Friday, December 11, 2009

Brief Encounter: Ludicrous, Laughable, Perfect

Could it be that one sign of a good film--a film with good bone structure, I mean--is that it can stand up to parody--and that people want to parody it?
Brief Encounter certainly passes that test.
Directed in 1945 by David Lean, written by Noel Coward, it's a quintessentially English film that people, including me, love, and love to mock.

The movie is a melodrama about two married people who meet at a train station, when he, a doctor, takes a piece of soot out of her, a wife and mother's, eyes. They fall in love; but for the sake of their children and spouses, they choose to part.

Half the film takes place in an enclosed train station, and most of the rest in other dark, enclosed spaces that look perpetually damp and chilly, the opposite of Lean's later Lawrence of Arabia. If the Arab shiek played by Alec Guiness had seen Brief Encounter, he wouldn't have wondered to Lawrence about the British loving the desert.

Brief Encounter is a good, almost perfect, movie--in David Mamet's sense of being constructed so that every scene serves the purpose of the whole.
And the whole movie works to serve another purpose too, to reflect the mood of the day: the elation of winning World War (falling in love) is made excruciating by the awareness that, nonetheless, you still can't have a box of chocolates. Or is that reading backwards, knowing now that continued rationing was going to keep Britain in a dark, enclosed space?

Having posted a movie poster mashup of Brief Encounter the other day, I went looking for my favorite scene in The History Boys, when two students act out the movie's end. A poor quality clip, but watchable.

(The History Boys is a sweetie of a movie--it's Alan Bennet's anti-Lord of the Flies.)

The famous (?) Eliane May & Mike Nichols's comdedy sketch of Brief Encounter in the dentist's chair isn't on youTube, but here's one of their skits about a couple parting... (Again, sorry, the quality's not great.)

And here's the movie's real ending, for compare and contrast.

Brief Encounter is such a wonderful movie, it wasn't until I watched it for the fifth time or so that I realized how ludicrous it is. But it can bear the weight of the ridiculous because there's substance underneath. You can mock the movie all you want--it deserves it--but it truly does capture the pain of doing the right thing, the utter misery of carrying on without chocolates--and surely nobility is often laughable.

I can't remember which screenwriter it was, but one of them said that he and a group of movie friends had agreed that Fred and Laura's marriage--the boring middle-class one the woman goes back to--is the only marriage on film that they could imagine still being happy and intact twenty years after the film's end.


ArtSparker said...

You have touched on a core belief of mine that it is possible to find something deeply amusing and still feel affection and respect for it at the same time. To laugh at something is not always to reduce it (although that also has its uses).

I like old films at this time of year.

Fresca said...

Yes, laughing at "Brief Encounter" (or Star Trek!) doesn't reduce it to total rubble, the way laughing at "True Blood" does.

Interesting point about movies and time of year.
I first watched "Brief Encounter" on a chilly rainy day--perfect viewing conditions.
But lately I've been on a sports movies kick--maybe *because* it's near zero degrees outside?

Lill (formerly LL, formerly Nancy) said...

Thanks for the Elaine May, Mike Nichols clip. Hilarious! What a treasure, those two. I could doubtless spend another hour or two browsing the You Tube clips of their work -- I'll save that for dessert when I've done some work*&%# first.

Fresca said...

Hi, Lill! May & Nichols--what a dream team... I'm going to defrost my freezer right now.

Monica said...

After seeing the Victoria Wood parody, the Nichols and May parody is next for me to find - I hope it exists somewhere! Notice how "Someday I'll Find You" out of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" plays throughout the clip you have here. :-)