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Brief Encounter (David Lean) 1945

    David Lean’s Brief Encounter towers over the majority of romantic films, precisely because it calls the bluff of the genre’s wish fulfillment. The world Lean sets the film in one of precise schedules and heavy familial obligations. Apparently in 1938’s England, even free time had a desperate formality and a suffocating routine to it. That the film takes place between the two world wars cannot be a mistake, as the characters seem to be celebrating their freedom to such an extent that it becomes freedom’s suffocating opposite. Reality itself is the bitter third part of this love triangle, and it becomes the piece’s villain. The film’s two leads, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard) meet through their routines, and make a habit of romancing each other. They seem to add the affair to their to do lists, approaching it almost as a chore. The film seems like a farce, but perhaps the British reserve on display is meant to be tragic (and I think most people find it is). 

    The film uses a voiceover narration to great effect. Alec certainly voices a great deal of his feelings, but Laura actually provides the narration, so we understand her character more acutely. Laura is a fan of the movies, and we see how that passion for filmic desire filters into her relationship. When the relationship is starting, her and Alec see a movie trailer promising “Flames of Passion”. The film world promises love writ large, seeming to give the duo a challenge. When they actually go see the film a week later, they are disinterested in it, as their real life romance has become much more exciting. They are already living the fantasy, so they have no need to watch it. When Alec apparently jilts her, she retreats to the movie theater, but finds the film she sees tiresome and phony. The movies have lied to her she thinks, so she rejects them. Once Alec’s absence is explained, however, fantasy has its place once more. Laura imagines her and Alec in a series of clichés lifted from romance films. They ride in a Venetian gondola and attend a Parisian opera. The film implies the cinema has fed a great deal of the romanticism that the heroine feels. Her desire to attend the films that she does manifests itself in her feelings toward Alec. She only believes such a relationship is attractive because the movies she sees have told her so. When the relationship ends, she wants to give the affair a tragic, Hollywood ending, but finds she cannot bring herself to do it. She fails to live up to the movies.

   The cinema asks us to dream, but in doing so, gives us the tools to create unrealistic expectations from life. The film’s realistic setting reprimands that desire to dream. Clearly, Laura’s fantasies are those of a bored housewife, but the film explains them by showing us the cinematic fuel behind her flames of desire. Laura’s failed romance assumes tragic dimensions not because it failed, but because she needed it to start in the first place. Lean directs this film with an immaculate attention to detail. The scenes that show Laura’s point of view bubble with a near-psychotic disregard for those around her. Her self-absorption is visualized through Lean’s subtle camera movements. Johnson’s performance as Laura is brilliant, since it never gives away the film’s central gag. One could almost feel sorry for her.


October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman