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WHEN A GAZE IS MORE THAN A GAZE

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By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Early on in the Todd Haynes adaptation of the Patricia Highsmith novel “The Price of Salt” (later re-christened in honor of its lead character), when the highly charged meeting between the older Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and young shop girl & would-be photographer Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) takes place in the New York City department store during the holiday season, I couldn’t help riding a brief musical tangent, bolstered by the languid voice of Dusty Springfield singing the introduction to Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love.” The scene offers the perfect dramatic presentation of the song’s opening line: The look of love / is in your eyes / a look your smile can’t disguise.

Both women have that look, which could be simply—and quite inadequately—explained away as “love at first sight,” because that notion has become movie shorthand for a far more complex emotional state that we are rarely privy to. Film struggles to portray real love, and it could be due to the fact that love lurks inside the performance, beneath layers (and sometimes walls) not even the characters truly understand. Love is a dynamic push and pull, a dramatic conflict without easy expression or resolution, which makes it too difficult to reflect onscreen.

And yet, there it was, just as Springfield sang. It was in Carol’s eyes, and there too was Blanchett’s smile, teasingly attempting to downplay the potentially disastrous pull, the gravitational force of the attraction she felt for the young shop girl. Mara’s face, on the other hand, didn’t quite match Blanchett’s. Love was definitely in her eyes, but she isn’t able to parry it with a smile. Therese, so new to this feeling, can’t brush it off. She surrenders to it, falling deeply, instantly.

I wish we saw the look of love more. Love, so deftly rendered on the page—in poems, plays and fiction—and even in song verse, expressed through soul-stirring vocal performances, somehow eludes the camera and its moving frames. Intriguingly, the last time I caught a fleeting glimpse of it was a couple of years ago, during Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color,” another story about women in love.

In that film, it was Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos), the younger of the two femmes, wearing the wide-eyed expression, as if even the act of blinking might somehow detract from the power of the ephemeral emotion enough to cause it to drift away into the heavens. Adèle, both the character and actress, gave life to the feeling in every single frame; it oozed from her every open pore. Again, no smiling disguises—that would fall to the only slightly older Emma (Léa Seydoux).

But now, I have to ask, why is it that only women—actresses and characters—seem able to convincingly reflect the look of love? And why don’t we see more of it?

I’m tired of the vacancy of kink, which audiences (readers and moviegoers) seemed to swoon over in “Fifty Shades of Grey.” At the time of that film’s release, I went so far as to attempt to remind viewers that, if they were in the mood for kink for kink’s sake, then they would be better served by the old school thrills of “Nine ½ Weeks.” There was no love to be found there, but it certainly trafficked in lust—the adult expression of infatuation. Provocateur Gaspar Noé turned his “Love” into the quest for a money shot. We went around “Sleeping With Other People” in search of it in the indie rom-com world, and “The Danish Girl” sought to expose how it fared in the face of early gender fluidity, but in none of these cases did love look and feel like itself, like we experience it in everyday life.

Where is the love, and I’m digging back once again into the lyric pool, this time to Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, you said you’d give to me / soon as you were free / will it ever be / where is the love?

“Carol” makes good on the promise, giving us the look and feel of love. It was not free, back when Highsmith wrote “The Price of Salt,” but it would seem to be now. And yet, we still don’t see it reflected onscreen as much as we should.