October 14, 2008

Ethical Encounters: Brief Encounter

"Nothing lasts" says Laura Jesson to herself, "this misery can't last". Brief Encounter is a film about time and feeling- the encounter between Laura and Alec is brief but briefness shoots through the entire film. Even as viewers we can feel this hour and a half like an interlude of dreams, punctuated by the sweeping music of Rachmaninov and the voice of Celia Johnston, clipped, English and very emotional. As a movie it does not seem to move so much as to exist- to exist like a dream exists as an alternative but temporary state. After the film, you and the characters are in exactly the same position- as Fred says to Laura at the end 'you have been a long way away, thank you for coming back to me'. We have all been a long way away watching Brief Encounter- and as I will discuss later in this article that distance that we've been is important.

Brief Encounter is about the meeting between a woman and a man. They are both married and after a small set of meetings- five in all- they decide never to meet again. To give away the story is really to give away nothing- because this is a film about an issue and an atmosphere. The atmosphere is created by incredible acting and direction. Let us start with the acting- both Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson have been praised endlessly for this film- that praise is well deserved. Johnson in particular scarcely has the camera off her- much of the film is spent with the director staring straight into her eyes as they flicker round a train carriage, or sink to the floor in despair or light up with the excitement of dreams of love. Howard too does well- he is suave and smooth as he needs to be. It is the direction though which is often less praised but deserves more- one impeccable shot which I've used as an illustration above demonstrates in my view the perfection of Lean's work. Laura is at home feeling guilty about deceiving her husband about where she was that afternoon- she stares in the mirror and what we look with her into the mirror and see what she sees, a woman wracked by guilt. It is a very subtle way of literally getting you to see Laura's position from her point of view but it is incredibly effective.

If that was all, perfect technical ability made manifest on the screen then the film would sit in the category of well made but insignificant but this is not such a simple or irrelevant film. I have told the basics of the story already but there are a couple of issues opened up within the film that need more analysis to elucidate the issues involved. The film pivots around Laura and her relationship with her husband and with Alec her possible lover (I will use the word 'lover' from now on despite the fact that they go no further than a quick kiss). Laura trusts her husband- she wishes she could tell him everything as he is so kind and gentle. She comes across Alec in a cafe and then in the street and she finds him exciting, kind and intelligent- she finds him the epitome of the kind of man that she would have loved to marry as a girl. She describes her feelings towards him as a girlish fantasy- to marry the idealistic doctor- in a sense he ressembles the hero of Agnes Grey, Mr Weston, but modernised. The film is about whether she should leave her husband or not- she does not in the end and it is evident by the end of the movie that here we have an argument for her decision. Throughout the film we are reminded that Laura has people she must look after- her children- and right at the end, Lean makes sure that we see that her husband, though unromantic, does care deeply for her. We never see as much of Alec- though we are invited to remember his two sons and delicate wife (it is significant that we are told about both of them) and invited to see his life as a mirror to Laura's.

The second question is about the morality of Laura and Alec. How should we see them? The fact they have sex has nothing to do with the question of their morality- the interchange of bodily fluids is the culmination of a process at whose heart is emotional infidelity. That is why Laura cannot tell her husband about what has happened- because it would hurt him to know that she desired and felt happy in the company of another man. From Laura's account Alec comes off as the instigator- but that is afterall her perception of events and we do not have his. Around these two figures are gathered other figures within society- Alec's friend who despises Alec when he finds the two of them in his flat, Laura's friends who gossip about her or who annoy her. Alec's friend, Stephen, is the least morally repugnant- expressing disappointment with Alec's behaviour. Laura's friend Mary Norton seems though to revel in sin as an opportunity to gossip nastily. Stephen and Mary embody different responses- to publicly tell the person of your displeasure and then remain silent in the interests of the family unit (Stephen) or to avoid confrontation, enjoy the titillating spectacle of sin and gossip about it maliciously (Mary). Lean wants us to see how unsympathetic society can be to these lovers: but also in Stephen's dialogue with Alec he wants us to see the love affair from the outside- he wants us to see the sordid nature of this magic.

Our focus though must remain on the central pair- they are constrained by their society in the sense that they cannot abandon their spouses- but as we see with Laura abandoning her spouse would be an act of selfishness. What this film gets at, what I think that Lean gets, is that life is made of patterns- strings between individuals- and that when we snap those strings or rearrange those passions we can bring great suffering to everyone involved. We can break hearts and worse. Human beings are fragile and human life is fragile- we have a brief encounter with the world- what Laura comes to realise is that had she world enough and time, she would end up with Alec. As we shall discuss in my next post there are good reasons for Laura to be disappointed with life- one of the reasons I'd guess that Alec is not the focus of the film is that Laura's life is drab and boring, a round of visits to the local county town and lunches with Mary Norton. But Lean's argument is that even despite that, she has things to lose by leaving- the tragedy is greater because these two people cannot be together.

I do not think he makes this argument easily. This film is sad for a reason- and its quite possible to come out of it thinking that the lovers have lost too much by abandoning each other. As Isaiah Berlin argued every choice can be a tragedy. "Nothing lasts" can seem like a reinforcement of the idea that Laura thinks everything will last- and that the love affair will colour the rest of her life as the film colours the rest of ours. I think the moment in which her husband wakes her from the dream is crucial though- because when he wakes her and thanks her for coming back, I think that is symbolic both of the end of the dream of the film but also of the end of the dream of her love. She has woken up, as has Alec, and that must be good, mustn't it?


James Hamilton said...

There's more insight in this post than in the entirety of the BFI book on the film, which repeats the lie that Laura and Alex are in love but terribly English and decent about it all.

In the film, Alec is a cad who almost certainly keeps several women on the go at the same time. Laura is a selfish, emotionally-unstable hysteric. It's the intervention of Alec's friend, not conscience, that prevents our seeing how David Lean would direct a sex scene.

That's a somewhat rough-edged summary, and your treatment is deeper and more subtle.

What I find offensive, or at least inexplicable, in most conventional write-ups of Brief Encounter, is the idea that Laura's husband is, and represents, the boredom of middle class bourgois life. I saw a man of maturity, humour and understanding who'd seen through the whole thing and responded with warmth, probably knowing long before this that he'd signed up for life with a modern form of Mrs Bennett.

Great train scenes, though, what?

goodbanker said...

Ah - thank goodness for that. I thought I was going to be the only person to comment unfavourably - not about the blog posting, but of the almost mythical awe in which Brief Encounter appears to held by most people. I went to see Brief Encounter as part of a David Lean/Celia Johnson double bill earlier this summer. What struck me about Brief Encounter was how little emotional attachment I felt to the two main characters, when (from all the hype) I'd expected to feel all kinds of things - positive and negative - for them. But perhaps I'm just tainted by modern cinema, and was expecting (for instance) the steamy scenes to involve more than just the trains?! Good on Lean for keeping it lean!

Incidentally, the other part of the double bill was "This Happy Breed": an entertaining insight into 1920s/1930s Britain through the eyes of a working class family, into which Lean weaves some of the great events of the time (e.g. the General Strike). If you found "Workers and Jobs" rewarding, then you might find "This Happy Breed" worth a view too? (And if you want some further fascinating insights into working class life in early 20th century Britain, you could do worse than read the fragmentary memoirs of "Alice from Tooting".) I'm wittering off on a tangent now, though, so I'll stop!

Gracchi said...

James and Goodbanker- thank you for your comments.

James I think you have something- I'm not sure that is the entire story in the sense that I think there are mitigating factors. I know what you mean about Alec you definitely feel that he has been here before. As to Laura I'm not sure- could she be an English version of Catherine Deneuve in Belle du jour.

Goodbanker- I'll have to look out for that film. You see I'm odd in that I do think that Brief Encounter is a great film but I don't think its the film that gets lauded all the time. Its a much better film because it is actually a much more sarcastic and thoughtful film than that.