Saturday, January 1, 2011

Spotlight On: Brief Encounter (1945)

I know what you're thinking. Stuffy middle-aged British people having an affair? Sing. Me. Up. While Trevor Howard (the male lead) is attractive to people like me, he definitely wouldn't find his way to the cover of People Magazine had it existed in the 40's. The female lead, Celia Johnson is even less appealing. She's a very mousy type, and has little if any sex appeal, in the classical sense. Although her presence is ideal for the plot at hand. It's not supposed to be an easy love affair. This film is about those difficult people that usually don't give their own love lives more thought than they're errands for the day. He's a doctor, and she's a bored miserable housewife who is just begging for a good bang.
Here's the thing. It's probably the quintessential delay-fuck movie of all time.
They meet, he wipes grit from her eye, they have tea, they fall in love. Do they get it on? Nope.
Billy Wilder was said to come up with the idea for his film 'The Apartment' (1960) from this film, particularly when Trevor Howard's character invites (or rather begs) Celia Johnson to spend the night with him at his friend's flat. She instinctively says no, but then changes her mind and runs back to the flat. They have a bit less than 1 minute to embrace and appear as they are about to gnaw each other's clothes off violently before they are of course interrupted!
Now, I don't usually watch my David Lean for arousal, but c'mon!!
I own and regularly watch 'Gone with the Wind', which has got to be the greatest example of delayed fuck of all time, but at least they redeemed themselves when Rhett hoists Scarlett over his burly shoulders and carries her upstairs to do things with her, that at first she might have been against, but the next shot is a close up of her face waking up and smiling ear to ear. At least the delay-fuck was dealt with there.
Can I say the same for 'Brief Encounter'? I wish.
But hey, it's not about that. It's about these two stuffy people who are not attractive at all out of this context, (except for me but i'm a weirdo) finding each other serendipitously and falling madly in love, thereby feeling extreme guilt over their already existent respective families.
It truly boggles the mind why I find myself attracted to both parties of the film. Neither of them have character, stamina, or any sort of endearing qualities. Laura (Celia Johnson) is a boring smarmy whiny little bitch, while Alec is a stuffy mundane general practitioner with the world's most awkward tendencies. I guess they are perfect for each other.
But we are all just waiting for that point in the film that (due to the strict censorship code of Hollywood) the two of them at least implied that they bumped uglies. But there is no such thing. There is not even any kind of kissing. No handholding, no smelling of the back of Laura's neck. Nada!
I know that certain love stories are supposed to be subtle and whimsical, but this film is so visceral that it is difficult to stomach the fact that sex was not even implied.
There is that scene that reaches above and beyond the tired montages of them sharing lunch, laughing over a bad movie, and almost falling over in a boat, which is when the anonymous friend of Alec's comes home early and connects the dots after he finds Laura's scarf on his couch even though she ran off very innocently down the back stairs.
I'm sure what everyone is thinking is; it's 1945, Hollywood, influenced by the self censorship Haze code, as well as the Catholic Legion of Decency. Do I really have an argument here?
Alec beckons Laura to stay with him at his friend's flat. Though he really does look like all he wants to do with her is play a long game of Scategories and drink a glass of warm milk, we know better. And we all wish that it had worked out the way he planned that night. 

The answer is yes. And here's why. 'Double Indemnity' (1944) has a scene almost identical to that 'come to my friend's flat' thing of 'Brief Encounter'. By which I mean that it involves two people on the verge of complete and total sexual overtake of their morals, responsibilities, and ideals. In Wilder's film, what happens is Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray swap a few clever phrases and then embrace each other in a loss of inhibition. It fades out. When the camera fades back, Stanwyck is adjusting her top as if putting it back on after having it torn off her body in the heat of passion. MacMurray lights a cigarette. It might as well have been spelled out for the viewer that the two had just finished doing it.
And yet, here lies my problem; the sexual tension between Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson is almost ridiculous. It's difficult to watch the two together without realizing that your toes and fingers are slowly curling for no reason. Separately, they couldn't be more opposing to 'sensual passion' ( i use this term because 'Brief Encounter' flirts with the lines between melodrama and cheesy romance). Together, they are almost electric. Usually, the process of voyeuristic pleasure derives from physical attraction to one or both of the characters, and in this case, neither are particularly attractive...or interesting for that matter. But all of those moments in the film when they almost kiss but don't, makes you wish they would all the more. It's torture, but delicious torture. It's the quintessential delayed-fuck film. If they actually fucked, or if it was implied, it would have ruined the whole story. 

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