By Christopher Sharrett.
When I think about the melodrama I tend to focus on the masterpieces of Max Ophuls, Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, Irving Rapper, Edmund Goulding, King Vidor, and others, all of whom helped define the concerns of the genre. My bias favoring American (or émigré) filmmakers has tended to dismiss David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945), perhaps because for a time I saw the melodramas of the UK as a bit too strained – isn’t Britain so repressed anyway that studying its emotions in genre film seems a little pointless? I answered this question “yes” for many years, a reflection of my narrowness. On top of this, Brief Encounter seemed a bit too mawkish, with its insistent Rachmaninoff score. All of that nonsense of course ignores Brief Encounter as a work crucial to melodrama, containing almost all the key issues that make the genre important.
Based on Noel Coward’s one-act play Still Life (1935), Brief Encounter is thoughtful and overwhelmingly compelling on the impossibility of marriage, including especially the “good” marriage that provides a sense of false stability; sexual repression as central to patriarchal civilization; the necessary (according to social rules) rejection of promiscuity, especially as Robin Wood defined it as “relating freely,” associating with many human beings, the sex act no more valued than other sincere communication among people; the need to put on a façade in public, and even in one’s home, the better to conceal real emotional needs and ward off social finger-wagging – and condemnation. Thinking of Brief Encounter as a British film has limited utility, although it is surely one of the finest achievements of Britain’s cinema. It addresses essential problems of our civilization that have gone largely unaddressed even after the many social movements (women’s rights, gay rights, sexual liberation) of the last fifty years.
A summary of the film is simple precisely because its concerns are so focused and essential: a married, middle-aged housewife, Laura (Celia Johnson in a superb performance) meets Alec (Trevor Howard), a married, middle-aged doctor while the two wait for their respective trains at a suburban station. They fall in love, but it is unconsummated. We might pretend that it is; the sex act simply could not be represented in film in any way at that time – it is slightly suggested by Laura leaving behind a scarf at the snide Lynn’s (Valentine Dyall) apartment, where the two go for an (interrupted) assignation. After a few weeks, Laura and Alec realize the hopelessness of their situation. Alec exiles himself to a new medical practice in South Africa; Laura returns to husband and two children. She continues to reminisce – via voiceover – on the relationship as she has done from the film’s opening, providing the rare female narrator.
The film is a masterpiece of small gestures, especially Alec’s gentle clasp of Laura’s shoulder for the last time (we see the moment twice, at the beginning and end of the film – we can sense straight off that this is a tragedy; there is no need for suspense as the film merely examines its characters). He can do no more since they are interrupted by the gossiping Dolly Messiter (Everley Gregg), who has arrived at the train station that is the couple’s agreed rendezvous site. The squeezing of Laura’s shoulder (not even a peck on the cheek) contains an enormous amount of emotion, of desires unfulfilled. But the desire is threatened with suffocation, foreboding, death. The train station and its “refreshment room” are Expressionist nightmares – the couple is frequently seen walking (mostly at night) through its tunnels or on its platforms. The refreshment room, where there love begins and ends (with no more than the squeeze of Laura’s right shoulder), seems oddly named, but no doubt a common designation. There is little that seems refreshing in the drab building with its cups of tea and little cakes. The couple is mirrored by another couple, the boisterous station master (Stanley Holloway) and snooty counter clerk (Joyce Carey) who offer clever Shakespearean mockery of romantic love. The hellishness of the station announces the doom that quickly enshrouds the couple at the start. Steam-driven trains barrel through the blackened station at hellish, deafening speeds – the “piece of grit” that gets into Laura’s eye, marking her first encounter with the caring Alec, represents her momentary joy followed by its total extinction. At one point near the end, as the camera tilts to a steep “Dutch” angle to underscore Laura’s combined rage and grief, she runs from the refreshment room and toward the tracks, stopping short from throwing herself on the track, evoking Anna Karenina, but the film isn’t Anna’s kind of tragedy. Laura’s is confined to a world of the humdrum, the undramatic, the suburban life of slow death. The film was made before the Allied victory, but it fully anticipates the postwar world that the melodrama traced so well.
When Laura goes home after meeting Alec she is energized, but as she enters her home we see husband Fred’s hat on a table in the very close foreground. The point is not to raise patriarchal authority as much as point to the dull reality of Laura’s life: she is “content” in the way that the western bourgeoisie has learned to be content. Her needs are taken care of, but the marriage, by all indications, is sexually dead after producing two children (who are treated affectionately, but also a symbol of Laura’s boredom). We need to contemplate the impossibility of any one person fulfilling all of one’s needs for a bound-by-law lifetime.
Fred and Laura are polite to each other, one asking the other for help with a crossword puzzle (Laura is more literate, the dreamer of the home), or if it’s okay to turn on the radio. Fred remains in his suit as he smokes his pipe, and Laura keeps on her drably stylish jacket, blouse, and skirt, the custom at the time to be sure. But Lean emphasizes the stiffness of the formalities as Laura emphasizes for herself (and us) her commitments to home, husband, and children.
Routinized behavior, and the delusion of escape from it, are elements central to our understanding of Laura, and it truly is her story, simply because she speaks to us, expressing her vitality and longing doomed to be suffocated. Alec’s needs are important, but for me it is hard to imagine Trevor Howard as anything but sinister (I keep recalling him as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty , or in near-rubbish war films like Von Ryan’s Express , both admittedly late in his career and unrepresentative of his range).
Laura takes the train every Thursday to Milford where she shops (the husband provides “spending money” to keep the wife content) and takes in a matinee. It is notable that she is always alone – when Dolly Messiter intrudes on her thoughts while the two ride the train, Laura says she wishes she had a kind, insightful friend to whom she could confide, instead of having to endure a big-mouthed bore who is more than a pest – she is a scandal-monger, precisely the wrong person to witness, in the smallest way, romance outside of marriage. Laura’s solitude underscores an essential issue: women in this civilization are supposed to be enemies who vie for male attention, never looking to each other for comfort and solidarity.
The film is a bit metacinematic, with the movies an essential pleasure as Alec and Laura enjoy their romance, first chatting at overcrowded restaurants that are pleasant enough but threaten exposure. They sit in the balcony (always a perch for lovers), on one occasion watching dreck called “Flame of Passion,” an African adventure featuring screaming natives and rampaging elephants, two lovers passionately kissing at the end. There is a sad joke here since Alec will go to Africa, symbolic for a time of a triumph for British imperialism. The two wish that their passion could be allowed to catch fire. It actually does, but always in a climate of restraint, even as their eyes show a welter of emotions.
Lean’s control is remarkable – we see a great deal, as the film reveals a state of turmoil without for a moment going over the top. Fred is never an ogre, for example. But he may be too “understanding” of his wife’s sudden changes of mood (accepting yet not accepting her explanations) simply because he is assured that she would never cheat – even when Laura comes extremely close to confessing to him. The transgression of masculine privilege is simply unthinkable.
When Laura knows that she cannot speak seriously to Fred about what is really happening, she learns to lie, fabricating stories about what she is doing, the needed, predictable step for someone wanting sexual independence when prohibited from sexual contact with anyone except the spouse. She tells a lie about going somewhere with friend Mary Norton (Marjorie Mars), then, when Fred is out of sight, quickly phones Mary to make sure Mary can bolster her story, substituting an innocent lie to cover the real one. Mary Norton is an acquaintance, not a friend (the distracted eyebrow-plucking while Laura speaks to her on the phone), since we have already seen that Laura has no friends. Her forlornness about the situation (the trip home with Dolly Messiter) speaks to a key truth – no woman, friend or no, could tolerate, at that point in history, being party to such a transgression.
The film’s intelligence is especially notable in its acknowledging the world of fantasy that encompasses romantic love. The narrative at first posits – using Laura’s perspective – that Alec is her “true” love and the answer to all problems. They greet each other with ebullient energy when they meet for their trysts. But what would the future hold if they did get together permanently? This is perhaps answered when Laura takes the train home on one occasion. She stares at the window and imagines herself with Alec in all sorts of exotic locations – in an opera box in Paris, on a gondola in Venice, scantily clad on beaches, or in full dress in a ballroom. The moment brings to mind Stefan and Lisa in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), on the faux train looking out the window, as images of faraway locales are rolled past them by the elderly amusement park attendant. Like Lisa, Laura associates love and sex with endless wealth that elevates her class status, or erases class entirely– wouldn’t that erasure be dependent on Alec? The point is that hers is a fantasy divorced from all reality – it dissolves quickly as she see the weeds outside her approaching station, and the prospect of her returning home.
The Criterion Collection again does us considerable service by returning to us this masterpiece, but questions continue to arise about Blu-ray’s application to 35mm film well over a half-century old. This edition is brightened and as crisp as I assume it will ever be, but in comparison it seems to my eyes only a notch or two above their last DVD edition. But this is niggling. Brief Encounter is a superb work of art about the impossible situation that society has conjured to regulate the sexes.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University, USA. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International, and a Contributing Writer for Cineaste. He feels the loss of David Bowie, one of the last truly great creative forces of rock music.