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Thursday
Mar292012

Distant Relatives: Brief Encounter and Once

Robert here w/ the secone season finale of Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

Hollywood has a pretty un-nuanced idea of infidelity. Whether cheating is bad usually depends on whether or not it's our protagnist who's doing it. If they are, then their current spouse is probably evil or terrible or unsympathetic and totally worth cheating on especially when the lover in question is most likely a soulmate of some sort to our protagonist. The details may differ but the situation is always perfect for drama. What our two films this week, which are tellingly not from Hollywood but across the pond, have in common is that both are more interested in the subtleties of infidelity than the overdramatics.
 
One place where our films differ is in the genders of our heroes. Brief Encounter is the story of Laura, a British houswife with an unextraordinary existence who meets a charming doctor named Alec Harvey and slowly begins to fall for him as he does for her. Once follows a pretty typical street musician (unnamed in the film, credited as "Guy") who dreams of something greater and begins to collaborate with and develop feelings for an immigrant girl (credited only as "Girl") and she for him. But despite this gender difference between the two films, they are vastly similar.


 

For starters, among all this talk of infidelity, neither couple actually consummates their relationships. Instead, these films are more interested in the process of falling in love, and how there are few impediments to love appearing but many impediments to it being actualized. There are no dramatic declarations or emotional explosions in either of these films. There are no evil spouses to abandon or uncontrollable passions to supress. Love is not presented as a fantastical fairy tale and our characters are not impossibly beautiful. These are both stories about the lives of real people. In both cases the conflict comes from our characters' abilities to give in to or fight their own feelings. In a way we root for them to do both.
 
But as films filled with an undercurrent of sadness at love that can never be realized, these aren't particularly sad films. In neither film are our characters' existances miserable, just ordinary, just devoid of excitement. And for both Laura and Guy we get the sense that even though their sadness is palpable maybe their lives are better for having known love just for a brief moment.

Here the films diverge a bit more again. A relationship develops between "guy" and "girl" in Once that involves being both musicians and muses, that isn't present in the more pensive Brief Encounter. But the desire in both to portray an honest relationship is what stands out. Both films were lovingly recieved as stand outs among their often more artificial bretherin. Although it may be a sign of the times that Once, despite its tale of musical dreams coming true, feels even more authentic when compared to its romatic contemporaries than Brief Encounter to the often similarly stoic British films of the time.
 
Either way, these films present love and romance in a way that doesn't necessarily appeal to a mass audience, as something full of difficulty and often frustration, not because of the chaos it creates but because sometimes it demands we resist it, and sometimes it's right.

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Reader Comments (5)

Two of my favorite films. I actually compared the new Broadway musical version of "Once" to the recent theatrical adaptation of "Brief Encounter" in my review...so there's something clearly in the air connecting them.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

Two of my very favorites, and when trying to get my man to see Once, I even told him it was "like a modern-day Brief Encounter with musicians." Of course he loved it.

I had the most massive crush on Trevor Howard for months after first seeing Brief Encounter. What a face! And the accent didn't hurt either.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Off Topic: Could you please review Bully and give it some much needed exposure? Thanks! KD

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKD

Oh, if only a director of David Lean's caliber was making romantic dramas today. Hell, if only a director of David Leans caliber was making movies today period...

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoark

I've yet to see Brief Encounter (Have no idea why I haven't) but Once is definitely one of my favorite films, so this gives me the motivation to watch the earlier classic.

@Tom M: I had read a very good (and very-well written) review of the stage version of Brief Encounter in the New Times when it first opened; I would love to read your comparison of the two stage shows (which seems a fitting dessert after Michael's article here.) What is the link to it?

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice
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