Brief Encounter is a great favourite, and as is the case with all great movies you read it differently with each viewing. Last night I remarked how desiccated and sour Laura Jesson’s life has become: the rather tiresome children seem to get on her nerves; her supposed friends are all hateful. How has this apparently highly sensitive person fallen in with the company of such shallow mean-minded treacherous women? She has no real friends at all. She spends every Thursday at the pictures and is dissatisfied with everything she sees: except for Donald Duck. What appeals to her about him? “His furious energy and his blind frustrated rages.” Go figure, as the young people say.
Laura’s energies are confined to a boring, narrow if relentless routine – reserving new books at Boots Library, dodging bores, and changing into the same dowdy dress for dinner with reliable affectionate Fred who appears interested only in his food, a quiet life and the crossword puzzle: in fact he’s the only person in the movie who genuinely cares for Laura’s wellbeing. Then she meets the glamorous doctor: is he all he seems? Alec may easily be seen as an cynical serial seducer, preying on lonely and impressionable middle aged ladies with not enough to do with their lives. The scene of him barging in Laura at the Kardomah cafe and suggesting, as he gobbles bread roll, that he come to the pictures with her can be romantic or horribly creepy, depending on your own mood. We only have his word for it that he has the alibi of a spouse (“his wife…Madeleine…”) and children at home. And what of his ambiguous relationship with the vile surgeon, Stephen, who lends Alec the keys to his arty service flat where he keeps tropical fish on the mantelpiece above a live fire. Though evidently not with assignations with virtuous housewives in mind: Laura’s appearance there provokes the most appalling outburst of vindictive spite from Stephen. In fact the two doctors (in the 1940’s, unimpeachable pillars of the community) compare very badly with Fred and Mr Godbey the ticket-collector at Ketchworth Station who are protective, loyal, reliable and full of soothing common sense: the two men who are – and how ironically! – satirised as figures of fun.
Is the tale we are narrated by Laura actually true? She is a dreamer; the story of the film is told in a flashback of sad reverie – she dreams within the dream, sitting in a darkening railway carriage spinning fantasies “like a romantic schoolgirl, like a romantic fool”.
Has Laura imagined the whole thing? Was there really any love affair at all? Does the whole romance simply take place in her head, prompted by the chance encounter with Alec who takes the grit from her eye? Is the rest of the film just her fantasy, as she sits in her chair sewing, of what might have been? A hash of everything she’s ever seen on the cinema or read in a toiletry catalogue? “ Then all the silly dreams faded”…..
I don’t think Laura Jesson is much of a user of scent and I suspect that Fred would probably dislike it, though he doesn’t mind his wife smoking providing it’s not in the street. She disparages frivolous hats and too much make-up; the malevolent friend (sic) Mrs Norton is seen plucking her eyebrows like a bird of prey, while Laura stumbles through her poor little lies on the telephone. Laura likes the smell of her chemist’s (“nice things: herbs and soap and scent”); maybe she dabs a little eau de cologne on her hanky for special occasions, but no doubt has a horror of “common” perfumes such as Evening in Paris and Californian Poppy. In this she is unlike her creator, Noel Coward, who was a promiscuous and liberal lover of scent on stage and off: Arpege, Narcisse Noir, No 5 and Mitsouko were all grist to his mill. But Laura is a lover I’ll bet of scent stories and beautiful bottles, anything to feed that starving imagination like the barrel organ music that so delights her. (“Strange how potent cheap music is”). That movie that she and Alec walk out of, Flames of Passion, sounds like the name of a Woolworth perfume, all promise and no fulfilment.
As the lights come on at the Odeon is Laura left with a fragrant memory or a cheating whiff of lies? Top-notes of exciting illusion with no base in fact?