A Christmas Carol: On gazing queerly at the past, present and future
When I thought about "Christmas" as a prompt for this issue of Peephole Journal, I thought about two Carols. Not Christmas carols, as in the songs performed by candlelight on Christmas Eve, but texts named Carol. The first was Charles Dickens' novella A Christmas Carol and the second was Todd Haynes' film Carol. These texts could not be more different, but they do have themes of Christmas and threads of time connecting them.
The protagonist of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (first published in 1843) is famously confronted with spectres that illuminate his past, present and future. Taking him out of a peaceful slumber, they provide him with a new perspective on the events that have shaped his identity and his present state of affairs. They also offer him small glimpses into the future ahead. I like to think about this in relation to Haynes' Carol (2015), which is similarly concerned with past, present and future. Of course, Dickens' Carol is a morality tale about Christmas and class, while Haynes' Carol is about queer feelings, secrecy and desire. And Christmas. It's about that too. Haynes accents the mise-en-scène with colours of red, green and white, using the aesthetics of Christmas to frame his larger concerns.
Set in New York in the 1950s, Carol follows a developing relationship between a young sales clerk named Therese (Rooney Mara) and an older married woman named Carol (Cate Blanchett). It has particular focus on issues of temporality, which are foregrounded through its non-linear narrative. Carol plays like loop or a circle, beginning at the ending and then showing the audience how we got there. Given the film's period setting, the relationship between the women is mostly evoked through coded language and gesture. What matters is not what the characters say but what they feel. This means that the framing, lighting, editing, camera movement, costuming and mise-en-scène often take precedence over dialogue.
Patricia White reads Carol through what queer theorist Heather Love has described as the "backward turn" of queer culture. This is where Carol is concerned with the past. As White argues it is "a love story suspended in time but located in history."1 White also suggests there is a certain "sketchiness" to this queer and historical fantasy, which is also represented in the film's materiality.2 It was shot on Super 16, a film stock that lacks the sharpness of both digital and 35mm and was developed in the late 1960s. As Haynes' director of photography Edward Lachman notes, the physical grain of the Super 16 stock adds another "expressive layer" to the film: "It has to do with how film captures movement and exposure in the frame – finer grain for highlights and larger grain for lower light areas – that gives a certain emotionality to the image that feels more human."3
Carol's concern with the present arises through this melding of queer history and historical film. The grain that Lachman discusses also provides a reference to present-ness and a sensation of time passing. This is, of course, related to the indexicality of analogue film, which is thought to convey a trace of the place or person in front of the camera. Experimental filmmaker Babette Mangolte describes this beautifully when she says that the time of celluloid is "inscribed into the emulsion grain, which constantly trades places and spaces from one frame to the next."4 This shifting grain creates a reminder of not only what happens in front of the camera but provides "constant reminder of a change from the preceding frame, reinforcing the demonstration of time passing."5
So, where is Carol's glimpse of the future? Early in the film, Carol invites Therese to spend the weekend at her house in New Jersey. She picks her up from Manhattan in a shiny beige car and they drive to the countryside. They stop to purchase a Christmas tree. It is here, within a single shot, that a brief glimmer of an imagined future is crystallised – though it needs a bit of context.
In the scene, Carol speaks with a salesman in the Christmas tree yard. A red sign with big white letters stands before the lush green foliage of the spruces. It spells out "XMAS TREES." It is snowing. Therese threads film through her Argus C3, a camera that she says is not good enough to do the work that she wants to do. Carol continues her conversation. Filmed from Therese's perspective within the car, the image is obscured. The car windows frame Carol in the Christmas tree lot, but their glass blurs her form. The film's director of photography describes this as "not only creating a representational view of the world, but a psychological one."6 This perspective makes the snow look like rain.
Therese opens the door to the car. She stands and raises the camera to her eye. She interrogates Carol with it. We see her perspective through the camera as she focuses its lens. The image is blurred, then clearer. This point of view feels different to the earlier shot. It is clearer but, more importantly, a new visual regime is established with a new focal point: Carol. In the shot we see Carol through Therese's eyes. She is an elegant figure in a caramel-coloured fur coat. She stands out from the greenery in the background. Carol recognises that the camera is focused on her and locks eyes with it for the briefest moment. Then she flips her hair and continues her conversation.
Crystallised in this shot is the gaze of a queer girl. It captures both her longing and her hesitation. It is an explicit representation of her desire, but it presents this desire as a secret that no one else can see. When Carol returns this secret gaze, knowingly with a smile, this shot imagines what the future could look like if only things were different. It is a glimpse of some other time and place. It is a queer moment, and like many queer moments, it is over as soon as it is recognised. In this shot I am reminded that like Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Haynes' Carol provides its audience with glimmers and sensations of the past, present and future, before a backdrop of Christmas.