Some of the most romantic films achieve their heightened feelings through the structure of a brief encounter. It’s a dramatic construction involving limited time and an accident of chance, with a neat beginning, middle and end: the protagonists meet, fall in love, but part due to the obstacles of an uncaring world. The lovers experience a fleeting yet passionate liaison, one left unscathed by the mundanities of everyday life, resulting in a potent mix of pleasure and pain that stimulates the mind as well as the heart.
Stimulation of an explicitly sexual nature, however, is relatively rare in this sub-genre – for fear of ruining the mood. From films such as David Lean’s Summer Madness (1955), where sex is coyly signified by fireworks, to Frédéric Fonteyne’s misleadingly titled Une liaison pornographique (1999), where the kinkiness remains mostly off screen, a sense of almost idealistic modesty and restraint prevails.
The films often share comparable settings (cities, holidays and transport such as trains ensure useful anonymity and allow swift departures), themes (memory, the nature of time and potential turning points explored or left untaken frequently recur) and a similarity of feeling. It’s their noble romantic sentiments coupled with a refusal to provide unrealistic fairytale endings – Richard Linklater speaks of “romance for realists” – that makes them so compelling. But the intoxication of love remains. As Céline in Before Sunset (2004) says, paraphrasing Albert Einstein: “If you don’t believe in any kind of magic or mystery, you’re basically as good as dead.”
Here are 10 great films celebrating the magic of the brief encounter.
Partie de campagne (1936)
Director Jean Renoir
Based on a Maupassant short story, Partie de campagne was originally shot in 1936 but abandoned due to bad weather and director Jean Renoir’s commitment to Les Bas-fonds, only finally being pieced together 10 years later. The resulting 40-minute featurette, with a poignant score by Joseph Kosma, is a warm, comic, lyrical ode to nature as well as a moving, melancholic romance.
When a Parisian family take a countryside picnic, wife and daughter are courted by two local men who take them on the river. Daughter Henriette (a magnificent Sylvia Bataille), stirred by her immersion in nature, succumbs to the worldlier Henri’s advances after being distracted by that portent of love, a nightingale. The famous close-up of Henriette’s tear-filled eye suggests both her deflowering and the pain of love in a society that forces her instead to enter a loveless marriage. As a touching coda makes clear, the lovers – briefly reunited years later – are left with a memory that continues to affect their lives.
Director Michael Curtiz
Although Casablanca is an inspiring tale of Second World War heroism in the face of the Nazi threat, this alone would not account for the film’s enduring success. Rather, it’s the transposing of the themes of valor and sacrifice to an unselfish love story – between Humphrey Bogart’s cynical and disillusioned American café owner Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s conflicted, brave Ilsa Lund – that makes the film such a time-honoured classic.
Casablanca demonstrates the quintessential contradiction inherent in brief encounters – that as viewers we feel the lovers belong together and deserve the happiness they so desire, yet we yearn to see them forced apart, providing the ultimately more rewarding ending. At the airport, when Rick makes the noble decision to send Ilsa and resistance hero Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) safely away, he ensures that we’re left feeling elated at both the noble actions witnessed and the high ideals of selfless love achieved.
Brief Encounter (1945)
Director David Lean
One of the most stoic of romances, Brief Encounter scrutinises the contrast between the heart’s desire and the realities of middle-class England. Through the story of two nice, married, potential adulterers, Laura (Celia Johnson) and Alec (Trevor Howard), who struggle to place their love above the happiness of their families, Lean fashions a structurally inventive melodrama (complete with pounding Rachmaninov score) that asks to be taken as realism.
Via location shooting and knowing references to more garish depictions of filmic desire – both Laura and Alec laugh at the Flames of Passion trailer, swiftly followed by an ad for a pram, a down-to-earth reminder of possible consequences – Brief Encounter suggests a romance rooted in the real. It presents a passionate affair that is somehow all about restraint and decency, and if there is a summarising keynote it can be found in Laura’s frantic plea: “We must be sensible, please help me to be sensible.”
Roman Holiday (1953)
Director William Wyler
William Wyler’s joyous, bittersweet romantic comedy is the reverse-Cinderella story of a young princess, Ann (Audrey Hepburn), briefly escaping her duties to explore Rome incognito. Journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) secretly discovers her identity after she innocently spends a night in his apartment, but will Joe sell his scoop or will love unexpectedly thwart this thirtysomething hack’s big plans?
With an Oscar-winning script by Dalton Trumbo (only later credited, due to his Hollywood blacklisting), Roman Holiday succeeds in being light-hearted, witty and emotionally resonant, with outstanding performances and a touching chemistry from its leads (Hepburn, in her first major role, also bagged an Oscar). As their connection grows the pair understand that hope lies only in maintaining the masquerade. When finally it comes time to accept that “life isn’t always what one likes is it”, Joe leaves Ann within the ‘castle’ walls, allowing the empty spaces of a memorable final shot to comment on his loss.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Director Richard Linklater
Back in 1995, when two young travellers met on a train and subsequently spent the day and night walking around Vienna, contemporary audiences were left wondering: would Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) reunite in six months’ time or would their brief encounter remain just that? Sequels Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) provided some answers, but the original remains the most affecting exploration of the transience of life and love.
Partly inspired by director Richard Linklater’s real-life encounter beginning in a Philadelphia toy store, Before Sunrise is a smart, loquacious romance that also manages to be charming, playful, true to life – the excruciating awkwardness of the record store listening-booth scene stands out – and unashamedly sincere. Although Céline and Jesse agree to embrace their limited time, when daylight returns their resolve cannot hold and they make the hasty arrangement that will so define their lives to come.
In the Mood for Love (2000)
Director Wong Kar-wai
In the Mood for Love is all about atmosphere. When neighbours Mrs Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr Chow (Tony Leung) discover their spouses’ affair, they take comfort in one another, meeting in an attempt to understand how it began, even re-enacting an imagined version of their partners’ behaviour. When their own feelings inevitably spark, it’s not run-of-the-mill infidelity that is conjured, but rather a tender, sad romance, elevated by the couple’s reticence not to act as their partners, not to hurt and deceive.
Wong Kar-wai’s depiction of rainy 1960s Hong Kong seems steeped in melancholic memories. The lovers often stroll in slow motion, lonely among the crowds, moving to the rhythm of a haunting musical score. Wong has revealed that he chose to cut a sex scene, wishing to avoid an explicit affair: “That would be too boring, too predictable.” It’s not everyday adultery portrayed but a more honourable love, a transitory connection that may remain forever cherished.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Director Sofia Coppola
One of the more chaste brief encounters, Sofia Coppola’s bittersweet romantic comedy is wistful, perceptive and life affirming in equal measure. As fellow insomniacs Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray) discover when they meet in the disorienting environment of a Tokyo hotel, being a stranger in a strange land can be made less lonely in discovering a common bond. But, as a beautifully judged bedroom scene suggests, sometimes there is more to gain by sharing one’s true self – by simply conversing – than in succumbing to anonymous desires.
Murray in particular delivers a textured performance full of disappointment and longing, and what might have seemed just another case of older man, younger woman is deftly handled. A warm connection gently builds, with delicate intimations of a parent-child relationship that defuses yet somehow never lessens the romance. When Bob whispers in Charlotte’s ear at the end, we are wisely left in the dark – some things must forever remain untranslated.
In the City of Sylvia (2007)
Director José Luis Guerín
“All love stories begin with looking. Words come later.” In the City of Sylvia is the cinematic expression of director José Luis Guerín’s sentiments, a film concerned with the gaze – mostly male, though this is artfully undercut at times – searching for the possibilities in new faces. It follows an unnamed young man (Xavier Lafitte) in Strasbourg, a flâneur who sketches people – particularly women – he observes. After seeing the face of a woman (Pilar López de Ayala) he may have met six years ago, he follows her, wondering if it could be Sylvia?
Guerín’s film is invested in the power of memory, a brief encounter not just of the present but also of the past. Mostly dialogue free, it uses a heightened city soundscape to immerse us in a world full of potential opportunities and a sense of lives momentarily observed. But there are dangers in idealised romantic visions, and as the young man discovers, such apparitions can exist only as long as they remain undisturbed.
Director Andrew Haigh
Shot on location in Nottingham, Andrew Haigh’s naturalistic romance is imbued with a realism stemming from the film’s low-budget aesthetic, part-improvised dialogue and the two leads’ genuine chemistry. Tom Cullen’s Russell is caring, introverted and sensitive, but struggles with public displays of his sexuality, while Chris New as Glen injects energy and an anger at the world. What feels as if it has the makings of a one-night stand soon becomes something more intimate and heartfelt.
Sex does not interfere with the romance as it might in other films; rather it’s inextricably linked to the pair’s attempts to define themselves, to be a ‘blank canvas’ with a new person. Their limited time – Glen is moving to Oregon – intensifies their intimacy, but a Hollywood ending is not on the cards. When Russell publicly sees Glen off, the latter ironically asks if this is their Notting Hill moment. But Haigh has something more moving in store – an ending made in Nottingham.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
Director Luca Guadagnino
Adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman’s 2007 novel, Call Me by Your Name stirred more than a few hearts in 2017, resulting in a number of Oscar nominations, including one for Timothée Chalamet’s Elio. This bright, sensitive late-teen prodigy becomes fascinated by Oliver (Armie Hammer), an Adonis-bodied American research assistant, staying at the family’s Lombardy villa for six long, languorous summer weeks. By subtly shifting degrees, the two reveal — in coded conversation and discreet glances — an intense mutual attraction.
Luca Guadagnino’s heartbreaking film has the cerebral yet beguiling atmosphere of a more sensuous, passionate Eric Rohmer. When consummation finally comes the camera gazes out the window in a scene criticised by some as dodging the sexual aspects of gay romance. Yet Guadagnino’s approach is entirely in keeping with a genre infatuated by mood over messy reality. That said, the notorious peach scene comes close to depicting an explicitness that for brief encounters has often been forbidden fruit.