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Carol: a “touching” love story both literally and musically

Todd Haynes’ new film Carol is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt, first published in 1952 under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. Daring for its time, the novel depicts a passionate lesbian romance between Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), a well-off middle-aged New Jersey housewife divorcing her husband, and 19-year-old Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), who works as a department store salesclerk. Despite differences between the novel and the film, one powerful element of “feeling” not often noted in discussions of literary or cinematic techniques carries over from the page to the screen in this masterful adaptation: the expressive potential of tactility, of touching, in the novel and in specific visual and musical elements of the film.

A pair of women’s gloves becomes an important catalyst in the film when Carol leaves her gloves behind on the store counter where Therese works. In the novel, though, “the woman picked up her gloves from the counter, and turned, and slowly went away, and Therese watched the distance widen and widen.” In the novel Therese decides to mail Carol a greeting card from the store, motivated only by her fascination, and later lies to her boyfriend Richard, telling him, “she left her billfold on the counter and I took it to her, that’s all.” The filmmakers chose to have Carol leave her gloves so that Therese could have a reasonable excuse to get in touch with Carol; indeed, the gloves symbolize the potential communicative power of the fingers and the hands to touch another person both literally and figuratively. Highsmith thematizes this power of touch in the opening of the novel when Therese recalls her attempts to connect with unresponsive people “who never touched a string that played” and who give a blank look “when one tried to touch a live string.” This symbolism of responsive physical touch permeates the novel and the film too.

Highsmith often mentions Carol’s hands in describing what Therese notices about the body of this woman she loves. When Carol is holding a cigarette lighter, Therese sees “the slim hand with the oval red nails and a sprinkling of freckles on its back.” As Carol drives, “Therese looked down at the faintly freckled fingers that dug their strong cool tips into her palm.” We are told that “Carol’s hands were strong, and they moved with an economy of motion,” but they are also gentle, as when “Therese looked at Carol’s hand, the thumb and the tip of the middle finger resting on the thin rim of the candlestick, as she had seen Carol’s fingers on the saucers of coffee cups in Colorado, in Chicago, in places forgotten.” When Therese feels revulsion towards other characters, Highsmith also mentions their hands: a woman in the cafeteria whose “plump, aging hands” are chapped, with “dirt in the parallel creases of the knuckles,” or Mrs. Robichek’s “stiff” hands that seem “trembling and importunate” (and later, “her dry, rough-tipped fingers pressed against Therese’s arms”). Richard’s “thick,” “moist,” “cold” hands touch Therese “in the same inarticulate, blind way if they picked up a salt shaker or the handle of a suitcase,” or with more aggressive intent as “Richard took her hands, pinned her hands to the bed on either side of her” just before he kisses her. There is the desiring touch between the two women as “Therese ran her thumb down Carol’s side, from under the arm to the waist,” or when she wants “to put out her hands, to touch Carol’s hair and to hold it tight in all her fingers.” But even her lover’s touch can be painful at times: “Therese felt the sting of Carol’s thumbnail in her wrist as she released her.”

The film depicts a very erotic tactility when Therese and Carol sleep together for the first time, but it also highlights a more poignant touching in the restaurant scene that frames the story. Leaving soon after Jack interrupts their discussion, Carol places her hand on Therese’s shoulder in a subtle gesture of longing and deep affection. This repeated scene references Brief Encounter, where Alec discreetly touches Laura’s shoulder when he leaves her for the last time in the station cafe. Expressive touch comes to the fore in the pivotal seduction scene of the film, when Therese plays the piano for Carol. In the novel she awkwardly plays a Scarlatti sonata, but in the film she plays “Easy Living,” a song recorded by Billie Holiday. Her playing is another kind of touching that carries a powerful emotional charge. “It was suddenly too much, her hands on the keyboard that she knew Carol played,” Highsmith writes, “and the music that made her abandon herself, made her defenseless. With a gasp, she dropped her hands in her lap.” Carol, meanwhile, comes to the piano and places her hands on Therese’s shoulders as she plays, saying “That’s beautiful.”

In both the novel and film Therese is a quintessential “piano girl,” innocent and attractive in her piano-playing, feeling the music and her own emotions deeply but unpracticed in the ways of performing her desires for others. Carter Burwell’s soundtrack score conveys this depiction of Therese and her “touching” expressivity through the piano sounds that permeate the background music in many scenes, from the throbbing rhythmic piano chords of the “Opening” main theme to the achingly sparse intervals that resonate into the distance in the “Taxi” and “Train” tracks or the pointillistic notes in the treble like blurred drops on the rain-streaked car window in the cues “To Carol’s” or “Reflections.” In his score Burwell works with the Romantic piano’s symbolism as an icon of romantic desire and attraction or loss and nostalgia. One of the popular songs on the soundtrack also plays into this tradition: Jo Stafford’s “No Other Love” (1950) based on Frederic Chopin’s Étude in E major, op. 10 no. 3.

Throughout this film, piano sounds pulse with a sense of the feeling touch that we know makes those sounds, whether we watch Therese’s fingers stroking the keys while Carol puts her hands on her shoulders or we hear in the background music the kind of sounds that we associate with someone’s fingers (or perhaps our own) playing the instrument. The tactility of the piano’s expressivity fits in perfectly with the hands and gloves and touching in this romantic love story.

Featured image: Scene from the film Carol. (c) The Weinstein Company.

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