‘An admirable film’ – this was Bresson’s verdict on Coward/Lean’s Brief Encounter in 1946. Seeing it again in the light of this comment, I realized what a ground-breaking film it might be. Bresson could have derived four things from it: 1) the power of voice-over not just in telling a story but in ‘interiorizing’ a person on screen, especially when it is used in conjunction with an image of the face of the person speaking, thus transforming it (transformation being a key aim for Bresson). Witness how he films Claude Laydu and uses his voice and his writing in the diary in Diary of a Country Priest. 2) Brief Encounter uses the sound of the steam trains, station announcements, whistles etc. to make the station setting three-dimensional, one that exists well beyond the edges of the screen. For Bresson the soundtrack came to be as important as the image, perhaps even more so. Did Brief Encounter play a part for him in opening up the potential of sound? 3) When Mouchette pours coffee into several cups at once in Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), she does so in one graceful sweep of the hand, a piece of ‘manual automatism’, that is to say our hands can behave independently of our conscious will, especially after long practice at doing something. I’ve never seen this way of pouring done in real life. Did Bresson pick up the idea from Brief Encounter? Myrtle, who serves behind the bar in the refreshment room, pours milk into a series of tea-cups in one sweep of the hand, an automatic gesture because her mind is on the chit-chat she is indulging in as she does this. 4) Finally, what Coward and Lean do in this film is make the ordinary, and ordinary people, extraordinary – a strongly favoured narrative in Bresson’s films (Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar and L’Argent, to take three examples).
Bresson presumably would not have liked the Rachmaninov music – too much and too Romantic, and not transformative enough. Forty years ago, Rachmaninov was decidedly uncool, and my generation will have distrusted the film on that ground alone, never mind other factors. Put on one side that Rachmaninov is now quite back in vogue, and concentrate on Lean’s brilliant use of this music, not as an objective creation of atmosphere or feeling, but as a way of ‘interiorizing’ (yet again) Laura’s mind. For it is her decision to tune into Rachmaninov on the radio, and it is her choice of what is an adorable piece of music for her. We may dislike her taste, but it’s nothing to do with us. She tells the story in her head to the sound of Rachmaninov because that is how she conceives it.