The Subversive Vision of Patricia Highsmith
by David Morgan
Tue 8th Dec 2015
The release of the film ‘Carol’, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, ‘The Price of Salt’, gives us an opportunity to enter into the subversive world of one of the 20th century’s greatest popular writers, who is typically noted for her dark psychological thrillers.
The novel, which was later retitled ‘Carol’, was published under a nom de plume because its theme of forbidden love was highly controversial at the time. It is set in the repressive Cold War era of the early fifties when individuals were compelled to be discrete about their emotional entanglements and personal relationships.
Highsmith (1921-1995) always took an outsider’s perspective on her society and delighted in subverting its norms while mercilessly dissecting human frailties. Her 22 novels and dozens of short stories convey a consistent subversive vision.
In her first novel, ‘Strangers on a Train’, (1950), two complete strangers enter into a discussion which ends in them pledging to commit a murder for each other. Only one proves to be sufficiently psychotic to carry out the deed. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s celebrated film version that ensured Highsmith’s success as a writer.
In ‘The Cry of the Owl’ a voyeur is surprised that the woman he has been watching falls in love with him and proves to be even more obsessive than he had been. French New Wave master Claude Chabrol filmed this novel in 1987, which was followed by an equally watchable English language version in 2009.
‘Carol’ is unusual among Highsmith’s oeuvre in that is does not focus on the psychology of the criminal, murderer, thief or voyeur, who are her staple anti-heroes. Her two heroines, one of whom is a part self-portrait, are notably portrayed with full sympathy and understanding.
In run-of-the-mill popular crime fiction the disturbed social order is always restored at the end. This is certainly not the case with Highsmith who constantly confounds the readers’ expectations which she achieves in ‘Carol’ by giving a happy ending to the passionate love story between two women.
Her most famous novel, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, is a tale of a poor young man who kills and then impersonates a wealthy playboy to gain access to the world of the very rich. Ripley, a devious psychopath, gets away with his crime.
In the 1998 film of ‘Ripley’, Cate Blanchett took one of the leading roles. Blanchett became an admirer of Highsmith’s writing and has been trying to make a film of ‘Carol’ for many years. It was to take 15 years to attract the financial backers needed to enable the film to be brought to the screen.
The film is a romance on the traditional theme of love at first sight and shows how the life of a young shop assistant, Therese, (Rooney Mara), is transformed by a chance encounter with an elegant divorcee, Carol (Blanchett).Highsmith described falling in love as “like being shot in the face” and its power to disrupt is at the heart of this remarkably moving film.
Therese and Carol are forced to be outsiders because of the prevailing conservative attitudes, but the film by Todd Haynes adopts a modern perspective that sees their identities and relationship as perfectly normal.
In Highsmith’s story there are no attempted suicides, nobody is consumed with guilt and no-one is punished for alleged deviancy, but there is a mood of menace and threat, which is her hallmark. As in the novel, very little prejudice at all is depicted in the film except in the use of the law in the custody battle between Carol and her estranged husband. The case is eventually settled out of court.
Visually the film is absolutely stunning, with carefully chosen colour schemes and spectacular period detail such as the opening scene in the big department store where the couple meet for the very first time.
A more conventional plot would have shown an impressionable young girl captivated by an older partner. In ‘Carol’, it is Therese who initiates the relationship. She first sees Carol across the room and immediately reveals her strong independence of mind when she tells Carol that as a child she preferred a train set to a doll. Carol takes her advice and buys a train set for her daughter’s Christmas present instead of the absurd doll which “cries and wets itself”.
There is quiet subversion in this doll and train set metaphor. Feminist psychologists have long argued that children’s toys are ideological tools that reinforce gender stereotypes. Highsmith demonstrates a perceptiveness that is well ahead of its time.
‘Carol’ is emphatically not a “women's film” and still less is it intended for a narrow niche audience. It is a simple statement about two human beings striving to find happiness in a hostile world and whose love ultimately gives them the strength to confront every obstacle.
The most fearless aspect of the film is its refusal to sexualise the treatment of the developing intimacy between Therese and Carol. Neither is there any preachiness or laboured message. It is simply taken for granted that they wish to be together. It is quite exhilarating to see a work of art whose vision is entirely unencumbered by stereotypes or cruel prejudice.
There are many countries where this film still cannot be released and it is chilling to realise that in many cultures women such as Carol and Therese would be killed instantly just for daring to exist. In this respect, the film is a singularly courageous celebration of the right to choose one’s own identity. The film and Highsmith’s books cannot be recommended too highly.