Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

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Mr Sausage
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Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

#1 Post by Mr Sausage » Mon May 13, 2019 8:49 pm

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dustybooks
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Re: Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

#2 Post by dustybooks » Fri May 17, 2019 12:43 am

I'm lukewarm on Brief Encounter (and on Lean in general), as was recently discussed in one of the lists project threads, but I hate to see a week pass by with no discussion in this thread, so I'll try to explain why I'm left a bit cold by it... though I hasten to add that I do like, or at least admire, it.

The closing scene of the film between Laura and her husband is really tender and, in a sense, quite forward-thinking -- a very calm portrait of decency and understanding within a marriage. But there's a sense in which I also find it troubling. Even though Laura's voiceover ends in a basically unapologetic way, the way that finale is staged as a sort of redemption leaves the film feeling like a rebuke to passion itself, namely the passion Laura felt in her brief tempestuous relationship with Dr. Harvey, as opposed to good old decent sturdy reliability. "Violent" love is something to be questioned and avoided, placid domesticity shared on a boring "evening in" doing puzzles and being blatantly (if affably!) taken for granted therefore the highest goal. There's something suspiciously old-world about it, displaying an attitude that can be interpreted as equating any zest for life (and other people) to sin.

To be honest, I get this same feeling of cold priggishness from a lot of Coward's writing; I think especially of Cavalcade, which in my memory stands as an irksomely conservative, even reactionary story in which snobbery is basically celebrated. It's odd because there's obviously a contradictory liberalism in his work. That includes this film -- it seems quite unusual to see a film from the 1940s in which a man suspects infidelity on the part of his wife and simply lets it go.

All that said: in typing all this out (and with the full disclosure that I last saw the film a year and a half ago), I think I may have inadvertently stumbled on the fact that I'm describing what is essentially the point of the film -- that there's no way out of Laura's situation that isn't somehow heartbreaking. Nevertheless, it seems to me such a false and hopeless and even antiquated idea, that we have to choose between security and actual love; I have to accept, however, that my knee-jerk reaction to the film could be for personal reasons, especially because I seem to be just as wrapped up in these people's love lives as was surely intended.

My other big issue with the film is that I find Dr. Harvey to be a total blank slate of a character, and difficult to believe as an instigator of this degree of uncorked adoration. I like Trevor Howard generally and he's basically fine here, but he never has enough vitality for me to match the depth of Celia Johnson's performance, which I think is remarkable, and a lot of the problem is that Harvey just isn't much of a character.

Certain scenes I do think justify the film's reputation. The train platform scene at the finale, the goodbye stymied by intrusions from Laura's oblivious acquaintance, and even the emotional reunion with Cyril Raymond's Fred.

I know how deeply people care about this movie, so I'm very open to being told how full of shit I am here.

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HinkyDinkyTruesmith
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Re: Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

#3 Post by HinkyDinkyTruesmith » Fri May 17, 2019 1:06 am

I was planning on rewatching before I wrote any full thoughts––I once loved this movie dearly, and my last rewatch of it made me slightly question its mood (I found it suddenly a little too sentimental, which was strange for someone who just finished a thesis on Sirk). I still remember watching it for the first time––I had begun it once before, but was not engaged at all (owing, perhaps, to being rather young, and only interested because I loved Lean's later epics)––but one evening, they were doing a double feature on TCM: The Third Man and Brief Encounter. I loved The Third Man, and stuck around only because it was on right after––and it stole my heart. I absolutely adored it, was completely enraptured. I often wish to return to the state of movie-watching I did when I was that young, when I watched everything on a tube TV barely 20 inches in size, unconcerned as much as now with quality or anything like that. A movie like Brief Encounter gains something perhaps from more intimate conditions like that (whereas Lawrence . . . well, let's not consider).

Which is all to say, I don't think what you wrote is at all unreasonable, although I've never felt by the end of the movie that Fred and Dr. Harvey were ever competing in any way. I always felt the conflict in this love triangle wasn't so much the shape itself but rather the angle: the tension that Laura feels for her societally unacceptable feelings. The ending, therefore, never felt like a choice being made, nor a commentary on the choices at all. Rather, it felt like Laura, who felt as though she just lost all the love in the world, being reminded there was still a good deal left for her at home.

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dustybooks
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Re: Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

#4 Post by dustybooks » Fri May 17, 2019 1:18 am

HinkyDinkyTruesmith wrote:
Fri May 17, 2019 1:06 am
The ending, therefore, never felt like a choice being made, nor a commentary on the choices at all. Rather, it felt like Laura, who felt as though she just lost all the love in the world, being reminded there was still a good deal left for her at home.
I quite like that interpretation. It also feels both of a piece with the mores of the time in which the film was made and yet still relevant; such sacrifices and revelations are obviously happening all the time, which I'm sure is why this has remained a basically universal story.

On my first viewing, I remember being extremely warmed by the ending and then being sort of upset with myself for that, because I recalled how well-established it was that Laura's marriage, as depicted earlier in the film, seemed so empty and dead. And I'd been in situations when I myself was the safe, comfortable choice for someone and it seemed like the easy way out for me to root for the patient, kind "Bigger Man," like the fantasy Rex Harrison has in Unfaithfully Yours when he promotes himself as a sacrificial lamb of sorts. But your comments sort of clarify that contradiction for me... the reestablishing of love and connection on the home front is a perfectly justifiable solace for someone in Laura's position. I suppose I still wish for some indication that her husband has some intention of changing, of working harder for their relationship, but maybe his behavior in that scene does give us that; and when I read that back, it still sounds like I'm applying too much of a modern sensibility to criticize a 70+ year-old film.

(Also, I agree with your comments about the joys of small-screen, oblivious film watching. One of my favorite cinematic experiences ever, more than all but a couple of my actual theatrical excursions, was lying on my floor watching Fantasia on a 19" screen with headphones on because I couldn't make any noise. That great film has never seemed livelier to me since.)

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HinkyDinkyTruesmith
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Re: Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)

#5 Post by HinkyDinkyTruesmith » Fri May 17, 2019 2:04 am

Well, I think it's important to keep in mind that there's nothing actually exciting about Alec––nor anything especially boring about Fred (at least, more boring than anyone else). It's all about the routines of life, which is what makes Alec exciting: he's literally just a break from that, that invigorates the minor details of life. The fact of marriage and children and responsibilities that Laura has to maintain can be read as just the natural ennui of bourgeois life, in comparison to the relationship that the shopkeeper and station master maintain, which, while routine, is not bound by ceremony or such so that even harmless flirtations become "inappropriate" (therefore exciting).

Part of what hung me up last time is the way the film sort of catalogues ridiculous notions of romance: Laura's fantasies for example are very trite. The film is so invested in her point of view though that it becomes tempting to read that as an admittance of distance, and that the film acts as its own parody, but, it's at the same time so sincere (and Lean is if nothing else a sincere filmmaker) that it's perhaps more just the exemplar of contemporary romantic fiction.

Likewise, it occupies a very strange timeframe, as it's a postwar-made pre-war set film that only vaguely gestures to the war. In some ways, Alec's going away is not unlike the soldiers leaving: the sudden loss of loved ones, gone away. The film itself is an expression of that, really. A nightmare of leavings: not only is the initial trauma repeated because of the loop structure, but the lovers are repeatedly forced to say goodbye, again and again as they must take trains away. It could very easily be made Kafka-esque, between that, and the sort of nightmare of being unable to communicate to others about what is going on: having to make up lies, concoct excuses, because this very natural relationship with a man is deemed unacceptable.

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