Give Me Your Hand and I'll Hold it
It's not a necessarily positive reflection on our times, but the sight, in movies, of a couple holding hands tends to register as something quaint, sweet, old-fashioned.
This does not stop the event of hand-holding becoming, sometimes, great and indelible cinema. In Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times (2005) or Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring (2003), or even amidst the drugs and violence of the American TV series Breaking Bad, the moment that innocent hands meet can carry a special intensity. Pop music clips sometimes tap into the same magic, as with the current Birdy song "People Help the People" with its touching refrain: "Give me your hand and I'll hold it".
Robert Bresson, as every true cinephile knows, was the master of this specific and peculiar intensity. Hands touching through the prison grill at the end of Pickpocket (1959), or the never-to-be-one young lovers on a bench in Au hasard, Balthazar! (1966), or Lancelot and Guinevere in Lancelot du Lac (1974): the ascetic, seemingly sexless films of Bresson concentrated their entire erotic charge into this displacement — the play of hands and fingers standing in for the communion of fleshy bodies.
The recent explosion of Internet-based film analyses — using screenshots, short clips, audio samples, gifs, image-collages, and much else — has been training us to notice what, once upon a time, we might never have noticed in movies. Recently scrolling through Vincente Minnelli's great musical The Band Wagon (1953) on my laptop, I was drawn to what I had not previously seen in the immortal Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse duet "Dancing in the Dark" — that the choreography is not only all about their hands, but that it builds, with enormous emotional suspense to those pairs of hands touching each other tenderly.
This mini-drama, almost imperceptible, happens in stages. Stage 1: Fred and Cyd, each in their own characteristic way, keep their hands to themselves as they walk, deep in thought. Hands in pockets, hands that busy themselves with trivial pastimes. Hands that begin gestures of communication but then abandon them: Fred looks as if he about to express something in word or by gesture, but then gives it up and scratches his chin instead.
Stage 2: the dance begins, and sweeps them both up in a mutual movement. But look at the non-communion of their arms and hands: hers are poised at her side, beseeching but still self-contained; while his are clasped behind his back, one of the strangest gestures ever for a Hollywood musical.
Stage 3: the hands begin a tentative conversation. They seem to trace out a mutual space that might ultimately connect these two bodies, but still there is a distance between them, and the lack of a shared corporeal code.
Stage 4: The consummation of hands arrives, but it so understated, so woven into the general pattern of the dance, that it is almost hidden. Fred and Cyd get into a spin and. in that, their hands brush, touch, slide along each others' arms; it is only when the turn is over that a mutually supportive locking of hands finally occurs.
Chantal Akerman's Belgian script collaborator Eric de Kuyper once wrote a superb text called "Step by Step" in which he analysed the choreography of this same sequence. For him, it was all about walking: how, moment by moment, a common stepping movement turns into a grand pas de deux, and then back into an ordinary stroll. That is what we are cued, usually, to see and appreciate. But between the hands in this sequence, something more secret and perhaps even more thrilling is going on. When they ride off in a romantic, horse-drawn carriage at the end, Fred and Cyd's elaborate, mutual hand-caress is really something to behold.