Brief Encounter is one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, tender and compelling love stories I’ve ever seen, in literature or film, but it’s complicated, too, because first of all the two lovers are married to other people, and having just lived, myself, in a house where a long-lived marriage was broken up I’m a little touchy about characters who tread that ground with impunity, and then the other issue is that the man in the story, our hero’s paramour, seems to wear his sophistication as a veil over his lechery. He’s handsy, too forward, seems to show none of the guilt or inhibition that his equally-entangled mistress is showing. And yes, I believe that he loves her, and yes I believe she loves him. But what they’re doing is fucked p and he doesn’t seem all that troubled.
It’s good to have these complicated feelings, though. It’d be silly to denounce such a powerful story on grounds of disliking the characters’ choices or demeanor.
The story here is simple. A young housewife spends her Thursdays on the town by herself. She does the week’s shopping, switches her library book, and goes to a movie. Same thing each week. Sounds like bliss.
One day, in the midst of this routine, she meets a doctor at the train station cafe. A couple weeks later they’re by themselves ata crowded restaurant and choose to share the last available table. Their romance blossoms from there. It’s one of those amazingly modest films whose simplicity, its brilliant show of quiet longing, allow for a more incisive gaze into its subject than we’d get with melodrama. (Although, again, I’m not totally sure I understand melodrama. It’s about histrionics and an unironic approach to the material, right? Is this melodrama?)
When our two lovers, played by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, finally profess love for one another she gets carried off with fantasies of a life they could share. It strikes her as something between a future and an alternate reality. I know the practice well.
Brief Encounter is so painfully compelling a portrait of love and heartbreak that it got me spiraling into memories of all the times I’ve been dumped or felt trapped in a relationship. Made for a real quiet and pensive afternoon.
In the past ten years I’ve fallen in love with three women — each of whom I believed to be like the critical other half, getting all mystical and shit, and I’m still, while drunk, prone to rhapsodizing about them. We’re all still friendly and I adore all three. But the lesson I should be carrying away from those experiences isn’t that I missed out on some timeless romance but more like, y’know, the odds of finding love. The fact that I found three ostensible soul mates, whatever you wanna call them, within ten miles of each other in less than a decade would appear to suggest no dearth of opportunity.
Also — I just went to a dinner party a few days ago where 11 people came down with norovirus. A nasty stomach flu. We all got wind of each other’s sickness and started keeping tabs through Facebook. So the twofold way in which this got me thinking about relationships is (1) of the 22 people at the party I was one of three who were single, which isn’t a bad thing by default but, this being the holidays, it does spark a sort of inclination toward introspection, and then (2) seeing, or hearing of, how couples from that party were caring for one anotehr during the 24 hour storm of vomiting and diarrhea did make me kinda long for a serious relationship (although, on the other hand, it’s nice to not have to face somebody who overheard my heaving and splashing from those 24 hours).
That line was where this piece, which I wrote last December, originally ended, but seeing as I’m posting this just one day after breaking up with somebody I was casually dating at the time, and with whom things just recently got very intense and lovely and painful, I thought I’d go ahead and tag a note onto the end of it saying that, yes, I am coincidentally right back to longing for the solidarity and companionship of a serious relationship.
Also, I love this movie, but if I watch it again right now I might die.