Without any planning and totally coincidentally I seemed to have beeen immersed in feminine, or rather female culture, both written and visually, over the last two days, with both genres, a book and a film, offering extraordinary portrayals of women. The Girls is a new novel by the American writer Emma Cline and uses the Charles Manson murders as inspiration, whereas Carol, a film by Todd Haynes, is the story of a lesbian love affair. Yet despite their differences they are bizarrely similar. Both centre on the attraction of a young girl for an older, stronger woman, and both stories are played-out in dream-like, past worlds that are both haunting and strangely enchanting, and which, when they conclude, leave you needing time to emerge back into this world…
A debut novel by Emma Cline that is both compelling and repelling at the same time. The Girls is inspired by, but not about, the Manson girls, the women that were a part of Charles Manson’s family and who would brutally kill a number of people, including the actress Sharon Tate, on Manson’s orders. Set now and during the summer of 1969 when the Manson murders took place, Cline has created a dream-like parallel world in which the central character, the fourteen year-old Evelyn, or Evie as the ‘girls’ call her, becomes fascinated by Suzanne, a feral but beautiful girl who she sees one day walking in her local park with two other girls. Cline describes their arrival:
There was a suggestion of otherworldliness hovering around her, a dirty smock dress barely covering her ass. she was flanked by a skinny redhead and an older girl, dressed with the same shabby afterthought. As if dredged from a lake. All their cheap rings like a second set of knuckles. They were messing with an uneasy threshold, prettiness and ugliness at the same time, and a ripple of awareness followed them through the park. Mothers glancing around for their children, moved by some feeling they couldn’t name. Women reaching for their boyfriends’ hands. The sun spiked through the trees, like always - the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets - but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.
Cline writes beautifully and cleverly, managing in a few choice words to convey the alienation of adolescence and the threat of the outsider and wraps all of this into an etherial and languid sense of menace that builds up around Evie as she becomes part of the ‘family’. In many ways Cline’s
decision to create her own take on the Manson cult, hers centres on a man named Russell, and to focus on the girls, and in particular Evie’s infatuation with Suzanne, brings a powerful and refreshingly raw feeling to the whole Manson mythology. Equally, by eschewing the actual
Manson story and creating her own, borrowing elements of real events and mixing these with her ‘girls’, Cline has been able to bring a real sense of California’s dreamy callousness to the shocking murders that follow, and Cline’s succinct and brutal descriptions of killing are as disturbing as any I have read.
Yet, despite the murders, or perhaps because of them, The Girls, is essentially about teenage girls, their clothes, their smell, their struggles to please an older, charismatic man, their desperate faith in his vision of the world, their fragility and vulnerableness to sexual exploitation and to the mores and ideas of the time. Unnervingly so given that Cline, a Californian girl herself, is only 27 and yet The Girls is perfectly of the sixties and reminds us that beneath all the talk of peace and love real horror was waiting.
I only got out of bed after I heard the girl. Her voice was high and innocuous. Though it shouldn’t have been comforting - Suzanne and the others had been girls, and that hadn’t helped anybody.
The Girls by Emma Cline is published by Chatto & Windus (£12.99, $27.00)
Carol, director Todd Haynes’ visually beautiful interpretation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel of a lesbian love, The Price of Salt (also known as Carol) is, like a passionate kiss, breathtakingly good and will leave you shivering with lingering emotion long after the end credits have finished. Set in the early 1950s and centred in and around New York, the Carol of the title is a wealthy, glamorous woman (Cate Blanchett), who is in the midst of getting a divorce, from her neglectful husband (Kyle Chandler - Friday Night Lights, Homeland) and befriends, then falls in love with, a shopgirl and aspiring photographer called Therese (Rooney Mara - The Social Network, Pan, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).
Carol is powerful but not predatory, glamorous but not glam, and beneath her monied confidence, vulnerable and frightened. Frightened of losing her only child in an increasingly fractious custody battle with her husband who both knows of her lesbianism and, reluctantly, is prepared to use it against her in court if necessary. Against this backdrop she is also falling deeply in love with the much younger Therese, whose rawness and innocence, at first amusing, then captivating, has unleashed an all consuming and highly believable love in both women for each other, a love that will either playout or crush them in its embrace.
Touted and praised as a gay film about two women having a relationship at a time when lesbianism was barely mentioned, let alone understood or tolerated, Carol doesn’t flaunt or bang the gay rights drum, rather it is what it is, a love story between two women who suffer trials and tribulations as they struggle, not so much for acceptance, but to make their relationship work in the same way a straight couple would and it is all the stronger for that. Mara in particular, looking like the reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn, though with a rawer sexuality, has an extraordinary presence and natural beauty that is mesmerising and which Haynes manages to exploit in a myriad of tiny ways that, coupled with Carter Burwell’s hypnotic score, make watching Carol, like watching a half remembered memory of someone you too loved but who was always, tantalisingly, just out of reach.
On AMAZON PRIME and DVD / Blu-ray (Studio Canal)