Presenting SEQUENCE 2.3: Mandy Merck on CAROL

In her contribution to SEQUENCE [Two’s] ongoing discussion of the maternal melodrama, Pam Cook considers Todd Haynes’ miniseries Mildred Pierce (HBO, 2011). Noting the genre’s characteristic ‘textual fluidity ’ (Cook 2015: 2), she cites the director’s linking of Michael Curtiz’s 1945 film of Mildred Pierce with Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (1949) as crossovers ‘between crime and melodrama’. Haynes’ attention to this hybridity prompts Cook to review the incoherence of mother-love movies; employing Gérard Genette’s term ‘paratextual’, she charts the influence of references outside the film text to this layering of significance.

The feminist scholarship on Mildred Pierce has undoubtedly influenced how subsequent spectators (including Haynes himself) have viewed the 1945 film. Cook’s 1978 study employs the myth of Demeter and Persephone to elaborate its theme of maternal disempowerment. In the incestuous Greek pantheon, Persephone’s mother Demeter, father Zeus and rapacious uncle Hades are siblings whose quarrel over the powers of fertility divide the seasons into the warmth in which Persephone dwells on earth with her mother and the cold that accompanies her annual departure to her uncle in the underworld. Returning to Cain’s novel, Haynes queers these incestuous relations by bringing out a theme suppressed in the film – Mildred’s erotic obsession with her daughter Veda. In Curtiz’s adaptation this homosexual implication is displaced onto Mildred’s friendship with Ida. Conversely, Haynes brings mother and daughter together in a kiss. Cook’s interest in this scene lead her to refilm it in sequential video essays, one in which she overlays passages from Cain’s novel onto Haynes’ images, and another in which she slows the kiss and substitutes a different version of the ‘Casta Diva’ aria played on the soundtrack. In both cases the invocation of these paratexts elicits additional meanings of love and loss in the story’s mother-daughter relationship.

In the spirit of this ‘textual interaction and revision’, the essay that follows examines another adaptation of a novel filmed by Haynes, Patricia Highsmith’s Carol. It too involves a mother threatened with the loss of her daughter as well as a lesbian relationship with incestuous overtones. And it too, I argue, is a generic hybrid, of the maternal melodrama and the romance. In considering Haynes’ 2015 film together with Highsmith’s 1952 novel and the author’s biography, as well as psychoanalytic and feminist theorizations of the maternal homoerotic, I employ a range of paratexts to illuminate the incoherences of Carol.

[Mandy Merck, ‘NEGATIVE OEDIPUS: Carol as Lesbian Romance and Maternal Melodrama’, SEQUENCE: Serial Studies in Media, Film and Music, 2.3, 2017. ISSN 2052-3033 (Online). Online at:]

We are very happy to announce that the third contribution to Issue Two of SEQUENCE Serial Studies in Media, Film and Music We Need to Talk about Maternal Melodrama has been published. It is by Mandy Merck, Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, one of the world’s leading scholars in melodrama studies and author of numerous important works on feminist and queer approaches to the cinema and representations of national identity in US film.

We are continuing to invite sequential responses to the first three entries in this iteration of SEQUENCE. If you’re inspired to respond, especially if you have related research work in progress on any of the topics raised by the first two essays, and/or the SEQUENCE title, in relation to any relevant cultural or communications medium (not just cinema), please get in touch with us at SEQUENCEserial[at]gmail[dot]com. Multimedia responses of all kinds are also very much encouraged. But it would be worthwhile to discuss any substantial response with us at an early stage in your planning. All contributions need to comply with UK copyright law and the current understanding of fair dealing.

If you’d like to offer a shorter response, there is also the option of leaving a comment in the moderated stream at the foot of each SEQUENCE Two entry. SEQUENCES may be long and short in all sorts of ways.

SEQUENCE Two is being edited and produced by Catherine Grant and Katherine Farrimond, co-editors of the SEQUENCE: SERIAL STUDIES IN MEDIA, FILM AND MUSIC project (with Russell Pearce).

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