Letter from an Unknown Woman was one of the many films I first became aware of by watching A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, and I remembered it especially because I liked the title. Having watched the film, I became entranced by its style but less so with its actual story. For a very melodramatic film, there’s a strange absence of conflict that I found very off-putting.
As a girl, Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) observes a handsome young pianist named Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) moving into her apartment building and becomes hopelessly infatuated with him almost immediately. She buries herself in his life, and when her family moves away, she runs back to Vienna to be near him again. Eventually he notices her, and they have (a very brief) relationship. He leaves on a concert tour, and when he finally returns, forgets completely about Lisa among all of the other women he has been with.
It’s a film that should be rather heartbreaking, and is, in its way I suppose. The thing is, Lisa is always so in love with Stefan that anything he does is immediately forgiven, or rather, never seen as an insult in the first place. We get the feeling throughout the film of missed oportunity, that if they actually shared their lives Stefan would become a better and less frivolous person. However, that never really materializes, and Lisa is so in love with being in love with Stefan that it sustains her quite well even through his desertion and her subsequent marriage to a wealthier older man. Long story short, even though a lot of things happen in this movie that should rock the characters’ worlds, they never seem like a huge deal even when they are.
I’m not quite sure why this is the case, why the film seems to have no conflicts. Maybe it’s because it seems to mostly from Lisa’s point of view, who as I said earlier is so happy to be in love with Stefan that even when things go wrong they don’t seem to make much of an impact. There’s a section of desperation and poverty after Stefan’s departure that Lisa relates in voice over, and of course this is not as impactful as showing actual images of Lisa begging on the streets or some such thing. Towards the end as she is dying (not a spoiler as the whole film is in flashback to this point), we just see Stefan reading the titular letter rather than a lot of footage of dying Lisa. The visuals in this movie focus on the good times, while the voice over will go to darker places the visuals won’t. I don’t think this a drawback really, it’s so consistent (and Ophüls seems to be well respected enough) that I don’t think it’s a mistake. It’s just a very weird choice, coming from a modern perspective where a lot of films make it their business to go to the darker places.
The film is drama, but it’s also rooted in a calm romanticism that celebrates turn of the century Vienna. The sets are beautifully realized, not as realistic replicas of the actual city (The Third Man this is not) but as wistful remembrances of what it once was. Come to think of it, that’s probably another reason why the film seems so absent of conflict. 98% of this film is in flashback as Lisa is dying. As well as the fact that she is still in love with Stefan, it’s probably hard for her to feel angry going over their memories as she is dying. The whole film is remembered wistfully it seems, and everything plays into that. It acknowledges the ugliness that occurred, but never dwells on it too long and never shows it.
A melodrama made in 1948 can hardly help but feel a bit dated, and I’m afraid the film suffers for this. Though the film is largely from a woman’s perspective, I can’t help but find Lisa’s slavish adoration to the shallow Stefan quite grating. Joan Fontaine’s performance, while great a showing the passage of time and her growth from a teenage girl to a grown woman, hardly works to give one a high opinion of the character. Jourdan does a good job playing the shallow Stefan, and allows the brighter aspects of his character to shine through occasionally in the film. However, even though the film and the performances are, in the strict sense of the word, good, I wouldn’t recommend this movie to anyone who watches films with a strong desire to identify with the characters. They are both incredibly frustrating to watch at times.
Letter from an Unknown Woman was a film I didn’t think much of when I first watched it, but the more I reflect on it the more I realize and respect what it is trying to do. I will definitely rewatch it at some point and see if this helps make the movie more watchable. There is good news though, it is very economical with its storytelling, running at only 86 minutes. The film has beautiful sets and camerawork, and the experience of watching it is both frustrating and rewarding, and unlike any other film I have seen.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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