Fidelity and Adultery at the Movies: from F.W. Murnau’s 'Sunrise' to David Lean’s 'Brief Encounter'

David Kelly


Literary historians such as Tony Tanner have argued that, having emerged concurrently with the bourgeois arrangement of modern society, the novel came to concern itself in particular with the contractual character of that life. Focussing upon the role of the woman in the case in works such as 'Madame Bovary' and 'Anna Karenina', the novel of adultery takes its place within this development as an often sympathetic exploration of the profound infraction of that contract adultery represents. This paper examines the role of film in the continuing evolution of this kind of cultural reflection and considers the degree to which narrative cinema—often seen as an inheritor of the novelistic tradition—took up similar themes and issues to the classic realist novel, although it came to deal with these in a markedly different manner. In the paper I examine the emergence of the theme of adultery in the silent era and trace the cinematic figurations of the adulterous female through to the ‘femme fatale’ in the film noir period, before going on to consider the distinctive and highly challenging contributions of David Lean to representations of the adulterous woman in cinema, which hark back to the novelistic approach of the previous century. I also take the opportunity to consider the ‘fidelity debate’ in literature and cinema studies by considering how cinema has dealt with, and perhaps thereby reflected on, the question of fidelity.

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