Thoughts On: The Lunchbox/ Brooklyn
A lonesome wife’s lunch, made for and sent to her husband at work daily, starts going to the wrong desk. A young girl moves from a small town in Ireland to the bustling Big Apple.
Simple, yet incredibly powerful, The Lunchbox is a confined drama much like In The Mood For Love and Demolition.
However, unlike Demolition, there is a succinct focus on character in The Lunchbox that instantaneously draws you into the two protagonists’ inner conflicts and personal struggles – and always in an expressively cinematic, show-don’t-tell, manner. Moreover, like In The Moon For Love, The Lunchbox is centred on themes of betrayal and an ironic isolation – being so close to people, but nonetheless lost. There is a departure from In The Mood For Love’s melancholy tone, however, that imbues The Lunchbox with a light and fragile romance, one that ultimately asks a question of self-sacrifice and doing what is right for oneself. Without any fault and through suspense and a perfectly developed bond between the audience, Ila and Fernandez, The Lunchbox is a emotionally captivating experience.
Like The Lunchbox, Brooklyn is a simple, yet poignant, drama with themes of ironic isolation in the form of home sickness. Overall, Brooklyn is a touching, memorable romance. However, there is an annoying fault in the traditional design of this adventure/romance. Moving through the first act and part of the second, we grow incredibly close to Eillis and eventually her first boyfriend, Tony. This is an earned romance with a well-established growth. In contrast, her second romantic encounter with Jim back at home does little more than frustrate. This is not something I consider to be the result of good plot and character design, nor a reaction you want to conjure. The latter relationship is given no growth and is imbued with a somewhat understandable, but ultimately unpalatable, decision in Eillis. The frustration we feel as a result of this relationship is a middle finger to an element of many romances that needs to be dropped. This is all to do with a certain type of love triangle. Before delving deeper into this, there is one other disappointing element to Brooklyn – one that is probably too subjective and specific to count for much. Nonetheless, the first love scene between Eillis and Tom proceeds an eloquent, fluid sequence in which they fall in love. The scene in which they then tumble under the sheets for the first time takes a directorial shift in tone and style that follows something Hitchcock famously said:
“Film your murders like love scenes, and film your love scenes like murders.”
This is a nice, one-line piece of advice, but a terrible blanket statement. Whilst this may work inside some crime-dramas or suspense pictures (the juxtaposition between cinematic language and content conveying excitement, yearning and passion) it is certainly something that should’t be applied to the vast swath of films in and outside these genres. We only need to look to Hitchcock to see why.
In Notorious, Hitchcock films one of the longest, most passionate kisses ever put to screen. This is, in no way, shape or form, directed like a murder scene. It is fluid, concentrated and thick with an air of intimacy. Through cinematic language, Hitchcock lulls us into a romantic dream state that almost materialises and makes tangible the bond between Alicia and Devlin. Conversely, this is a murder sequence, one of the best:
And it’s not very loving. I thus see little validity in Hitchcock’s quote. This certainly stands true in Brooklyn where we see a shift from liquid tenderness to handheld, violent and disruptive camera movement that utterly ruins the atmosphere generated between Eillis and Tony. What this ultimately does is welcome the disappointing shift this movie takes when introducing its love triangle.
Love triangles are a trope in many dramatic romances that have developed into many varieties. These date far back into the history of literature and have continued to this day – from before the likes of Romeo and Juliet (1597) all the way up to Me, Earl and The Dying Girl (2015).
There are two basic types of literary love triangles. There is the supportive and the conflicted. The love triangle between Romeo, Juliet and Count Paris is a conflicted one. The triangle present in Me, Earl And The Dying Girl on the other hand is, for the most part, a supportive one. There is always going to be a position on the spectrum between conflicted and supportive that triangles sit, however. For example, the triangle in Truffaut’s Jules et Jim starts out supportive, but is soon poisoned. Many films will make this movement along the spectrum between conflicted and supportive and such demonstrates the literary aid a triangle can be. Not only can it be used to give a film momentum through conflict, but can facilitate the projection of character, theme and mood.
There is a type of, or approach to, the love triangle, however, that I feel needs to be done away with. This is the triangle we seen in Brooklyn. This is established as a modest picture with concentration on inner-turmoil catalysed by external events. In such, Eillis is set up as a heroine that will struggle to find equilibrium and a place in the world. With the movement towards the love triangle that she engages, we have a shift in her character that is not set up well and has her inner-turmoil come from the inside outwards. This change has the intent of making her character more complex belying it, but it is not handled well. In such, the shift in source of the film’s conflict from external factors, such as moving country, to personal decisions, like Eillis deciding to cheat on Tony, feels like a non-sequitur that is tonally unjustified. There needed to be a more subtle build towards Eillis making this decision, one that better used the present themes of finding a home. Moreover, there certainly needed to be a more thorough and gradual build of Jim as a character. Without getting this, the love triangle established by Eillis is an act of, to quote Herzog in The White Diamond, stupid stupidity. To understand this, we only need to turn back to The Lunchbox.
Across this narrative, we have a similar, but immediately established and constantly maintained, love triangle. This is a conflicted triad much like that in Brooklyn between Ila, Fernandez and Ila’s husband. This triangle is so effective as it is subtle, is treated like a character that needs to be built up and develops over the narrative. This means that when Ila first starts to interact with Fernandez, the conflict presented by the triangle provides suspense and continues to do so throughout, never being exploited as a means of producing cheap melodrama. The growth of this triangle is what provides a highly sympathetic final question of Ila and Fernandez possibly being together. To return to the Herzog quote, these two getting together may be a mistake, may be an act of stupidity, but it is one done with courage and hope. We have neither this subtlety or emotional poignancy in Brooklyn which leaves Eillis’ ‘stupid’ decision to engage the love triangle an act of stupid stupidity, not hopefully or courageous stupidity. This is partly to do with the social stigma around the concept of three people in a conflict of love. A love triangle, especially a conflicted one, is a literary device that brings in either themes of betrayal or control. In Romeo and Juliet, it’s Count Paris as a threat to Romeo and Juliet’s bond that established a pungent idea of control. We see this in any story where the couple is kept apart. These love triangles work so well as they grant empathy; us, the audience, supporting the couple in face of the asshole trying to break them up. On the other hand, there is the conflicted love triangle which someone within instigates – usually through cheating. Seeing someone cheat on another is something all people disdain for very obvious reasons. This means that, if you want to have your protagonists cheat, you’re going to have a hard job of justifying this to your audience and navigating the social stigma around love triangles. Brooklyn, in my opinion, takes one of the hardest routes towards trying to do this, but untimely fails. The Lunchbox conveys this triangle, in a somewhat safe way, but with resounding poignancy that transcends the film and its ambiguous ending.
The Lunchbox manages to do this because the love triangle is mostly broken when Ila’s husband starts cheating on her. Through films such as In The Mood For Love, a great example of how to handle a love triangle, we see an understanding that two wrongs do not make a right – no matter how painful it is to be the better person. This is what hangs in the balance in the end of The Lunchbox. Are Ila and Fernandez about to fully break the love triangle with a wrong, and if so, is this undue, could this be handle better? We do not get to actually question this because of the open end, unlike in Brooklyn, and this leaves us with a question of if a conflicted love triangle can fit into a romance. We can infer this question as an act of cheating is something that usually tarnishes a character, in the audience’s perspective, when not set up right. However, in setting up a character who will cheat, you can do one of two things. You either introduce external factors that shatter the love triangle (like one point of the triangle distancing themselves from the construct with another relationship or being a complete asshole) or you set up the person who is about to cheat as an anti-hero. This seems to be why The Lunchbox ends where it does. There is no true breakdown of the love triangle with Ila leaving as adding a moral plot line where the husband’s cheating is not just implied could come off as tangential and contrived. This is because the crux of the story is not so much the catharsis she will be given if she leaves with Fernandez, rather the friction created as she finds and falls in love with him. As a result, providing resolution is unneeded because the purpose of the story is to have us understand that bonds may form between two distant people, not have us feel that the bond is a lasting and true one; just simply appeal to a romantic hope or hopeful stupidity. There is an attempt to provide resolution and catharsis in Brooklyn, however, and this comes when she reunites with Tony after being with Jim. The resolution provided is one tainted by the directness of it that projects the fortunes of a stupidly stupid person. We see Eillis at her best, with Tony, and at an ill-handled worst with Jim. The love triangle is thus a throw-away piece of melodrama that brings the film down quite significantly.
What this all suggests is a need for ambiguity when it comes to conflicted love triangles – especially when it is constructed by a person whom we are meant to empathise with. The Lunchbox demonstrates that the conflict in the triangle should be used as friction from which romance flourishes from in the audience. In such, it is our romantic hope that Ila and Fernandez get together that gives the film its emotional weight. Brooklyn tries to play with the audience’s romantic aspirations in a manner that disengages. What this means is that the triangle is far too contrived to be taken seriously, and when it is overcome, our romantic willing that has been lost refuses to click back into place, leaving the ending not so cathartic. What these two films then demonstrate is the importance of the tone and management of a love triangle. It should be treated like a character that develops gradually, that isn’t fake, contrived and over-the-top. In such, the melodramatic love triangle based on a protagonist cheating should really be done away with in my opinion if you want to produce a true romance. As said, making the cheating protagonist an anti-hero may work, as in The Wolf Of Wall Street or Goodfellas, but, in adhering to the conventions of a film with an anti-hero, it’d be hard to generate a romance that is anything as powerful and pure as that in The Lunchbox. Our evidence for this is simply that the narrative crux of films like Goodfellas and The Wolf Of Wall Street is not in the bonds established between wives and husbands.
All in all, the love triangle is a dangerous device in literature and cinema. It has the potential to completely disengage many people, but can also entice, create suspense and empathy when done right. The safe option here is an appeal to a supportive triangle or a conflicted one that has a heavy dosage of external conflicts. If you wanted to challenge yourself, however, with a conflicted triangle based on mistakes made by a character we must sympathise with, it seems that ambiguity and a strong sense of motivation is key. Misusing the love triangle of this kind creates horrible melodramas that cheapen a film and sully characters.
On a final note, this seems to be an incredibly subjective topic as it is focused on empathy – something generated in us all in varying manners. So, I leave you with a question of how you feel about love triangles like those present in The Lunchbox and Brooklyn: do they work?
La La Land – Sensory Romanticism
Silence – Subjectivity
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