Damn that Rachmaninov. Especially on Thursdays

Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounters”, directed by David Lean.

How a brief encounter can change a life, especially if it’s Thursday and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto # 2 is playing on the soundtrack. It’s in a train station where Alec and Laura meet. She has something in her eye and he gets it out. Of course that is what a doctor would do, and since he is a doctor, he does just that. He is a general practitioner come to Milford for a day of work at the hospital and she is a housewife come to town for some shopping and a movie. It is a Thursday and she’s happily married until he tells her, “You can never be dull.”

For several Thursdays they meet in passing. Then suddenly one Thursday the doctor and the housewife, happily married, are having way too much fun as they set off for the movies. On the way back to the train station, he slips his hand around her arm. Then it is tea as they wait for their respective trains. He talks about his desire to make the world a better place. Then there’s that damned Rachmaninov and you know there’s unhappiness in store for her. And possibly him.

“May I see you again? Next Thursday?” he pleads. She resists, then relents. She watches his train leave, realizing how dangerous things may be getting as she speaks his name to herself. “Alec.”

Laura, it would have to be a Laura, takes her train home and her boy has had an accident. She feels guilty. But the accident is not serious. She confesses to her husband that she met a strange man and offers to invite him to dinner to show her husband it was harmless. Her husband seems not to care, saying that it would be an inconvenience. Why don’t she invite him to lunch?

Alec doesn’t show the next Thursday afternoon as she waits for him, half-hoping that he will not show. She goes off to the movies, then it’s back to the train station and tea. She leaves the station to catch her train. As she takes one last look around her, she sees the good doctor running toward her. “I’m so sorry,” he says. Of course, he is. They always are in these kinds of movies. He explains why he is late and she is relieved. Now her walls drop like the walls of Jericho.

The next Thursday they are at the movies and then a lake. They take a boat and are on the water. And there’s Rachmaninov. And they are having a bloody good time.

Tea again in a boat house and they are quiet. Then he says the words. You know, the words that always doom happily marrieds to a life of unhappiness. “I’ve fallen in love with you,” Alec the doctor says to Laura the housewife, and they are no longer two married people. They are desperately doomed people. You know it, and they know it. And the fun they’ve had is over. There is no more fun for Alec and Laura. Just misery and betrayal.

Why must these kinds of movies be so sad, so tragic? Why couldn’t it be two unmarried, readily available people, falling desperately in love, who have the encounter that becomes a lifetime of happiness? Oh, we’ve seen that movie before too and it is “Love Story”. The woman dies at the end, and it too is sad.

That they are unmarried and happily in love doing all the things that happily-in-love people do, that is what Laura dreams about as she catches her train for home. But the reality is that now her life is a lie. And it is a Thursday lie, this lie she tells her husband. She calls a friend to cover for her. “And I’ll do it for you,” she promises at the end of the telephone conversation.

Another Thursday and the two lovers are together again, having dinner in a hotel dining room. No sex as far as we know, but they might as well have had sex for all the guilt she is feeling. The two go off into the country for a drive. He talks of his love for her and they are on a bridge. This kind of thing always seems to happen on bridges, and a bridge in the country on a lovely afternoon is the best place for it to happen. The next thing you know it is night and they are saying their good nights, longingly. It is such a desperate kind of good night.

There’s that Rachmaninov and it is hard to resist Rachmaninov. Especially if it’s night and it is raining and you are in need of refuge from a marriage that has become, of all things, boring. She misses her train and follows him back to a nearby flat where he is staying with a friend. She runs up the stairs and knocks on his door. He opens the door and invites her in.

She is about to fall into Alec’s arms when suddenly his friend returns and comes in the back way. She leaves without being seen. But the doctor’s friend picks up her coat and hands it to Alec and says, “You have hidden depths.” He says other things, showing his disapproval. Alec follows Laura, leaving his friend’s disappointment behind him.

The next scene we see is Laura running down the street. It is night and there’s Rachmaninov. She’s missed her train and telephones her husband to tell him she will be late getting home. She lies. She is with a librarian friend whose mother is ill, She hangs up and wanders the streets for three hours and then she is back at the train station. The doctor shows up and they argue.

“Could you really say goodbye? I love you, Laura, and I shall love you to the end of my life. This is the beginning of the end of it all.” It is a desperate speech. He tells her that he will be leaving England and soon unless she tells him to do otherwise. She doesn’t. They both know that it is the only way out. But let’s have another Thursday. She takes the train home, and again there is Rachmaninov playing that damned Concerto # 2.

The following Thursday there is again a drive in the country and more Rachmaninov. Then they are having tea in the train station, struggling to get up the courage to say goodbye. And having tea, there is all this sadness filling the movie. You just know that this can’t end well. You’ve seen enough of these movies and they never end well. “I do love you with all my heart and soul,” Alec says to Laura one last time. “I want to die,” Laura says to her doctor.

A woman acquaintance of Laura’s intrudes and forces herself on them. She joins them for tea, interrupting their sadness with her talk. She can’t seem to stop talking. Alec gets up to catch his train. As he leaves, he squeezes Luara’s shoulder for one last goodbye. Then he walks out of the station. It’s over, but how can it be over? Laura’s heart is dying, and when the woman goes to the counter to retrieve her tea, Laura leaves the station. She starts to jump under a train, possibly his train, that is passing but she doesn’t. She returns to the station and almost faints.

Then she is in the living room of her home with her husband and Rachmaninov is playing and her husband comes over to her in her chair where she has been dreaming. He says, “You’ve been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” He doesn’t say, “Back to us.” He says “Back to me.”

David Lean’s first movie that he directed totally alone is over. It is the beginning of David Lean’s ascendancy and Noel Coward’s decline. Already we see the potential of what is to come.

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