Therese was not sure enough to answer. What was it to love someone, what was love exactly, and why did it end or not end? Those were the real questions, and who could answer them?

(Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt, 1952)

Placing a hand on the shoulder of another person is a simple gesture that can convey many complex things. In Todd Haynes’ Carol, it’s a gesture we observe several times, shared between two women, and each occasion intensifies its meaning.

We see it first, in the film’s opening scenes, as Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) meet for tea in a hotel bar. Haynes flashes forward to the current point in their slow-burning romance, before guiding us back to its beginning. The women sit at a table, facing each other. The camera approaches slowly, following a man, Jack, who it has been trailing through the Manhattan streets and then inside the hotel. He stops at the bar, orders a drink, and spotting someone he thinks he knows on the other side of the room, walks over. That person is Therese.

As Jack loudly says hello, he causes an interruption – we don’t know what Carol and Therese have been talking about, we don’t hear it, we only observe them from a distance and by the time Jack arrives the conversation seems to be over. The women are cool with each other, formal, but we sense something significant has passed between them and that perhaps Jack’s presence is unwelcome. Polite introductions are made; invitations to parties exchanged. Carol excuses herself, and on her way out pauses, placing a hand on Therese’s shoulder. Therese glances at it and the camera shifts from her face to the back of her head. Haynes contrasts this, almost immediately, with Jack’s hand on the other shoulder, to move her along. Unlike Carol’s gentle gesture, Jack’s hand lands with a thud.

Adopting the repeated cycle in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), by bookending Carol with effectively the same scene, Haynes returns us to the hotel bar towards the film’s end after we have watched Carol and Therese’s relationship play out, so that we can see what transpired between the women before Jack’s arrival. We see Therese waiting for Carol, who arrives a little late, maybe unsure whether this meeting, after not seeing each other for so long, is a good idea. This time, we hear their conversation in its entirety. Therese, confident and guarded; Carol, nervous, placing everything she has on the line. Her divorce is moving along, her house is being sold, she has a job as a furniture buyer, and an apartment on Madison Avenue she would like Therese to move into with her. Therese says no, protecting herself from the pain her love for Carol has caused her in the months before.

But Carol risks more. “I love you,” she says, for the first time, and we just begin to feel the immensity of these words when Jack loudly appears. The same introductions and talk of parties and shared taxis and hurried goodbyes that we saw the first time around, the same hand on Therese’s shoulder, as Carol leaves. But here her hand seems to linger longer, as Haynes stays on Therese’s face revealing the response he denied us in the film’s opening scene. That gesture moves Therese and she accepts it with sympathy, regret, and sorrow. She hasn’t been able to respond to Carol’s declaration of love, but Therese’s expression says it all.

Carol (Cate Blanchett) tells Therese (Rooney Mara) she loves her.
hand on shoulder
Therese reacts to Carol’s hand on her shoulder.

It seems like nothing, but it’s the early 1950s, and that hand on Therese’s shoulder is the only sign of intimacy that they can safely share in this public space.

Each film invents its own poetry. With Carol, Haynes creates a visual language that describes, through images, what it feels like to fall in love, be in love, lose love and recover it. Through repeated gestures, looks, motifs and framing devices, Haynes creates a cine-poetics of love, keenly attuned to the ways in which characters occupy space, in relation to the world they live in, and to each other. Space imagined as isolation and nearness, used by Haynes to investigate the very question Highsmith poses in her novel, ‘what is love exactly,’ through the experience of two women who fall hard.

Carol reminds us that in film, as in life, the most mundane gestures carry the most incredible emotional weight. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from Patricia Highsmith’s radical novel (originally entitled The Price of Salt; radical because it features a lesbian romance that ends happily),Carol tells the story of young shop girl Therese and a meeting over the doll counter of a New York department store at Christmas with the older, more experienced Carol, that leads to an extraordinary, life-changing love. Carol is in the midst of a heated divorce; her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler) will limit her access to their daughter, Rindy, and invoke a ‘morality clause’ because of a relationship Carol had in the past with her best friend Abbey (Sarah Paulson). That this was a sexual relationship is never explicitly stated, although it is nonetheless clear that Carol’s marital breakdown is an effect of her attraction to women. Therese, eager to know what love is, is an aspiring photographer, still figuring herself, and her place in the world, out. She’s a watcher, capturing the world, at first timidly, through her camera’s lens.

Haynes is one of the most skilled and thoughtful directors making films today and the repeated motif – Carol’s hand/s on Therese’s shoulder/s – creates a distinct effect. Our memory of first seeing it resonates through the repeated scene at the hotel. But it also echoes through other events – when Carol stands behind Therese, hands on her shoulders, as she plays the piano at her house; and later, as Carol stands behind Therese seated at a mirror in their hotel room, hands on her shoulders, as a prelude to becoming lovers. There is reassurance here, guidance, and acceptance. Each of these scenes sensitively layers the other – with sadness at an ending/beginning we don’t yet fully comprehend, but also, reciprocally, with the thrilling evidence of their growing attraction and full-blown desire.

Carol touches Therese’s shoulders in an early indication of their intimacy.
Hotel mirror
Closer now, Carol’s hands on Therese’s shoulders indicate desire.

That repeated gesture of hands touching shoulders also magnifies a growing proximity between these two women’s bodies, and the exquisite charge that comes from being near the object of your desire.

That charge exists, between Carol and Therese, from their first furtive glances at one another in Frankenberg’s, across the crowded room, and considering each other more intimately, across the counter. Romantic drama has long-pivoted on the exchange of impassioned glances, where looking indicates curiosity, expresses interest, pulses with desire. Between Carol and Therese the act of looking is also an act that bridges space and time. Feelings run deeply and Haynes mines their hidden places. Whether what Carol and Therese share is ‘love at first sight’, or just an instant fascination that becomes an attraction that becomes desire and then love, is not really the question. What seems more interesting to Haynes is how each navigates the others interest in them in a world where being attracted to another woman has both a perilous and clandestine charge.

Carol final glance in Frankenbergs
Carol turns back for one last glance at Therese before leaving Frankenberg’s.
Therese in the store
Therese is delighted by Carol’s interest.

But Haynes takes his spatial poetry to a whole other level when he places Carol and Therese inside a car together for the first time.

Carol’s car becomes a private refuge, a safe and protective bubble from the eyes of the world. She’s come to collect Therese from the city on a Sunday so they can spend the day together at Carol’s house in New Jersey. Along the way, they will stop to buy a Christmas tree and Therese will photograph Carol for the first time, but it’s what happens between them within the confines of the car that matters most. Space reduces down, to just these two women, and the camera invokes the dizzying effect of being so close to another person you are falling for – that feeling when you can smell their perfume, feel the warmth of their breath, almost hear their heart beating. The scene in Carol’s car features a distorted soundscape of torch song on the radio and the barely audible, broken chatter between Carol and Therese that intensifies the dreamy, intoxicating and disorienting feeling of falling in love. Edward Lachman’s cinematography employs flashes of colour that recall the operatic expressionism of love-swells in Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009). It is warm and intimate and arousing. The fluid camerawork captures the rhythm of the looks that bounce back and forth between Carol and Therese like heartbeats. But the scene is also a premonition of things to come – love imagined as a sort of controlled chaos, a disordering madness brought about by a surfeit of feeling.

car scene
In Carol’s car together for the first time, feelings swell with dizzying effect.

In the car, heading out together into the world, space shrinks down. Words become unnecessary. Colour is rich and affecting. Sound plays its enveloping part. We experience love as a yearning, a desire that creates its own cocoon. Love as the thing that opens the world to us and also narrows it down.

You see this dynamic at play in other cinematic love stories too. In Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) and In the Mood for Love, in which torrid lovers and thwarted lovers travel in the back of taxis together, their nearness, in this enclosed space, the very expression of their desire. Similarly, in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993), Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) and Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) share a trip in a carriage that is erotically charged by their proximity. Scorsese almost suffocates them within the frame, pressing them up against its sides, against the sides of the carriage and against each other. Similarly, in The English Patient (1996), Anthony Minghella traps soon-to-be-lovers, Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas), in a constricted car space together. As the vehicle is battered by a desert dust storm, Almasy soothes Katherine with tales of exotic winds, absently stroking her hair with a newfound intimacy and desire.

While that first car ride is the most magnificent and extended example of this spatial device in Carol, it’s not an isolated one. Throughout the film, Haynes asks us to look at Carol and Therese within confined spaces – through grimy windows, mirrors, arches and doorways, shapes that all create a frame to catch them within. The camera creates its own frame too, notably in the scene in which Carol and Therese first meet for lunch. Haynes positions them low and at an angle, intensifying the “pinball” effect of their shot-reverse-shot exchange. Haynes is playing with the colour and compositional aesthetic of both Saul Leiter’s street photography and Edward Hopper’s paintings here, but he’s also fully embroiled within the mood and tone that each of these artists work conveys – singular figures within landscapes, cityscapes and rooms, desperate for connection; people in pairs, together but alone; the all-dislocating frenetic nature of modernity that entangles us then flings us apart.

Carol Christmas
Carol framed in a doorway.
Therese framed within a window.
framing 2
Therese framed by the shelves at Frankenberg’s.
Therese framed in a doorway.

Carol is a film about looking and about how one look can reduce the space between two people. We are encouraged to look (in fact turning away from this film, even momentarily, is impossible), to watch the action in a very specific way, through frames that both bring us nearer to the women, and interrupt our connection, keeping them at a distance. We look at Carol and Therese as they look at each other and how they experience the world in which they live. Looking, in cinema, is almost always an act of desire. As Haynes recently explained in conversation with Radio National’s Jason Di Rosso, these devices posit “the act of looking itself as a predicament … as something that is never easy, and never completely attainable” that complicates how we look and how we desire, simultaneously positioned inside and out.

So many of Carol’s most powerful and passionate scenes don’t rely on words for impact. Using a series of repeated gestures, motifs and framing devices, Haynes has crafted a film experience in which content and form are in perfect synchronicity, where ideas live and breathe in images.

In Carol’s world, words are ultimately inadequate. The silence, the stolen glances, observations, deductions, exist partly because Carol and Therese are two gay women living in a time when the language available to explain who they are to other people must have felt non-existent, where they are nervous and afraid to say how they really feel. But they exist also because this is what love is like for all of us – a fumbling, a gamble, a risk, where we can only ever hope we’ve read the signs that our object of desire is sending out to us, correctly, and that they have read ours in the same way.

Therese and Carol are like magnets. When Carol first appears in the store, she is a very glossy, glamorous figure, in a matte, grainy world (the highly textured imagery an effect of shooting on 16mm film). Therese can’t help but be drawn in, her world orbiting around Carol’s. Therese is, as she admits in Highsmith’s novel, “under a spell”, unable to see anyone in the world but Carol. By the film’s end, Therese realises she’s still spellbound, recognising, in Highsmith’s words that “it was still Carol and no one else. It would be Carol, in a thousand cities, a thousand houses, in foreign lands where they would go together, in heaven and in hell.”

What is so powerful about Carol’s rightly lauded, delicately handled denouement, is how it continues to narrow the space between Carol and Therese, and to show us how the experience of love exists beyond language. Here, as Therese leaves the party she has gone to with Jack, to find Carol at the Oak Room, is a completely wordless reunion, where emotion swells alongside Carter Burwell’s suspenseful, contemplative score, as Therese moves closer to Carol’s table. Finally, you can’t explain what love is, you just have to feel it, and I think Haynes knows this. There is no definition that will suffice, no one poem we can draw on to guide us. So here, in Carol’s finale, there are no words, no grand declarative statements. There’s just one woman moving nearer to the woman she passionately loves. When Carol sees Therese and smiles, it’s a gesture that pulls her in. It says it all.