The concept of an “all in one night” romantic fling between two strangers has been a popular premise since the earliest days of cinema. Jean Renoir’s 1936 classic Partie de campagne was among the first films to adopt this story, and it’s been replicated and repeated countless times in the years since. These “brief encounter” romance films haven’t grown out of style; there’s something both beautiful and heartbreaking about a passionate relationship that begins and often ends in a short amount of time.
This month, the Finish film Compartment No. 6 arrives in theaters after its brief awards-qualifying run at the end of December, where it was selected as the Finnish submission for the Best International Feature Academy Award. The film follows the art student Laura (Seidi Harlaa), who takes an extended train ride from Moscow to Murmansk after a major break up. Laura is paired in a small compartment with the eccentric Russian miner Lyokha (Yura Borisov), and his rude behavior quickly annoys her. However, the two begin to open up to each other, and form a surprisingly intimate bond over the course of their trip.
Compartment No. 6 has the potential to be a new favorite within the “chance encounter” genre, and it honors the plethora of great films that came before. Here are seven other great brief encounter romance movies that are worth your time.
Brief Encounter (1945)
The genre is commonly associated with David Lean’s 1945 dramedy Brief Encounter, one of the most influential romance films of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Although Lean would become best known for his historical epics like Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago, he brought the same urgency and realism to a small-scale character study. Compared to other romance films of the 1940s that were more crowd pleasing, Brief Encounter doesn’t tell an idealized story. The film shows the shared disillusionment of the unhappy housewife Laura (Ceilia Johnson) and the doctor Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard) as they both grow to regret their respective marriages.
Before Sunrise (1995)
Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy followed the romance between the maverick American writer Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the independent French woman Celine (Julie Delpy) over the course of 20 years. In Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine form an unexpected bond after meeting on a train, and decide to spend the entire evening together. They converse about art, history, religion, and destiny, and form a close relationship over the course of their extended encounter. As they part ways, Jesse and Celine promise to meet in the same location exactly one year later. The sequel Before Sunset shows their reunion nine years later, and the third film Before Midnight explores their married life.
Netflix has a bad habit of picking up buzzy independent films from festivals and then subsequently burying them within their homepage during the actual release. Tramps is a hidden gem that fans of the Before trilogy may appreciate. Set in the underbelly of New York, Tramps follows the aspiring chef Danny (Callum Turner), who cautiously agrees to pick up a package for his criminal older brother. After losing the box and its lucrative contents, Danny is forced to travel with the street hustler Ellie (Grace Van Patten) to complete the delivery before his brother’s employers find out its missing. There are allusions to the French New Wave films of Jean-Luc Godard, but Tramps does a great job identifying the struggles of 21st century teenagers. These two poor kids are both trying to make a better life for themselves, and the breakout stars Turner and Patten have great chemistry.
Blue Jay (2016)
Although “brief encounter” films are all about the exciting nature of the present, Blue Jay uses the narrative to provide a window into the past. The film follows the surprising reunion of two childhood friends who reflect on their past during an intimate evening together. Jim (Mark Duplass) disappeared from his California hometown under mysterious circumstances, but he unexpectedly returns to sell his mother’s house after her death. He runs into his high school girlfriend Amanda (Sarah Paulson), and invites her to come to his mother’s home during a nostalgic evening. Blue Jay is light and humorous in its early moments, but it doesn’t reveal the actual reason why the couple broke up. When the truth emerges in the film’s final moments, it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch.
In The Mood For Love (2000)
Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of its era; it’s one of only two films from the 21st Century included on Sight & Sound’s list of the top 100 greatest films ever made. Wong delicately introduces two dissatisfied characters who naturally become drawn together, even when they both realize the chance they’ll spend their future together is slim. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is a journalist looking for employment in Singapore, and his new neighbor Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) is overwhelmed by her retail job. They’re both married and bound by tradition; any fleeting romance would be short-lived. Their powerful connection is a testament to all the beautiful things that were never meant to last.
Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola cited In The Mood For Love and the work of Wong Kar-wai as a major influence on her own “brief encounter” film, Lost in Translation. She tells a similar story of two lonely strangers from different social circles who spend an evening together, only to part ways after they get too close. The faded movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray) takes a grueling job doing advertisements for a liquor brand, and spends an evening in an expensive Tokyo hotel. During a nighttime drinking binge, Bob sparks a conversation with unhappy Yale student Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson), who is there with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). Although their experiences are different, both Bob and Charlotte have grown to regret their marriages and connect over their mutual depression. Their evening together gives them both a chance to admit things they’ve never said aloud. What exactly does Bob say to Charlotte during the film’s final scene? Two decades later, it remains a mystery.
Southside With You (2016)
Although some would say that “brief encounter” films are unrealistic, Southside With You tells an actual true story of a love that lasts. It follows a charismatic young Chicago couple, who just so happen to be the future President and First Lady of the United States. During his summer employment at the Sidley Austin law firm, a young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) asks his supervisor Michelle (Tika Sumpter) to attend a community meeting he’s speaking at. She doesn’t realize that his interest in her isn’t just professional. Southside With You does a great job taking these larger-than-life figures and bringing them down to Earth; Barack and Michelle’s playful adventures across the sprawling cultural scene of Chicago feel plucked right out of a John Hughes movie.
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