"We're Not Ugly People, Harge"

a Carol's Carol

Impossible, of course, to separate Harge from large, as obvious an observation as that might seem. Harried and large make Harge; the bigness and squareness of Kyle Chandler’s approach make Harge come across as far huger than a mere 6’1. Acres of fabric to make a winter coat – a jaw as wide as a Dakota – tie like a flag – big, big man. Big man and getting bigger. Size of a cornfield, of Nebraska, of Middle America, the size of a marriage, the size of every father stuffed together and wearing your father like a suit, the size of a courtroom, the size of a house, the size of your house that you used to fill with your family.

Carol’s big, too, of course, but the movie is built on her bigness, rests on it, slips into it – unobtrusively big, like a lake is big but safe as long as you can stay on top of it, or splash harmlessly and stupidly around in the shallow end. Cate Blanchett big, 5’9 big, high-heels big, classically-trained big, “the bigger person” big. Harge is big like built for tipping the scales, a rock dropped into a lake, big like causing a scene, not acting in one. Harge looms, Carol leans; the size of the bigness depends, as always, on how welcome the bigness is. Haynes, Therese, the viewer (this viewer, at least, and I don’t think I’m idiosyncratic in this) are enchanted by Carol’s un-ugly bigness. Swat the big man like a bug and go on the road. (There will be time to discuss the possible ugliness of small things, like Therese’s awful plaid tam-o-shanter, another Christmas.)

“We’re not ugly people, Harge,” is:

  • A rebuke of poverty, a rich woman’s promise that we will never fail to act like ourselves

  • An assertion that her beauty is big enough to cover and counteract his lumpy big stomping ugliness

  • A code of conduct

  • A compromise with size-iness

  • A corral for the vanity

  • Ugliness is something we can do together or un-do together

  • Therefore ugliness requires participation and multiplicity

  • Nothing singular is ugly

“Harge, I want you to be happy. I didn’t give you that — I failed you — we both could have given more. But we gave each other Rindy, and that’s the most breathtaking, the most…generous of gifts. So why are we spending so much time coming up with ways to keep her from each other? What happened with Therese…I wanted. I won’t deny it, or — But I do regret, I grieve the mess we’re about to make of our child’s life. We, Harge…we are both responsible. Let’s set it right. I want Harge to have permanent custody. I’m no martyr. I have no clue what’s best for me. But I do know, I feel, I feel it in my bones, what’s best for my daughter.

I want visits with her, Harge. I don’t care if they’re supervised. But they need to be regular. There was a time — I would have locked myself away — done most anything, just to keep Rindy with me. But what use am I to her, to us, living against my own grain? Rindy deserves joy. How do I give her that not knowing what it means myself? That’s the deal. Take it or leave it. I can’t — I won’t negotiate. If you leave it, we go to court and it gets ugly. We’re not ugly people, Harge.”

It’s not at all unlike this passage from Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence, published the year after The Price of Salt, a book that never quite arrives at its own lesbianism, but needed only the merest push to do so:

“As they approached the building where Prudence’s office was, Jane noticed a thin, dark young man wearing a raincoat standing in the doorway, and Prudence introduced him. And so Jane shook hands with Geoffrey as she had shaken hands with Arthur some months ago, and was amazed as she had been then at the wonder of love. What object could Fate possibly have in enviously debarring love between Prudence and such an ordinary and colourless young man as this appeared to be?

But of course, she remembered, that was why women were so wonderful; it was their love and imagination that transformed these unremarkable beings. For most men, when one came to think of it, were undistinguished to look at, if not positively ugly. Fabian was an exception, and perhaps love affairs with handsome men tended to be less stable because so much less sympathy and imagination were needed on the woman’s part? But there was no opportunity to say any of this to Prudence, and soon she had left her turning to Geoffrey with every appearance of pleasure. Must it not be rather depressing to embark on a love affair that one knew to be doomed from the start? And yet, Jane supposed, people were doing it all the time, plunging boldly in with no thought of future misery.”

Change the emphasis slightly — “We’re not ugly people, Harge,” and it sounds, of course, like a boast, and in rather poor taste at that. Carol is a movie I love very much, and never fails to make me feel unattractive and badly-dressed by the end of it.