Better than BFI’s Top 100: 1

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here

1) Brief Encounter (1945), directed by David Lean

I went back a few days ago and decided to count how many movies each director had contributed to this list. Mike Leigh was first, with seven entries. Then David Lean and Michael Powell, with six each. Emeric Pressburger co-directed five of Powell’s six; Hitchcock pre-Hollywood turned in four; Nicolas Roeg, Carol Reed, James Ivory, Basil Dearden, and Derek Jarman turned in three apiece. No one else had more than two. I rather like the idea of saying that Mike Leigh is Britain’s greatest maker of British movies, but one probably tabs David Lean for that instead. In my last post, I suggested that he made the greatest English-language movie epic of all time. In this one, I have to chalk up to him the greatest English-language movie romance of all time. (I haven’t thought about this as much with foreign language movies as much, but offhand I would put Brief Encounter at the top there, too.) Lean’s direction of this movie is far less active than his work on Lawrence. One can feel watching this movie the way that he’s trying to give more play for Noel Coward’s words, more time spent on Celia Johnson’s endlessly expressive face, than he is to trying to let the camera capture something stunning. It’s a smartly directed movie, certainly. I love the limited use of a canted camera when Laura is about to lose her self-control, for example, and he does a great job at capturing the spaces that she lives in. The refreshment room is a cramped but still personal little place, where multiple dramas can occur at the same time; regardless of how big a room is or how many people are in it, Lean manages to carve out a little space for Alec and Laura to be with one another where no one else no one else knows they exist. Laura’s living room is big enough that she and Fred could sit far apart, but we frequently see them facing one another, with one person’s body obscuring some of the other’s environment. (“Obscuring my environment” seems like a very David Lean idea, given that he married six separate times.) This is not a bravura directorial performance, but the flourishes are effective when they do show up.

Every time I write about a romance, I either compare it to Brief Encounter or I hold back from comparing it to Brief Encounter. A quick look back in my posts shows that I have failed to hold back about Harold and Maude (in how it structures a romance with a doomed timetable), Bridges of Madison County (ditto, except badly), Brokeback Mountain (for the ugly crying aspect), and Leon Morin, Priest (for the expunging of any sexual possibility). Maybe my brain is melted, but it seems reasonable. Brief Encounter is the bar. Many movie romances have pole vaulted their way into the competition; some have come close to the bar. A very select few have hit it. Carol won me over as soon as Cate Blanchett put her hand on Rooney Mara’s shoulder in the early minutes of the film. But none have cleared it. Brief Encounter is as lean as venison and as bloody as when it came off the deer. Choices that typically fail in other movies, like the protagonist’s voiceover or showoffishly putting the end of the story before the beginning, are done perfectly in this one. Voiceovers are usually cheap ways to do exposition that’s better left to a camera or to some interaction. Here, Laura is mentally telling the story of her emotional affair to her husband, the one person she can confide in and the one person she absolutely can never tell about it. “Because even if I waited until we were old, old people, and told you then, you’d be bound to look back over the years and feel hurt,” she muses. A fair bit of what she does in voiceover is whatever is below grunt work. She gets a new book. She bought two new toothbrushes for the kids. And then every now and again, there are these moments of realization that are such huge moments of personal reckoning that they leave me breathless. She thinks about Alec’s wife, Madeline:

His wife, Madeleine, would probably be in the hall to meet him. Or perhaps upstairs. In her room, not feeling very well. ‘Small, dark, and rather delicate.’ I wondered if he’d say, ‘I met such a nice woman at the Kardomah, we had lunch and went to the pictures.’ Then suddenly I knew that he wouldn’t. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he wouldn’t say a word. At that moment, the first awful feeling of danger swept over me.

Or, a little more dramatically at the end, there’s that monologue beginning, “I meant to do it, Fred. I really meant to do it.” The voiceover, in this picture, is the way into the most personal bits of her life, the parts that she wouldn’t tell anyone about, either because they are too banal to be worth our time or because they are too dangerous to slip out. There was a barrel organ playing a tune—I’m in love with another man——I love the way the drugstore smells—your loving wife nearly threw herself in front of a train this afternoon. None of it sits quite right, and because it cannot come out in a conversation, it has to stay inside, warping Laura’s organs with anxiety but leaving her heart curiously independent of that pain.

As for putting the end of the story first…well, it allows the most romantic gesture I’ve ever seen to play in front of us twice, and so I guess I have to acquiesce. In either event it’s not really about putting the end of the story first. As a repeated movie moment, showing Alec’s last minute or two with Laura and the transition into Dolly Messiter twice gives us two bites at the apple; it has more in common with that repeated monologue in Persona where we get to see both the approach that both of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann take to it than it does with, say, American Beauty. Brief Encounter separates the two scenes by eighty-five minutes or more, but in those eighty-five minutes so much happens. The first time around, our primary clue that Alec and Laura mean something to each other is the hand that Alec presses into Laura’s shoulder, lifted reluctantly before he rushes out of the refreshment room. Dolly decides she wants some chocolate. While her back is turned to the table, Laura disappears, and comes back just as Dolly and Myrtle notice she’s gone. The second time around, we know what that hand on her shoulder means. He’s going to South Africa with his wife and children because he knows the only cure for what he’s got is 8,000 miles worth of distance. He’s never going to see her, write her, talk to her, touch her again. And maybe if he and Laura were relatively alone in the refreshment room, without the company of the infernal Dolly Messiter, then maybe he would steal their fifth kiss. But she’s there. Thus the last thing he does, because he learned the lesson of Lot’s wife, is to put his hand on her shoulder and squeeze. The whole movie works on those identical moments, perihelion and aphelion, and it couldn’t be more terrible. We find out the second time where Laura goes. She rushes out of the refreshment room to throw herself in front of that train, and it’s a good thing I wasn’t there or I would have held her hand and jumped with her. “Not to be unhappy anymore.”

The good times always seem to last for less time in the movies than you remember them. Here’s a week-by-week rundown:

Week 1 – Alec gets some coal dust out of Laura’s eye

Week 2 – Alec and Laura bump into each other; he asks how her eye is; “What exciting lives we lead”

Week 3 – Kardomah’s; movies; discussion of spouses; Alec’s special pigeons; “Next Thursday, the same time”

Week 4 – Laura looks for Alec all day, thinks he’s stood her up; he catches her at the platform

Week 5 – Rowboat; confession of love; Laura imagines a romantic, traveling life with Alec

Week 6 – Mary Norton catches them at lunch; Laura refuses to come upstairs; Laura doubles back; Stephen catches Alec; “the beginning of the end”

Week 7 – “We’ve still got a few minutes”/”Laura!

By my count, only one of those weeks is any fun, and that’s Week 3, before the two of them even fall in love with one another. That moment where Alec asks Laura “most humbly” to meet her again next week is so thrilling. He is asking her to take a step towards the abyss with him, to stick one foot each over a ledge, holding hands and looking down into oblivion. “You’ll miss your train,” Laura says at first, and it’s the right thing to say, and it makes neither of them feel any better. Then: “I’ll be there.”  Week 5 is played as fun enough until the two of them are left alone in the boathouse to let Alec’s clothes dry; there’s a funny moment where Alec straight walks off the rowboat in an effort to push it away from the bridge. (Dammit, Jim, he’s a doctor, not a physicist.) Then the two of them start telling the other that they love each other, that they can’t hide it anymore. Week 6 is a special kind of anxiety hell. Week 7 is the worst. We make a lot of Romeo and Juliet falling in love at once and all that, but it’s worth noting that this brief encounter is really incredibly short. I would guess that they spend about three days together, much of them filled with worries about being caught, about the “sordidness” of being in love with someone you’re not married to and wanting to have sex with them and knowing that what they’re doing is wrong. Brief Encounter is not a movie which makes having an affair look glamorous or fun, and its characters do not forget for a moment that they are breaking vows and betraying decent standards of behavior. Laura’s approach to the affair is always a little too clever. She tests out her conscience on her husband by telling her that she had lunch with a strange man and then went to the movies with him. “Good for you!” he says, and then asks for more help with his crossword puzzle. She tries to cover her tracks by calling a friend, the same friend who later sees her at a restaurant with Alec, and at that point it must be very clear to that friend what, exactly, she needs to cover her tracks about. Alec gets absolutely sonned by Stephen, who is patronizing in the extreme and who is perfectly validated in being that way.

I imagine adults don’t remember all the details about the way teenagers fall in love, the way that they let it consume their entire lives and don’t hold back and open themselves to it. Brief Encounter shows, for a couple weeks in there, what it would look like if adults loved like teenagers. (“I wish I could die,” Laura tells Alec, and in that moment anyone who’s ever listened to Dashboard Confessional put their hands over their hearts.) Where it excels is in showing the way that adults bring themselves back to earth in ways that are great to prove their maturity but hell on their emotions. On their last day together, Alec and Laura’s actions are basically elided. The voiceover comes back, and we hear Laura say things about how this is her last time with Alec, the last time she’ll see things with him, etc. The hands of the clock are swinging like the blades of electric saws to 5:40, and when they get there, Alec and Laura will be separated forever. What the movie does that makes their parting special is to surprise them. Perhaps Dolly Messiter only appears at 5:38, but how cruel, how necessary those two minutes feel. Brief Encounter is most romantic and most aching when it makes us believe that two minutes could be a life-changing comfort.

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