Patricia Highsmith, author of The Price of Salt, the book that the multiple award-nominated Carol is based on, is famous for putting her readers into the subjective perspective of the criminal mind. The Talented Mr. Ripley, the Hitchcock favorite Strangers on a Train, and the 20 other novels she wrote over her four and a half decade career are psychological thrillers, mining the motivation, act, and aftermath of murder.
But in Carol, the crime is love.
It was the only book Highsmith wrote in which no violence occurs, and it was also semi-autobiographical. Highsmith shows us that the parallels between a criminal mind and one that is falling in love, especially illicitly, are uncanny.
Writer Phyllis Nagy and cinematographer Ed Lachman - both BAFTA and Oscar nominated - talk us through this process of making the audience complicit with the amorous mind, and the forensics of their craft, putting a microscope on the science behind Carol and Therese’s onscreen chemistry.
IMAGE AS EXPERT WITNESS
“Images for me aren’t about representation,” Ed Lachman says, “but about how you capture the psychological state of the characters in their environment. And so whatever period it is, I’m always trying to find what’s the language that will best tell the story psychologically for the characters.”
So how exactly does the visual language of a movie intensify an emotional experience?
It’s very noticeable in the film how tactile and textured the environment is. And also how often our view of the action is obstructed or obscured. We’re watching from the wrong side of a window, or another room, which all has the psychological effect of creating feelings of frustration and longing. We want to get closer to see fully, meaning that the imagery is causing us to emphasize more with the longing of the characters.
SCENE DNA - THE POWERFUL CHARGE OF NEGATIVE SPACE
Therese and Carol’s first lunch is a fascinating case of the powerful charge that negative space can have onscreen. For example, the dialogue. It’s sparse and compellingly loaded with what isn’t addressed, as much as with what is. Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy explains.
“If you begin from the starting point that it’s behavior that portrays emotion and reveals emotion, then what you’re left with is a relatively complex puzzle that requires that your character is learning the code of the other person’s behavior,” she says. “And I think that’s not so unlike the way people in life behave. I don’t know anyone who really goes around talking about every little thing they feel. Especially on a first date.”
Not to mention the fact that in the 1950s, women were not free to fall in love with women, nor men with men. If you look at the literature from that period, novels that dealt with same sex love and relationships usually ended up in sanitariums and suicide. The difference in The Price of Salt is that it ends in the possibility that the relationship could actually work, but nothing was ever direct or concrete.
Nagy explains, “I had the great advantage of working in a time period for the script where these women really couldn’t speak freely - even if they had wanted to. There is no easy way to look someone in the eye and say ‘Hey, how about it?’”
The image in that first lunch scene plays with negative space, too - pushing Therese and Carol’s whole conversation towards the edge of the frame. This seems to be something of a pattern in the film. When the characters are unsure of themselves, the center of the frame is either empty or filled by somebody else. When they are sure - whether in pain or happiness - they’re right in the middle of it.
“I’d never thought of it exactly, but I know there was a feeling that - like in that first scene when they meet in the restaurant - call it ‘short siding’ - there’s openness in that frame,” he says. “I think the feeling that they don’t own the frame, they’re part of a greater frame and it’s the outside forces that are defining their relationship. You know, the boyfriend, the husband, the detective, the lawyer… So by them not having the whole frame themselves in a way, you’re showing the forces of the outside world somehow imposing their restrictiveness.”
DESIGN AS ACCOMPLICE
As Lachman suggests, its not just the cinematography but the whole design of a film which contributes to the psychological experience of the viewer, causing processes of recognition of and association with what the characters are experiencing. Lachman calls the visual design team's aim on Carol a “lived-in period reality.” To avoid what he calls the “picture-postcard manufactured cinematic world of noir or melodrama of the early 50s,” they thoroughly studied what real life would have looked and felt like for women living in an urban environment in that era.
“Visually we looked at the photojournalists who were documenting the time, and they happened to be women - who were experimenting with early color. Women like Esther Bubley, Helen Levitt, Ruth Orkin - and then later we discovered Vivian Maier. The colors were more muted and subdued and grey, they didn’t have the full color spectrum of color negative today. So the choice of shooting in super16 was to mimic the grain of the slide, but also to situate the time so if you picked up a photo in that time period, it might look the way that Carol looked, as if you’re looking back at the time through a scrapbook or an album.”
Lachman continues, “Another photographer we referenced was Saul Leiter. He shot through windows, glass, weather, diffusing the image and obstructing the frame. For us, the desire becomes more pronounced because of the obstacles between where you are and what you want to see.”
“And I’ll tell you what the [16mm] grain is about,” Lachman says, “the grain is something being affected on the surface, and hopefully for the viewer, it becomes something living, underneath the surface, almost like their emotion. Viewing the characters through the texture of grain, but also feeling the emotions through the grain, hopefully revealing their state of mind.”
Carol is nominated for 6 Oscars including Cinematography (Ed Lachman), Adapted Screenplay (Phyllis Nagy), Actress in a Leading Role (Cate Blanchett), and Actress in a Supporting Role (Rooney Mara)
Debs Paterson is a film director and writer best known for her feature film Africa United.
Phyllis Nagy is a writer and director. She adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt into the Oscar-nominated screenplay, Carol.
Ed Lachman is a cinematographer known for his work on The Virgin Suicides, Erin Brockovich, and now the Oscar-nominated Carol.