Highsmith’s fantasy was as political as it was personal. At the time The Price of Salt was written, it was illegal to publish or distribute content about gay people, though censors seemed to relax as long as the gay people in question were being punished. In New York, where the State Liquor Authority considered serving drinks to homosexuals “disorderly,” gay bars were run by mafia who extorted customers and bribed police to look away; in a memoir about her relationship with Highsmith, the author Marijane Meaker describes how hard it was for two girls to get a table at a decent restaurant on a Saturday night, especially if they weren’t wearing skirts. A couple of years after Highsmith first saw the elegant woman in Bloomingdale’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy, invigorated by his progress with the Red Scare, managed to get 91 suspected homosexuals to resign from the State Department; the year The Price of Salt was published, the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance.
In that sense, the greatest mystery threatening Carol and Therese is what might happen to them if they fall in love. It feels right that the movie so sharply evokes winter, a season of death and stasis but also of pervasive magic, of snowflakes and toddies and fires in the hearth and that recalcitrant way people seem to insulate against the blackness. Driving across the dead plains of Ohio, Carol and Therese start to look like the last people on earth, a fantasy that might make both their lives a little easier. (“I could get used to having the whole city to myself,” Carol says as they start their trip.) When a private detective commissioned by Carol’s husband starts following the women, his presence feels allegorical: The proxy for a society that will expose people like Carol and Therese no matter where they go.
Even in movies, it’s still difficult for women to get time alone at the wheel. More than half of Carol‘s thirteen producers are women, a ratio that, according to a couple of recent studies on the subject, is usually closer to one in five. Fewer than one in three women in the movies surveyed had speaking roles, and of those women, less than one tenth of one percent were gay. Eleven of the top 700 grossing films in 2014 had a female screenwriter; none of the year’s top 100 grossing films featured a leading female performer over the age of 45. Blanchett celebrated her 46th birthday in May. Though the lines are less starkly drawn and don’t carry quite the same voltage, Carol is about as unlikely to have been made in 2015 as The Price of Salt might’ve been in 1952.
But movies aren’t arguments or legislation so much as corollaries to them, barometers of the pressure surrounding certain topics or narratives. Despite recent progress both real and perceived on the question of gay rights, Nagy’s canniest changes to Highsmith’s novel are ones calibrated not to show us how much the culture has changed, but how little. During a custody battle that transpires between Carol, her husband and their respective lawyers, we find out that Carol has seen a therapist, who chalks her homosexual adventure up to a temporary lapse in sanity. If she’s willing to agree with the therapist’s assessment, she would be on better terms for custody, but she doesn’t — a nod both to Highsmith’s own attempt to “cure” herself in 1948 and the way that homosexuality continues to be pathologized in places like Christian conversion camps, where young people go to “pray away the gay.”
“We have this favorite idea that progress is always forward moving,” says director Todd Haynes, “but that’s always challenged by surprises when you look back in history.” For as many constraints as Carol and Therese face, he sees their moment as one of instability and slippage. “It’s a culture that’s been crushed after the war years. Maybe that only strengthened the mores and prescriptions of social behavior, because they gave people something to hold on to, but there’s a sense that the city and culture [Carol and Therese] are in at the time is really shifting.” One of the movie’s most surprising moments is when we see Blanchett step out of the car in Chicago wearing slacks and flats. (The dramatic temperature is so low that suddenly seeing a character wearing pants constitutes a major shift.) “Right,” Haynes says. “But she’s fully girdled and skirted and heeled by the time they go out later that night.”