Amidst the bustling department store, promises of heartfelt holiday gifts and warm mugs of hot chocolate by the fire begin to surface through the incessant chatter of scurrying parents hoping to bring home the right gifts to their children. However, these notions of holiday cheer and spectacles of secular joy aren’t what draws the attention of Rooney Mara’s Therese, a worker at the department store. Instead, she averts her eyes from the crowd and locks her gaze with a well-dressed, mature woman, who appears to be the only person wearing vibrant colors that pierce through the monotonous puke green backdrop of the department store. Immediately enthralled by the beauty and overwhelming sense of clarity that Cate Blanchett’s Carol seems to exude, Therese has no choice but to fall in love with her instantly. The opening scene for Carol sets a great standard in all realms of direction — camerawork, acting, writing, and a wonderful cast, and yet, the most subtle feature seems to stand out the most — the color scheming. This is the genius of director Todd Haynes, who, throughout the movie, subtly captures the essence of passion, the ecstasy of non-normative relationships, and the undeniable magnetism of love — all through his clever usage of color (specifically the colors red and green). Haynes uses the color red to symbolize all of the aforementioned aspects of Carol and Therese’s relationship, but uses the color green to symbolize the “normal” monotony of the rest of the world. Haynes also uses these colors as a way to showcase Therese’s perspective of the world through her rose-tinted glasses.
In the first scene in the department store, the camera clearly captures Carol’s bright red hat and scarf, which obviously make her stand out amongst the other shoppers who are wearing dull colors that blend into the boring green background of the store itself. However, more savvy viewers will notice that even when Carol shows Therese her picture of her daughter at the cash register, the camera captures her vibrant red nail polish, which is admittedly more distracting and attention-seeking than the picture itself. Through the usage of the color red and green in this scene, Haynes is attempting to show how Therese is envisioning her life and Carol in this chance encounter. Therese is rather rundown by the tiresome blandness of the green department store she works at, but when she happens to run into Carol, her world is flipped upside down by this gorgeous woman displaying an electrifying wardrobe of a brilliant red.
Even as the movie progresses and Carol begins to get into trouble with the situation regarding her daughter and husband, her wardrobe remains mostly the same. This is justified through the idea that even despite the murky water that Therese seems to be treading with Carol, her feelings and attraction to her are unswayed. This is best highlighted through the scene where Carol and Therese get tea together near the conclusion of the film. The once-composed Carol who was holding Therese at arms-length in order to keep her life safe from the threat of her husband and his private investigator, Tucker, shows an unmistakably large amount of emotional vulnerability. Her desperation and love for Therese are magnified through her offer to live with Therese, and then eventually, have dinner in the Oak Room together. However, even though one might assume that Therese is done with Carol after the mess of her personal life put a barrier between the two, Haynes still spends a great deal of time lingering on close-up shots of Carol, still accenting her red nails and lips. This proves not only that Therese still loves Carol, but also, that she’s still seeing Carol through the rose-tinted glasses of adoration and passion.
This character development through the subtle usage of color can also be compared to The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character, Hester, wears the color red as a mark of shame, but eventually begins to accept it as a form of identity and individualization. In Queer Theory, individualization and identity are core concepts that are often displayed in LGBTQ+ literature as a way to divide the heteronormative from the queer. In the case of Carol, this narrative makes sense, as the love and magnetism between the two’s relationship is presented through the color of red, which might begin as a mark of the shame of a non-normative relationship, but it eventually progresses into a form of identity in which the two have come to accept their love for one another despite transgressing upon the boundaries of normal relationships.
Overall, throughout Carol, the trope of using the colors red and green is used by Todd Haynes to symbolize not only the lovesick perspective of Therese through rose-tinted glasses, but also, the embracing of one’s identity at the cost of social friction. Haynes cleverly sets up many dull backgrounds and settings in which the extras blend in, but the two main characters stand out due to their wardrobes. This is a subtle commentary on society, as the two stand out in their society due to their sexuality, and Carol eventually faces the uphill battle of either accepting her identity and bearing the mark of shame that Haynes has given her (which in this case is the dazzling red color of her wardrobe), or keeping her daughter and submitting to the unfulfilling normative relationships that she has come to despise. By the end of the film, it’s clear that Carol has chosen her identity over her vanity, and although the repercussions were rather severe (losing custody of her daughter and being vilified by some parts of her community), it is also clear that Carol has exercised the concept of individualization and identity from Queer Theory, in which she has found a greater fulfillment from accepting her “flaw”.
- Haynes, Todd, director. Carol. StudioCanal, 2015.
- DeMaiolo, James F., and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Scarlet Letter. Applause, 1996.