On the Parallels of Love and Oppression in Carol (2015) and Disobedience (2017)


Carol (2015) and Disobedience (2017) are often favorably compared, and it is not hard to see why: both films, based on acclaimed books written by women (The Price of Salt (1952) by Patricia Highsmith, and Disobedience (2006) by Naomi Alderman), depict seemingly doomed love affairs between women in difficult social circumstances. Both came out around the same time, and both offer bittersweet, rather than outright bleak conclusions.

In a time when representation is finally, slowly getting its due, it is not only satisfying, but factually important that more films give empathetic, respectful platforms to voices and stories the world does not often get to see: and these films do just that. The love affairs characterized in these two films are profound and moving, as sensual as they are deeply intellectual.

But to call Disobedience and Carol similar, because they feature same-sex love and came out around the same time, would not only be reductive to the cause, it would also be incorrect: because underneath their likeness, their respective intentions are dissimilar, and they offer vastly different messages. The nuances that set these films apart should be praised: if stories centered on straight people are accorded subtlety and enigma, why shouldn’t stories about queer people, too?

Carol, set in the 1950s, centers on wealthy Carol Aird, an unhappy wife and mother who feels constricted by her social status, and on Therese Belivet, a young photographer who works department store jobs to make ends meet. Their attraction, while instantly sensuous, is, first and foremost, spiritual. The two women are lonely and feel misunderstood, and they find in each other a tender ear, a kindred mindset, and many small things in common. 

Casting aside their responsibilities and respective love interests, they elope together, over the holiday, on a whirlwind road trip; the escapade comes to a screeching halt, however, upon realizing that Carol’s husband Harge has been spying on them, and will use evidence of her relationship with Therese to gain custody of their daughter. Heartbroken, Carol goes back to her life of pretense with Harge, however difficult for Therese, so as to not lose her daughter. 

The preeminence of heartache and difficult choices is the biggest thing in common the film has with Disobedience.

This one, set in present-day London, revolves around Ronit and Esti, whose childhood friendship and romance was cut short years ago by Ronit’s ostracism from their Orthodox Jewish community. Ronit, like Therese in Carol, is a photographer, and has lived in New York for the last few years, but returns to London upon hearing that her father, the Rav, has passed away. Ronit is forced to confront her suppressed feelings for Esti, which are put in sharp, painful relief by the fact that the latter is now married to their mutual friend Dovid, and has seemingly embraced the lifestyle and values of the very community that shunned her.

Very soon though, it becomes clear that the two women’s feelings have not petered out — on the contrary. Their passion picks up where it left off all those years ago, despite the hindrance of Esti’s marriage to Dovid, despite the renewed scrutiny Ronit is subjected to, despite the community that disapproves of her attending her own father’s funeral rites. 

When the evidence of their affair becomes impossible to ignore, Esti and Ronit are thrown right back into the fray they tried to circumvent as children.

The films are similar in that they set love against an oppressive setting, namely religious intolerance in one case, and mid-century misogyny in the other. This manifests itself in threats and coercions, ranging from blackmail (Carol’s husband threatens to use the tapes he has of her and Therese to support a morality clause that would rob her of their daughter’s custody) to passive-aggression and psychological warfare (Ronit’s uncles and aunts punish her sexual orientation through erasure of her affinity to the community, and erasure from her own late father’s affairs and will). In both films, scrutiny plays a significant role. The Repressive Gaze has always been a major factor in how those in the margins are treated, seen and talked about at large, and here it does not fail.

Ronit and Esti must watch how they act, because the consequences of their behavior could be swift and damning, and gossiping tongues are never far behind. Carol, similarly, is surveyed hawkishly by her husband and his family. This last fact is no doubt exacerbated by the revelation that this isn’t the first time Carol has fallen for another woman, having had a prior affair with her childhood friend Abby. 

The Repressive Gaze has always been a major factor in how those in the margins are treated.

These difficulties are further aggravated by an interesting detail. In both films, one of the parties is married, and in both films, a child ends up coming between the women: Carol leaves Therese because she has to be a mother to her young daughter; in Disobedience, Esti finds out she is pregnant, and this discovery precipitates the dramatic events of the end of the film.

These difficulties put Carol and Esti in similarly peculiar positions. While the two films give their main couples equal importance, there is a slight emphasis on the married one of the pair, who has to bear the brunt of the consequences. In Carol it’s the titular character, grappling with a rickety marriage and her social obligations versus what she really wants — namely Therese. In Disobedience, Esti has to tame her passion for Ronit, while maintaining the facade of the perfect wife, schoolteacher and symbol of perfection. 

For Carol and Esti, the other woman’s arrival shatters this fragile equilibrium and reveals that the power was not in their hands in the first place. It might appear at first that Therese is merely an inexperienced, doe-eyed young woman who gets swept off her feet by Carol’s glamor and  prestige; it might appear that Ronit is the one with most to lose, because of her illustrious father’s reputation and her own tarnished one.

But in truth, Therese has more of a hold on Carol than she even knows; and Ronit, summoned by Esti to witness her father’s funeral, walks in like a hurricane, spelling disaster for Esti’s future. Carol throws all caution to the wind for Therese, as does Esti, who makes the first move with Ronit at the price of her marriage and social standing.

One of the major differences between the films is that while in Carol, the love affair between the two protagonists holds the story together, in Disobedience, it’s grief. The major center of the story is the loss of Ronit’s father, her complicated love for him, his aversion to her sexual orientation, and the conflict therein. 

So that even when things fall apart in Disobedience, one is still preoccupied with how Ronit’s sense of Self and belonging, as well as her issues with her father’s legacy, will resolve themselves, whereas in Carol, the split is the end of the line, and therefore so much more devastating.

And this little detail, and the way it forecasts both endings, is what helps explain why these two films, ultimately, are so very different from one another.

While in Carol, the love affair between the two protagonists holds the story together, in Disobedience, it’s grief.

Carol breaks if off with Therese, and goes back to her husband and child, leaving the latter brokenhearted, but Therese soon bounces back. The young photographer embarks on a promising career with the New York Times, and slowly rebuilds her social life. Carol, on the other hand, eventually decides to leave her husband, consequences be damned, and even lets him have custody, on the condition that she be able to visit her daughter regularly. She, too, branches out on her own, gets a job and a place to live, and when she has finished settling her affairs, contacts Therese again. After confessing that she loves her, she asks her to move in with her; and while Therese initially refuses, she soon joins Carol for dinner, which suggests that their bond may be salvageable after all.

Disobedience ends on a more surprising and bittersweet, but ultimately no less beautiful note. Esti’s husband Dovid realizes that she and Ronit are still in love, at the same time as the community at large does. Ronit initially tries to leave Esti and return to New York; but when a frantic Esti takes off, Ronit is forced to return and mobilize with Dovid to look for her. They eventually find Esti who, having returned home, has decided she wants a divorce from Dovid, and a chance to raise their child alone. Dovid refuses, but later, he gives a sermon in which he recognizes that love knows no boundaries and no religion, and he steps down from the coveted title of future Rav he’d been striving for. He reconciles with Ronit and gracefully lets Esti go, having accepted that he has no place in their union.

But instead of running off with Ronit, now that she is free at last, Esti chooses to stay in London and raise her child away from the Orthodox Jewish community; this, because she wants to give the baby the opportunity she never had: namely the choice of one’s own life. She bids a tearful, but resolute goodbye to Ronit. It may not be the ending that was longed for or even expected, but it’s no less legitimate.

Comparing Carol and Disobedience brings to light thought-provoking conclusions about the varying levels of oppression, and the varying degrees of love.

Perhaps the fact that the lovers get a relatively blessed ending in Disobedience proves that against all odds, religious rigidity is easier to shift than rigid societal mores — but one could argue that religion and society and culture are one and the same, and that both films simply present those aspects in different lights.

Perhaps we are pitting the very broad (social propriety) with the very specific (religious propriety), and this explains why Dovid, Esti’s husband, is able to forgive that affront, while Harge, in a broader and more all-encompassing way, is confounded by all the ways in which his wife Carol has slighted him — but one could argue that marital offense is marital offense, no matter how deep or superficial it is.

Perhaps both films are trying to say that sexism, of the kind that existed no less relentlessly in Carol’s 1950s setting, has been here longer, or is harder to get around than religious dogmatism — but one could argue that religion has had less flexibility with same-sex relationships than societies which have (depending on where we’re looking) slowly started to come around.

Or simply, perhaps, the films are not trying to solve any of those questions, and simply asking them is enough. Maybe they’re just trying to depict characters making the best with what they have, finding the best resolution that will get them through the next day — not the next week, month or year.

In Carol and Therese’s case, it’s love, however thankless the future circumstances may be. In Ronit and Esti’s case, it’s freedom, whatever the coming years may hold for the both of them. 

And maybe Carol’s husband will never let her see her daughter again. Maybe Thereses’ professional life will be fraught with difficulties and chauvinistic men who try to intimidate her. Maybe Ronit will return to New York and never find love again, and maybe Esti’s child will decide to embrace the very community that made her life so difficult.

Love and freedom may not conquer all the battles ahead, but perhaps, for the time being, that is victory enough.