Ravishment: CAROL

In an interview for the French magazine Positif, Todd Haynes declared that the descriptions in Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt – the original title of the 1952 novel on which Carol (2015) is based – reminded him of Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977). According to Haynes, both Highsmith’s fictional novel and Barthes’ essayistic exploration speak of the same “products of the amorous imagination, those theatrical scenarios that are constantly generated” [1]. It seems to me, however, that the film – through a series of details and choices that have their origin either in Phyllis Nagy’s script adaptation or in Haynes’ aesthetics and mise en scène – has a far stronger affinity with Barthes’ text than Highsmith’s novel.

I. The passage of A Lover’s Discourse that seems most obsessively invoked by Carol is the one devoted to ravishment: the initial episode of love, in which the subject is “captured and enchanted by the image of the loved object” [2]. In the film, the first encounter between Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a perfect depiction of this episode as described by Barthes: “an hypnosis […], preceded by a twilight state”, in which “the subject is in a sense empty, available, offered unwittingly to the rape which will surprise him”.

The scene takes place in the toy section of the Frankenberg’s store where Therese works. It is early morning (twilight) and the shop has yet to open its doors. In the semi-dark, for the lights still remain turned off, we see Therese arranging some shelf. She’s distracted, perhaps even a bit sleepy, surrounded by this artificial world of dolls and toys, so routine that one can navigate it without paying much attention. She puts in motion a train set and, lulled by its clattering and whistling, falls into a dreamy state while observing the circuit. Everything conspires to create this propicious ambience that will place Therese, without her knowing it, into an attitude of predisposition to be surprised by her conqueror.


Once the department store opens its doors and people start filling it up, Therese occupies her appointed desk. Haynes introduces several shots of customers strolling, inspecting, hunting for their Christmas presents. A woman carrying a doll walks toward the camera and passes by; suddenly, the camera racks focus and Carol’s figure pops-up at the background. Perfectly framed (“the first thing we love is a scene”), she stands next to the same train set that, earlier, had captivated Therese. Lost in her thoughts, Carol plays with her gloves and absent-mindedly caresses a red handkerchief. Barthes writes: “In the fascinating image, what impresses me (like a sensitized paper) is not the accumulation of its details but this or that inflection. […] The feature which touches me refers to a fragment of behavior, to the fugitive moment of an attitude, a posture, in short to a scheme.


Contrary to Highsmith’s novel, where love is explicitly set in motion when the gazes of the two women converge (“their eyes met at the same instant” [3]), the film stresses the fact that it is Therese who sees Carol first. Haynes takes delight in stretching these 15 seconds of enchantment, before the eyes of the two women meet. But, when this happens, Therese has already been hooked by Carol, this ravisher who “wants nothing, does nothing”, who is no more than the image “of a body in situation”, an “outline in action, which pays no attention” to her.

II. Barthes argues that, while ravishment is the inaugural episode of love, the lover often comes back to it, trying to re-live it. A very Barthesian detail that does not figure in Highsmith’s novel, but plays an important role in the film, is Therese’s interest in photography. If, as Barthes puts it, “the nature of the photograph is not to represent but to memorialize”, the pictures of Carol taken (or rather, as is often the case, stolen) by Therese are an attempt at reactivating the memory of the initial scene of ravishment. The very action, performed by Therese, of adjusting the lens focus of her camera when photographing Carol in the streets is aesthetically reminiscent of the shift in focus executed by Haynes’ camera in the scene of their first encounter: “Anything is likely to ravish me which can reach me through a ring, a rip, a rent”.


By imprinting the image of Carol on the photochemical strip, Therese fabricates a veiled re-constitution of the original scene of rapture – this is what Barthes calls “the sumptuous montage of an ignorance”. For reviewing these pictures is like reviewing the initial scene: it means creating, retrospectively, a “stroke of luck” through which the lover feels amazed at having found “what matches [her] desire” and at having taken the risk “to submit to an unknown image”.


Carol, however, does not begin with the scene of rapture, but with an episode that will happen much later in the relationship. The film’s opening sequence depicts a meeting between the two women in a café that is interrupted by Therese’s friend, Jack (Trent Rowland). After Carol departs, Therese and Jack take a cab. It’s nighttime, raindrops stick to the car window, reflections and lights glide across the glass. The texture of the image becomes fragile, wavery. A woman that resembles Carol crosses the street with a man, and Therese glances at her. The noises from the exterior arrive attenuated, mixed with Carter Burwell’s musical score. The siren of an ambulance blends with the sound of a train and, then, we are assaulted by a flurry of shots. It is a fast micro-montage lasting only 18 seconds, but intricately designed, both visually and aurally, ending when we return to the image of Therese in the cab.


Only retrospectively do we come to understand that what we’ve seen here is a re-constitution of the episode of ravishment. The bell we hear over the shot of Therese in the cab does not belong to a real train, but to the train set displayed at Frankenberg’s; it functions as an alert (for us, spectators) and as a bridge (intertwining times). Instead of an establishing shot of the train set, Haynes gives us only bits and pieces, dizzying movements, swirls of colours and lines. From this abstract, indistinguishable mass, something (or someone) suddely pops-up: a toy figure, first; Carol, emerging from the right side of the frame, later. Brilliantly edited, this fragmentary montage captures the force of a sudden impression – the “release switch” of love – in the very materiality of the image and in the textures of the sound.

This moment is a perfect distillation, in cinematic form, of what Barthes calls the “temporal deception” of the love story: we believe love has a start and an end, but we do no more than re-experience obsessively the scene of ravishment. The image, argues Barthes, is perfectly adapted to this temporal deception for it is “already (again, always) a memory”. These shots inserted in the midst of the taxi ride are both a flashback (from a diegetic perspective) and a flashforward (from a storytelling perspective); but they are also (in affective terms) an ever-pulsating, ever-alive, re-staged memory. Projected by Therese’s desire onto the blurred lights that tremble in the cab’s window, this is the “re-construction of a traumatic image which I experience in the present but which I conjugate (which I speak) in the past”.

III. Barthes begins his chapter on ravishment noting that there is a common vocabulary that posits the equivalence between war and love: “in both cases, it is a matter of conquering, ravishing, capturing”. There is, however, a difference between ancient and modern myths: in the ancient myth (as in the rape of the Sabine women), the ravisher is active, wants to conquer, goes after his prey; whereas in the modern myth (that of “love-as-passion”), the ravisher is passive, performs no action, for it is not his will to conquer. Barthes explains this reversal by the fact that, since Christianity, what defines the subject is his suffering (“where there’s a wound, there’s a subject”).

In Carol, the initial episode of ravishment corresponds to the modern version of the myth: Carol, the ravisher, is “motionless (as any image)”, if she makes an impression, it is by way of her passivity – her will plays no part in it; whereas Therese, the object of the rape, becomes, in effect, “the subject of the prey”, for she is the one who suffers it.

The final sequence of Carol, however, can be read as a subtle, specular turn of this inaugural episode of ravishment. Here, the film proposes an inversion not only of the roles, but also of the myths. And this inversion is consequent with the displacement, re-arrangement and unmasking of positions, subjectivities and images that has been unfolding throughout the film.

This sequence takes place in a restaurant where Carol is having dinner with some friends. It is constructed, like the inaugural episode of ravishment, around Therese’s privileged gaze. Eventually, as in the earlier scene, the gazes of the two women will meet – this clinch putting a powerful end to the film. But, before this happens, Haynes concentrates again on these precious seconds before Carol notices Therese.


However, here, Therese is no longer the victim of rape – the innocent prey of the modern myth who, confined to her desk and knowing nothing of her own desire, falls in love with an image that surprises and fascinates her. Rather, she has become the active ravisher. Like an ancient mythical warrior, she bypasses the obstacles found on her way and advances exultant toward Carol – her steps, slow but confident; her eyes filled with desire.


[1] Interview with Todd Haynes by Michel Ciment & Yann Tobin, Positif, no. 659 (January 2016), p. 17.

[2] Unless indicated, all subsequent quotations are from: Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), pp. 188-194.

[3] Patricia Highsmith, Carol / The Price of Salt (Bloomsbury, 2010), p. 35.


© Cristina Álvarez López, February 2015/October 2019

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