My Favourite Film Number 10

This is out of sequence, but I have to doctor my thing about Aliens, because it's very workmanlike and reads more like a synopsis. Enjoy the next step in the meanwhile.

Romantic love between two people is the one sensation that I believe film can capture better than any other medium. In books it is easy to describe what love feels like, what goes on when you see your beloved’ face, hear your beloved’s name, etc. In film you can say all you need to with a glance, a gesture, or a subtle change of expression. Granted love has been misrepresented more times than I care to count, but occasionally a director will get it absolutely right and you know it right away. It’s staggering and harmonious and it makes you jump out of your chair. The swimming pool kiss between Elijah Wood & Christina Ricci in Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, the quiet honesty of Eric Rohmer’s Love In The Afternoon, and the slow flirtation between Vittorio de Sica and Danielle Darrieux in Max Ophuls’ The Earrings of Madame De… are some of the precious few times that romance has been accurately captured on screen. There is one film, however, that stands above all others as a completely honest depiction of love between two people: David Lean’s Brief Encounter.

Brief Encounter
by David Lean
Brief Encounter tells the story of two star crossed lovers, Laura a housewife (Celia Johnson) and Alec a GP (Trevor Howard), and it pulls no punches. They are both entering their middle age, both are married, have jobs, and no interest in entering such a pact, and yet neither can deny that after meeting by chance three times, going to lunch, the pictures, and a romantic boat ride that they have fallen in love with each other. Neither is unhappy with their marriage or lives, but they feel alive when in each other’s presence, and don’t want to abandon the only thing they feel passionately about. They argue about what to do, when to break it off, how far they should allow themselves to fall from grace, until the conclusion is thrust on them like a bucket of cold water. Told in flashback on the evening the affair ends, a bleak denouement seems guaranteed from the outset and yet through Lean’s characterization the ending doesn’t feel at all like the defeat we see coming all along. Brief Encounter is that brilliant film that ends in defeat, makes it both tragic and triumphant, and still feels like victory.

To love Brief Encounter is to love Celia Johnson. Her Laura is one of cinema’s great heroines. Her voice like torn silk quavering under the stress of having to chose between two exclusive kinds of happiness; her face that of a tortured animal cruelly thrust into peril. She makes clear the pain of finding happiness in the socially unacceptable using just her eyes. Though Celia Johnson was only 37 when she played Laura through her considerable strength as an actress she makes it clear that this may be perhaps the last chance for a meaningful relation in her life. Unlike the ludicrously ageist portrayals of women scorned that populate modern films, Brief Encounter feels like the real thing. Like a cross between Simone Simon and Mary Astor, Celia Johnson’s performance may just be the saddest in film history. Her humanity and her devotion to the happiness of others makes it impossible not to sympathize with her. And because she doesn’t know what she wants, we suffer right along with her, eating up every moment of her passion finally coming unbuttoned after years in polite company, and falling down hard whenever her happiness is taken from her. David Lean, perhaps more than any other director of his time, understood how hard it is to be a woman and his early films dictate how hard the job of a female can be. How can a woman seek pleasure for herself when society’s expectations chase after her no matter how hard she tries to find privacy. Between Summetime, The Passionate Friends, This Happy Breed, Madeleine, Hobson’s Choice and Brief Encounter Lean covers just about every aspect of modern femininity in relation to the stern eyes that watch a woman every day of her life all the while refusing to pass judgment. Lean was a feminist that understood how hard it is to find yourself amidst mountainous social constructs and stiff British tradition.

Brief Encounter might be called lover’s noir; there is no murder, only human emotion; no suspect to interrogate, just a woman confessing. David Lean was a filmmaker who understood human nature and crafted plots around them that rivaled any spy thriller or detective potboiler of the time; the Hitchcock of the soul or the Clouzot of the heart. Each element builds on top of his very human drama to craft a tense, layered drama that finally makes infidelity as important as a bomb at police headquarters. The frequent use of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto number 2 makes every action and glance sink in. Robert Krasker’s photography, just four years before his brilliant work on The Third Man, fills the screen with shadow and dusk whenever passion is afoot. What people walk away from Brief Encounter with are typically those arresting shots in the Milford train station. Along with the footage of the trains breaking the stillness of the night air and separating the lovers each night, there are those silhouettes. There to remind the audience and our heroes that someone is always watching. Their affection for one another is constantly put on hold by the arrival by one or more people (often droll acquaintances who both live within and champion the rigid confines of the bourgeoisie lifestyle that Alec and Laura are desperately trying to escape), something that anyone in a tentative romantic situation can identify with. In fact Brief Encounter is a film I find myself in tune with each time I view it. Having been in that situation and having known other people in that situation, I can say first hand that the feelings of both Laura and Alec are as true to life as they come and for a film made in 1945, that’s saying quite a bit. When we find ourselves torn between love and responsibility, the right choice is never apparent or easy to make; here is a film entrenched in that conflict.

Watching the love between two people blossom and then tragically fail is hard to do, and it’s no easier when the people are as charming and human as Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. And yet their love fills every inch of the screen, it is unavoidably, undeniably strong. The film was mocked at the time for showing a supposedly tumultuous love affair that contained so little tumult. Though they have the stats right (Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard kiss exactly four times on screen and spend only five days together), they have missed the point altogether. Lean was not attempting to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He was making what remains one of the most honest films ever made, and yet somehow came out with one of the most enthralling, heart-wrenching pieces of art ever made. This might not have the prose of Shakespeare or the color of Gone With The Wind, but when Alec¬ and Laura must say goodbye publicly without the words they’d rehearsed a hundred times over, when things go wrong in the worst way possible, we are given one of the most harrowing moments in cinematic history. What happens when you cannot say goodbye to the thing you love the most? Where do those feelings go? Brief Encounter presents questions and dilemmas that are both terrifying to consider and achingly human. Is an audience allowed to root for a woman cheating on the father of her two children with a married doctor? Perhaps the reason the film’s conflict was lambasted so is because nothing, not even Krasker’s cinematography, is black and white. Every setting and problem comes wrapped in smoke and darkness. The world seems to treat the problems of Brief Encounter with contempt; society knows the answer to their problem and has ways of dealing with middle-aged dreamers who feel passion supercedes order. Brief Encounter is bold, beautiful, funny, haunting, daring, and above all else romantic.

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