There must be very two, before there can be very one. Let it be an alliance of two large, formidable natures, mutually beheld, mutually feared, before yet they recognize the deep identity which beneath these disparities unites them. (R. Waldo Emerson, “Friendship”)
Carol is an agonizing working out of this truth so well expressed by Emerson, the truth that every relationship is a meeting of two individuals who are fully formed as individuals, no matter how much they may be re-formed by the relationship. In the abstract this is a beautiful, ennobling truth, the sort of truth that sounds a note of falseness if not expressed, as Emerson expresses it, in language befitting its grandeur.
Carol is a working out of this truth not in the abstract but in the details. It is here that it becomes agonizing, without loss of its beautiful and ennobling nature. For what the film shows is the risk that such individuality – which, as Emerson also knew, always entails partiality – however much it may be undergirded by a deep identity, nevertheless may stand in the way of, and chip away at, that identity. Carol depicts, with extreme sensitivity, the motions that small and large, personal and societal, drive individuals apart even as they are drawn ineluctably together.
The overall feeling the film left me with was of emptiness, though that is a dangerous word to use in describing it. It is perhaps a testament to the film’s power that, two days after having seen it, I still cannot find the word that will do justice to both the complexity and unity of this feeling. I will stick with ‘emptiness,’ then, and try to explicate it. It is not a negative emptiness, but a positive one, a sort of pit that reminds you it is a cavity capable of housing life. I say that the feeling has complexity because it is the product of the many namable emotions the film evoked: rage, sadness, frustration, happiness. And I say that it has unity because each of those emotions, and others, were subsumed by the overarching feeling that I have only been able to call emptiness, a feeling that allows them to exist together and in tension but precludes any naïve state of pure rage, pure happiness, pure anything. Only the delicate balance.
The mastery of the film lies in its ability to force you feel, utterly and without reservation, every precarious moment of the relationship between Carol and Therese: the whimsicality and arbitrariness of its beginning; the way it brought together, but brought together only partially, two people who were complete individuals before they met, and remained so even after; the way this mutual partiality led them to approach the relationship wholly differently, and at times to chafe against one another; the way the external world threw up extraneous and lamentable barriers to their relationship, as if the internal inconsistencies were not enough; and finally the ambiguity and uncertainty of their final (revealed) meeting, the happy but inscrutably wry expression on Carol’s face, the unexplained and multiply interpretable softening of Therese’s earlier wounded-animal-coldness over tea.
In ways I still struggle to express, Carol forced me, with all the individuality and partiality that has coalesced around my own struggle to live, to experience all of that, and the sum total of that, the abiding reconfiguration wrought in me by the film, is this but imperfectly namable feeling I have, for lack of anything else, called ‘emptiness.’