Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Cahiers du Coco: Brief Encounter

Posted By on Wed, May 1, 2013 at 5:19 AM

[Join Ettes leader Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time.]

Running time: 86 minutes

I'm pretty sure that when someone gushes "I LOVE old movies!" they're usually talking about melodramas, and they're very likely referring to films like Brief Encounter. The story of a doomed pair of lovers who give in to romance, only to bow and break under society's expectations and demands to return to their safe, unfulfilling marriages and lives? Mm-hmm. Delicious.

David Lean's adaptation of Noel Coward's play Still Life is a beautiful, engaging film that basically defines melodrama in story and style. It's funny, too, and the acting is classic. Trevor Howard gives us a pompous and fleetingly indulgent Dr. Alec Harvey, and he's great. But it feels like you're getting schooled in acting watching Celia Johnson, who plays the lead character, Laura Jesson. (She reminds me of Chloe Grace Moretz, who is also great.)

The movie opens at the same place it ends, though we don't know that yet. Laura does her shopping on Thursdays, which means she takes a certain train into a particular town, where she runs into other middle-class London housewives playing the roles that are their lives. She seems happy enough, and even has time on some days to visit the cinema.

One fateful day, she catches a bit of grit in her eye from a passing train and goes into the station concession cafe to get some water. There happens to be a doctor there (mm-hmm ...) who helps her with her affliction, and both catch their trains and go to their respective homes. A few weeks later, they see each other again, and after making several fateful decisions (this restaurant is crowded, there's only one seat available and it's by HER, mm-hmm ... or, "I've got some time to see a movie, would you mind if I joined you?") off they go into their own world. A world which, of course, they cannot sustain.

Lean's stylistic choices are effective and well scaled, with the surprises just surprising enough. What gets me about this movie (and movies like it) are the characters and the dialogue. When they dine together (unbeknownst to them, in view of a nosy lady acquaintance of Laura's, ooooh!) they comment on the female musicians performing in the corner. Laura suggests that maybe she could be a musician. "You're too sane and uncomplicated," Alec says, dismissing her with the most damning of faint praise. Indeed!

It's been suggested Brief Encounter is an "allegorical representation of forbidden love" informed by Noël Coward's experiences as a closeted homosexual. Quite possibly so, and natural to do through Laura, that postwar middle-class London lady who reminds us, no, one cannot simply DO whatever one WISHES. And Hays Code be damned, it doesn't really matter whether they consummated their love with the lurid, explicit physicality we'd expect to see in movies today.

Alas, the movie proved salacious enough to get banned in Ireland for not punishing the adultery suggested (if not consummated onscreen). Brief Encounter is just that, meant to leave you with uncomfortable questions about right and wrong as well as our own acceptance/refusal of societal constructs and expectations.

Also, I like trains.

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