial fantasy derived from the mid-century women’s picture, with Highsmith’s self-inscription to render the film’s core seduction fantasy public and present, even hopeful, however retro and dreamy the film looks in our current mediascape.
Professor Patricia White (Swarthmore College, USA) joins us for this talk, Lesbian Reverie: Carol as History and Fantasy as part of Sexuality Summer School.