Ohat is the greatest Christmas movie of all time? This is the question that dominates cultural discourse and television schedules from mid-November each year. There are lovers of the Elves; hardcore Die Hard fans; the Miracle Sidekicks on 34th Street; people who live for It’s a Wonderful Life; those who avoid evenings to watch Home Alone; and fans who insist the biggest Christmas movie is Love Actually, 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 film that often comes up as a contender in the debate, and yet it has so much to recommend at the top of the tree. (And what is often forgotten is that his name is literally … carol).
Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel, The price of saltthe film follows the budding winter romance between mid-divorce Carol Aird (played by Cate Blanchett) and Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet, an aspiring photographer working but thriving in a Manhattan department store.
At the start of the film, a pissed off Carol chooses a present (a quaint wooden train) for her daughter, aided by Therese wearing an employer mandated Santa hat. Of course, Rowan Atkinson’s turn as a meticulous saleswoman testing Alan Rickman’s patience in Love Actually is awesome, but the subtle sexual tension between Carol and Thérèse once the purchase is complete is better. “I like the hat,” Carol teases in a whisper as she leaves, after some classic staring at lips and brushing her hands.
There’s everything you’d expect from a film set at Christmas: procurement and decorating a tree, parties, cocktail parties, revelers spilling out into the streets, falling snow, the heavy coats and scarves, the breath visible in the cold air. But there’s also road trip (including packed sandwiches) and gritty, depressing motel stays. There’s an incredibly tense roast dinner with the in-laws, in which the topic of conversation is conversion therapy. There is espionage; there is a gun. It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
All of the best Christmas movies are the ones with less sweet elements than a candy cane. Let’s not forget, a key plot point of Miracle on 34th Street is that Kris Kringle signs up for the America’s most famous mental hospital.
Contrast that with, say, Deck the Halls (2006) in which Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick compete to see who loves Christmas the most (Note of Rotten Tomatoes: 6%). Or A December bride (2016) in which two friends pretending to be in a relationship… end up in a relationship. Or do you remember Jack Frost (2008)? In which the father of a child is reincarnated as a snowman (enough said). Or the original schmaltz-fest, 1954 white christmas. And the less said about Tim Allen’s multiple shlock Christmas movie endeavors — a man with perhaps the worst resume of all time, Toy Story aside — the better.
No, Carol is the seasonal adult film. Style and subtlety don’t come to mind when you think of Christmas movies, but Haynes’ film is gorgeous: cinematographer Ed Lachman’s muted tones; Carter Burwell’s sumptuous piano score (performed by the Seattle Symphony orchestra); Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay is perfect, as are the lines taken straight from Highsmith’s novel (“what a strange girl you are…thrown out of space”).
Carol has been critically acclaimed, won awards and has a large following, but has become a traditional December watch for the LGBT community in particular (with lesbians topping the fandom). Her quivering erotica blows Jude Law and Cameron Diaz’s cuddly courtship in Holidays out of the water, and it surely features the hottest sex scene ever on celluloid that takes place in a single bed.
But above all, it goes against what has become known as “bury your gays” trope, in which non-heterosexual fictional people always suffer miserable — and often fatal — ends. As Blanchett says itCarol “ends with possibility, which is all any love story can begin with”.
All the emotions linked to this very specific period from Christmas to New Year are present. The fleeting, ambiguous feelings of transition. Peer pressure to have a good time with the perfect people. The simultaneity of seasonal community vibes but, one way or another, often the accent of loneliness. Safety, but also the hangover. Everything is here. It’s a gift of a movie. And not a reindeer in sight.