Announcing a Week of Christmas Movies: Carol
today features holiday dread and our beautiful wife
Welcome to The Week of Christmas Movies. We begin, of course, with Carol.
Christmas movies, like love stories, are only good when they admit that they’re sad, and Carol is a perfect Christmas movie because it understands that Christmas is mostly very sad. This season that we’re in right now, elbows-deep into the holidays, is a time about feeling lost and adrift in the world. Less honest Christmas movies show a white Christmas and a winter wonderland. But Carol’s upper-class, mid-century, midwestern Christmastime looks a lot more like the one many of us live through each year. On most days it doesn’t snow even when it’s very cold, and on those days the sunlight in the mornings is unbearable. Everything is about love in a way that feels horribly urgent. Holiday music and hasty tinsel garlands shepherd us into flailing action or frozen panic. We spend too much money or we don’t spend enough money; we make big promises and then we wake up the next day sick at having to keep them. The highs are very high and the lows are a gigantic bill slid under the door. Everything costs something and the cost is always staggering. All the crises that we hoped to avoid come home to roost over the holidays, straining out of the subtext and onto the page. Family, and money, and decisions move in the last low month of the year from theoretical to actual, or at least they feel as though they are at every moment about to, even if they never do.
In December, everything feels dire, and everything feels lonely. This time of year makes even normal things feel illicit. Anything that isn’t explicitly about the holidays is cutting class to go smoke cigarettes behind the school, which is why this anxious, shiny month at the end of the year is such a strangely ripe time for new romance. The fact that Carol is an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith novel doesn’t make it a surprising candidate for the best Christmas movie, but rather makes it a perfect and obvious one. The medium in which Highsmith worked was dread; that’s the basic molecular structure common to all of her work, and what could feel more like Christmas? Dread defines the holiday season, creeping in at the edges of everything, wrapping paper and last minute purchases, crowded trains and harried travel plans, the early dark and the family reunions, the promises we keep and the ones we break, and all the other accountings that come rushing in as the end of the year looms. Dread is often weirdly sexy, just like desperation is, and every single shot of this movie knows that.
It’s a season of immense beauty, too. The dread and the beauty exist in the same gesture. The seasick way the camera focuses on Blanchett driving a car, or wrapping gifts, or lighting a cigarette, is a perfect approximation of how sexual desire feels like being drunk or being underwater, but it’s also about that thing where objects look brighter in the cold. On the big shopping-mall avenues in cities, the lights shatter like diamonds when the night stains in, fracturing into radiant points, the imitations of stars outdoing the real ones. It works for a few minutes— all that sparkle, and all that pageantry, the old music on the stereo and the smooth squares of bright paper—and really does convince you that all is calm, and all is bright. Then the crash comes, and the answering sadness of every single object is overwhelming.
At this time of year, when everything is obligated to put on its best dress and be as beautiful as possible, when everything glitters as hard as it can, the cold edges loom colder. Each time doing anything feels like the last time, whether or not it is. Scarcity is of course very sexy; lots of awful things are very sexy. The nervous, glossy beauty of Haynes’ film gets this, too, how the Christmas season is like new and unsustainable love, hoisted up toward the lights. Everything is a reminder of what we can’t have. Everyone else is wearing a more a more beautiful coat, and everyone else is buying a more expensive gift. Everything we can’t afford is the brightest and shiniest thing in the window. This season is too good at underlining whatever it is that keeps us from being able to love the people we love, whether that’s money, or distance, or hideously repressive social norms, the American legal system, the nosy and callous neighbors, or the dad from Friday Night Lights pretending to be an asshole for some reason. Sometimes love is a thing that gets more precious as it recedes further away. Yet preciousness only makes everything hurt more later, the higher highs traded for the lower lows, the brilliantly strung lights traded for the 4pm darkness.
It’s easy to forget this stuff about Carol until you’re watching it; it’s easy to forget that the reasons it’s a Christmas movies are much deeper than the bare fact that it takes place over Christmas. The internet adores Carol, but online discourse and endless Carol memes mostly frame it only as a sexy lesbian love story, a heavy flirtation over gloves, Blanchett’s nails and lipstick glossy as a Christmas ribbon. It certainly is a love story, and the love story is beautiful, and heartbreaking, and hot, but it succeeds as a love story for the same reasons it succeeds as a Christmas movie: Because it understands that brightness is defined by darkness, and that celebrations—whether that’s the crush of bodies at a crowded holiday party, or two people alone in a hotel room behind a closed door—are about the fear of whatever lurks at their edges. The brilliant night is given form and meaning only by the dull day that follows it.
Carol is a Christmas movie, and a love story, not because it takes place over Christmas, or because two people fall in love, but because it’s very sad, and very cold, and the joy it depicts is very fleeting. Moments of warmth, and desire, and tenderness cut up through the dark and the cold, and slice the end of the year into ribbons. The days in December are small and sharp to the touch, and what we do in them cuts like glass. Christmas, like love and like family, is something we barely ever manage to survive. It is a miracle when we do, when we emerge, into the second week of January and the rest of the year, able to continue out past all this horrible beauty and build something in which we might manage to live.
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