Thursday, 1 December 2016

Corrosive Desire: Brief Ecstasy (Edmond T. Gréville, 1937)

(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2014)

Anyone who has dipped into the volumes of Ealing Studios rarities (14 volumes from Network) will know that there are some real treasures to be found there, and none more than the film I’m going to look at today, Edmond T. Gréville’s Brief Ecstasy, from 1937.

The film’s story certainly conforms to a classic outline of romantic melodrama; a man and woman fall hard for each other the day before he flies off to Ceylon. He returns five years later, his marriage proposal sent but never received, and finds she has married a man twenty years her senior, whereupon the claims of duty and marital vows are set against the tugs of the true heart. However, the treatment of this story is fresh and bracing, brazen even. Graham Greene cut to the quick of the matter in his tart but acute review of the film in 1937, saying, “The subject is sexual passion, a rarer subject than you would think on the screen, and the treatment is adult: there isn’t, thank God, any love in it … the story is of the struggle between tenderness and sexual desire.” He continues, “with so bare a plot Mr Gréville has time to dwell on everything other directors cut: the ‘still-lifes’: the husband’s trousers laid pedantically in the press, while the wife beautifies herself in the bathroom for nothing at all. Other directors have to ‘get on with the story’. Mr Gréville knows that the story doesn’t matter; it’s the atmosphere which counts, and the atmosphere – of starved sexuality – is wantonly and vividly conveyed.”

He’s right, there is a style and suggestiveness here rarely seen in British films of the period; its characters are undressed – not literally of course, this being 1937, although there is one rather cheeky scene of Helen (or Hillin as she is known in the clipped accent of the times) looking into a mirror that cuts off at her collar bone – but rather in the way their motivations and needs are so apparent. Linden Travers, her eyes of doe-eyed defencelessness shot through at times with a kind of hopeless determination, plays Helen; Hugh Williams – an anthracite slick of hair above dark, untrustworthy eyes – Jim, the airman she meets the day before he flies out to visit his sick father. Paul Lukas – fortune, fatalism, fear and possessiveness flitting like clouds across his eyes – is Paul Bernardy, a metallurgy professor whose speciality, in a nicely ironic touch, is resistance to corrosion, and Marie Ney is his brisk, jealous housekeeper Martha, scornful of his younger bride having herself carried a torch for her master for twenty years. At points, peering hawk-like through the glass panes of a door at the couple, it looks like she could be auditioning for the part of the mother in Dreyer’s Day of Wrath. If this is an admittedly unlikely film to come to mind, there’s plenty about the style of Brief Ecstasy, distinguished by Ronald Neame’s tight and effective cinematography, that calls up continental comparisons, not least in its shadowy, even expressionist, touches filmed in the house itself.

The film’s brisk opening few minutes swirl us headlong into Jim and Helen’s affair. After the crackled glaze of the title’s lettering, credits roll over curtains billowing from the breeze through an open window at night, a shot, we will learn, from a climactic scene that gusts all the key elements – passion, frustration, defencelessness behind locked doors – through the film; the same fateful wind that later blows Jim’s unread telegram into a pile of rubbish. Then we see a sign for ‘The Snack Bar Hub’ in a halo of rotating lights, moving in the same direction as the spoon we next see stirring a cup of coffee on a counter in a cafe. Jim walks in, framed in a triangle of sunlight and staircase and uses the phone, the poster on the wall behind him of a woman calling out into his ear. His eye is taken by the woman sitting next to him, as hers is taken with him. Glances back, forward, back and forward, before he elbows the cup into her lap as he leaves, executes a circle of apology that continues the whirling of the opening and borrows a cloth from the waiter to pat her down, which he does, suggestively, raising her skirt above her knee as he does so, for which he gets a deserved slap. She storms out, forgetting her handbag which just happens to have her address on a tag.

It’s a short journey from here to the spume of overflowing champagne – six times before it finally falls flat into the glass – at a club after Helen reluctantly yields to his request to come out with him. Her neighbour Marjorie knows the score. When Helen says that she’ll be back in half an hour, she replies that she won’t wait up for her. She was right not to, as she finds out the next morning when she greets the sight of Helen’s unused bed with a ‘good on you, gal’ look. 

There is a telling scene of Helen and Jim in the club. He touches her hand and, to a long fade-out of Miss Gloria’s ‘With You’, their surroundings turn into memory-dreams. Earlier, Jim had slowly and deliberately appraised her after he asked her to dance: ‘Just like this? Look at me,’ she says. ‘I am looking at you’ he says, and does, as silhouettes of the band play on the wall behind them. Now, Helen responds in kind, lingeringly appraising him as he looks away. It’s only a couple of seconds but it’s enough to change the tenor of the film. Love would involve a smitten couple looking at each other in mutual adoration. This is far more calculated, an individual weighing-up of physical prospects. The next morning brings an exhausted couple climbing the stairs to her flat, filmed in such a way that we are unsure if it is one person or two, so much in rhythm are their steps.

And later on in the film, when the couple have been stranded at a pub for an evening after an unscheduled stopover, Jim leans in to kiss Helen in her bed. It’s a perfectly good shot with no reason to break the melodramatic continuity of action, but Gréville cuts all the same, and by doing so creates a scene that is far more interesting, and mutually satisfying to the characters’ intentions. What he does is change the angle of shot so we now see the same scene from above. Helen continues Jim’s forward movement, lying back submissively to his presence. It’s a movement of mutual longing, all the the more suggestive for being so deliberately achieved.

The characters’ sexual motivations are evident, but the film also has a firm undertow which goes unremarked in Greene’s review – the theme of ownership and property. Helen starts out as Professor Bernardy’s favourite student, before becoming his assistant and then wife. He then persuades her to give up this role and remain at home; ‘why not rest and enjoy your life?,’ he says, ‘just settle down here and be Mrs Bernardy.’ And so she does, giving herself up to the care of a house – much to the housekeeper’s pronounced distaste – in which the ageing professor can guard his possession. Their marriage drifts into pronounced solicitousness, forehead-pecking and boredom; desire quashed by the sight of socks and slippers by the fire and frustrated by a sleeping husband. The numerous shots of hands turning keys in various locks throughout the film are telling in this regard, as is that of Paul, the stern man stalking his property, alive to the possibility of deceit within. All Helen and Jim can do is role-play their past in the dusty light of an attic, while Martha snoops on the stairs outside. At the end, as the spurned lover starts up his motor in the darkness outside the bedroom window and drives off into the night, Paul closes the windows and draws the curtains that we saw at the beginning of the film, before standing above Helen and grasping her proprietorially by the shoulders; assertive ownership trumping corrosive desire.

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