Illicit Encounters: Love And Deception In Film

Brief Encounter (1945)

As BFI LOVE season presents a 70th anniversary celebration of David Lean’s paean to extra-marital activity and doomed romance, Brief Encounter (1945), Nik Glover takes a look at where love, marriage and deception meet on the big screen…

We all know in our heart of hearts that the grass is probably not greener on the other side. In fact, judging by the overwhelming evidence of cinematic ménage à trois, the lawn almost always appears luscious and verdant when viewed from a distance, but on closer inspection tends to reveal a nightmarish undergrowth of guilt, suspicion, dependency and violence.

This can partly be attributed to the natural conservatism of mainstream cinema, as a direct counterpart of the society it seeks to represent. Until 1937, men could obtain a divorce in England only if they had the capital to pay for the privilege, as well as proving that their wives had been unfaithful. For women, it was practically impossible. Such was the gender politics of the Edwardian Age that, for a husband in an awkward spot, removing a wife or lover to an asylum might present an easier route than the courts provided.

Into the early 1960s in England, divorce and adultery were still largely considered to be shameful, hence the lack of consummation of Brief Encounter’s doomed central relationship. Nöel Coward, who adapted the screenplay from his own short play, was famously class-conscious and his original play baldly juxtaposes the knockabout, easy-going courtship allowed to train station flirts Myrtle and Albert with the dangers inherent in the not-quite-love affair that blossoms between housewife Celia Johnson and dashing physician Trevor Howard. Society, it is implied, could not allow middle class couples to engage in promiscuity.

“The depiction of ‘fallen’ women in the cinema of the 1940s and ’50s finds some interesting tension points”

Later, treatments of sex, marriage, adultery and class would tend towards a liberalisation on certain issues, particularly the public acceptability or otherwise of divorce, though other prejudices remained as deep-seated as ever.

The depiction of ‘fallen’ women in the cinema of the 1940s and ’50s finds some interesting tension points. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), adapted almost immediately from its Tennessee Williams source material, created an immortal character in Blanche Dubois, the fiery Southern belle driven to insanity by her treatment at the hands of villainous or inconstant men. Blanche’s relationship with Stanley contrasts with the alluring Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), who nevertheless suffers a similar fate for her part in a double-dealing plot to de-fraud and murder her husband, roping in Fred MacMurray’s dopey insurance salesman. Stanwyck was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as the femme fatale par excellence, ironically losing out to another wronged woman, Ingrid Bergman’s manipulated Paula in Gaslight (1944). This time, Bergman plays a more straightforward heroine, whose husband is trying to convince her that she is insane in order to steal her family jewels.

Gaslight (1944)

Critic Emanual Levy has discussed the preponderance of what he calls ‘Don’t Trust Your Husband’ movies made in the 1940s, including classics Rebecca (1940), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Notorious (1946). Jean Renoir’s The Human Beast (1938) finds a similar spin on this, albeit with a heroine more stripped of agency. In a time when young men were often in short supply due to the shockwaves of international conflicts, and when many movies were still set in the Edwardian age (cemented in the public consciousness as a period of decay that had directly contributed to the current and previous World Wars) the vision of youth endangered by an evil older man would have struck a familiar chord. None of the heroines of the ‘Don’t Trust Your Husband’ school of filmmaking, however, would even have considered getting into an actual, physical extra-marital affair. An interesting counterpoint to this comes in the form of Jacques Tourneur horror Cat People (1942), in which an empowered, seductive woman is courted and married before being rejected on the basis of her unabashed sexuality.

“By the 1990s, cinematic cuckoldry had become so blasé that money was being exchanged for the (dis-)honour”

By 1967’s The Graduate, audience expectations had changed sufficiently for third wheel Dustin Hoffman to be the subject — nay, hero — of the story. None of this is particularly revolutionary from a dramatic perspective; stories of failed ‘respectable’ marriages and cuckolded husbands are ancient. Although Terence Rattigan’s stage play The Deep Blue Sea (1952) – and Terence Davies’ 2011 adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston – still managed to raise eyebrows in its frank depiction of doomed lovers stepping away from polite society. What became more evident as the 20th Century moved towards its close was just how quickly some panels from the old moral glass ceilings had been shattered, at least in mainstream cinema. The inconstant could still often get their comeuppance (as in the David Mamet-penned re-make of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)), but the cold fact of a married woman taking a lover is perhaps no longer enough to invite judgement; there has to be another deadly sin involved, or several if you’re a horror fan — see Hellraiser (1987).

Shame (2011)

By the 1990s, cinematic cuckoldry had become so blasé that money was being exchanged for the (dis-)honour, and damn the distinct creepiness of the whole thing. So Robert Redford’s sultry billionaire in Indecent Proposal (1993) ends up being portrayed as something resembling a hero, despite the fact he consistently lies, manipulates and wheedles his way into Demi Moore’s tights, thanks largely to a trick coin. Director Adrian Lyne seems at least a little obsessed with these kinds of destructive relationships, with the preceding mega-hit Fatal Attraction (1987) offering a similarly confusing moral payoff, as Michael Douglas gets to return to his family, apparently wiser for the ordeal of seeing his wife gun down his lover.

“The city around Michael Fassbender’s central character is shorn of any pretensions of romance or beauty”

For 2004’s Closer, the four participants are effectively labelled as post-monogamous (see also About Adam (2000)), albeit with much hand-wringing over their own inability to commit to restricting themselves to just the one lover. Social media plays a central part in the narrative, as in Shame (2011), exploding the bilateral nature of relationships into a disconnected, desperate search for meaning. The centrepiece musical performance of New York, New York harks back to an age where social restraint was a natural prerequisite to ideas of fun and frivolity. The city around Michael Fassbender’s central character is shorn of any pretensions of romance or beauty, although he does manage to uncover what remains of social norms during one particularly ill-judged seduction that results in a heavy beating from the potentially cuckolded male partner.

For a more nuanced, modern depiction of extra-marital activity, viewers could do a lot worse than to track down Sarah Polley’s double bill of Take This Waltz (2011) and the documentary Stories We Tell (2012), which deals with her own family and the ruptures she discovers whilst investigating her parents’ failed relationship. The subsequent revelations of her parenthood, and the dissection of the truths and lies that we all bury within the narratives that will go on to form key structures within our visions of self, are about as rounded a picture as it is possible to give within the cinematic form. It may not carry the gut punch of a pet rabbit boiling away on the stove, but it is more likely to make you question your own prejudices about what makes a healthy relationship.

Nik Glover

See the BFI LOVE, 70th anniversary screenings of David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) — in its restored, BFI National Archive  form — at venues across the UK now:

11 November 2015: Metal, Liverpool

12 November: Regal Redruth Cinema, Redruth

13 November: Chapter, Cardiff

15 November: Dunlop Community Cinema, Ayrshire; NEAT Flicks: Cabrach Community Association, The Acorn, Lower Cabrach; FACT, Liverpool

17 November: kinokulture cinema, Shropshire; Metamorphosis Open Cinema Lancashire, Lancashire; The Roses, Gloucestershire

18 November: Torch Theatre, Pembrokeshire

19 November: Exeter Phoenix, Exeter

22 November: Magic Lantern, Gwynedd

28 & 29 November: Curzon Cinema & Arts, Clevedon

29 November: Cinecity, Brighton

6 December: Gulbenkian, Canterbury

10 December: Signal Cinema, Barrow-in-Furness

Posted on 11/11/2015 by thedoublenegative