wWhat’s the greatest Christmas movie of all time? It’s the question that dominates cultural discourse and television schedules primarily from mid-November each year. There are Elf lovers. Die hard diehard fans. Miracle’s Followers on 34th Street; people who live for it’s a wonderful life; those who would avoid nights watching the house alone; And fans who insist that the greatest Christmas movie is Love Actually.
I’m here to tell you that the greatest Christmas movie of all time is, in fact, Todd Haynes’ Carol. It’s not a movie that often comes up as a contender in discussion, nonetheless one would often recommend it as a tree topper. (And a lot that gets overlooked is that she’s literally called… Carol.)
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The Price of Salt, the film follows the budding wintry romance between Carol Aird in the middle of divorce (played by Cate Blanchett) and Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet, an aspiring and underachieving photographer in a Manhattan department store.
Early in the film, a confused Carol chooses a gift (an attractive wooden train set) for her daughter, with the help of Terese who wears a Santa hat commissioned by her employer. Sure, Rowan Atkinson’s turn as a delicate shop assistant who tests Alan Rickman’s patience in love is actually great, but the subtle sexual tension between Carol and Terese when the purchase is completed is even better. “I like the hat,” Carol teases in a whisper as she leaves, after some classic lip staring and hand-cleaning.
There’s everything you’d expect from a movie set at Christmas: buying and decorating a tree, parties, cocktails, revelers dropping down the streets, falling snow, heavy coats and scarves, and a visual breath of chilly air. But there’s also the wild ride (packaged sandwiches included) and stays in gritty, depressing motels. There is an unbearably tense roast dinner with the in-laws, the topic of conversation at which is conversion therapy. There is spying. There is a gun. It’s the most beautiful time of the year!
The best Christmas movies are those with less saccharine elements than candy canes. Lest we forget, a major plot point for Miracle on 34th Street is that Kris Kringle is committed to the most famous psychiatric hospital in America.
Compare this with, say, Deck the Halls (2006) where Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick compete to see who loves Christmas the most (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 6%). Or December Bride (2016) where two friends pretend to be a couple… who end up as a couple. Or remember Jack Frost (2008)? Where the father of the child is reincarnated as a snowman (he said enough). or the original schmaltz festival, 1954 White Christmas. And the less said about Tim Allen’s multiple Christmas movie efforts — a man with perhaps the worst resume ever, Toy Story aside — the better.
No, Carol is the seasonal adult movie. Elegance and subtlety aren’t something that comes to mind when one thinks of Christmas movies, but Hines’s is beautiful: the muted tones of cinematographer Ed Lachman; Carter Burwell’s lavish piano-based tunes (performed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra); Phyllis Nagy’s script is perfect, as are the lines embedded directly from Highsmith’s novel (“What a strange girl… she came out of space”).
Carol has received critical acclaim, won awards, and has many enthusiasts, but it has become a traditional December hour for the LGBT community in particular (with lesbians leading the fandom). Spicy eroticism Jude Law and Cameron Diaz’s endearing flirtation in The Holiday out of the water definitely features the hottest sex scene ever committed to celluloid in one bed.
But more importantly, it rewards what has come to be known as the “gay burial” trope, in which fictional non-heterosexuals always suffer miserable — and often fatal — ends. In Blanchett’s words, Carol instead “ends with possibility, which is all any love affair can begin with”.
All the feelings associated with the very specific Christmas-to-New Year period are present. Transience, vague feelings of transition. Peer pressure to have the perfect time with the perfect people. Seasonal community vibes coincide but, somehow, often accentuate loneliness. Nima, but also a hangover. It’s all there. It’s a movie gift. And not a reindeer in sight.
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