Friday, January 20, 2012

Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948)


(Ahead of Turner Classic Movies's Max Ophuls in Hollywood night, the Siren is posting the first column she did for the now-defunct Nomad Wide Screen. The Siren posted an excerpt last year, but this is the original column in its entirety. It concerns Joan Fontaine's performance in Letter From an Unknown Woman, which airs at 11:15 pm EST. Our old friend Lee Tsiantis popped into comments to mention, if you did not see it, that immediately after the 1 am screening of The Exile, TCM will show the alternate, "European" ending to that film, straight from the vaults of the Library of Congress. Lee is too modest to mention, so the Siren will do it for him, that TCM's first screening of Caught came about because he chose it for their Employee Picks series. All this, plus The Reckless Moment. And exactly one week from tonight is Joan Fontaine night, which includes the just-rescued-from-rights-hell-by-TCM treasure, The Constant Nymph. The Siren suggests a tagline: "TCM takes the sting out of Monday.")



I date my abiding passion for Joan Fontaine to my first viewing of Letter from an Unknown Woman, Max Ophuls' 1948 masterpiece, as pure an example of a woman's picture as exists. Women's pictures--that romantic subset of golden-age melodrama where, as Molly Haskell said, "the swirling river of a woman's emotions is as important as anything on earth"--have always been my favorite genre. One reason for my partiality is that these films stand or fall on the female star as much as on the director. And so it was Fontaine who caught my imagination playing a character, Lisa Berndl, who endures unrequited love from beginning to end. Pain is a key element in women's pictures--the pain of abandonment, of losing men, children, society's respect--but Fontaine recognized that the script and Ophuls' direction would show that for her. She couldn't play pure suffering, a passive course for an actor that risks the audience becoming restive or even contemptuous. Fontaine had to play reckless, willful determination, and she had to play it based on something more than physical or emotional yearning.

I'm always amazed when I read discussions of this famous movie that don't mention a crucial point--when Lisa falls in love with pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan, also giving his best performance), she falls in love with his art. Her first appearance is as a 14-year-old clambering around a moving cart piled with his books, his scores, his instruments, all the paraphenalia of an artist's life. "I wondered who owned such beautiful things," she says. Fontaine was 30 years old when she made the movie, and while she doesn't look that age, she doesn't look 14, either. But Fontaine has a girl's energy down perfectly, the way movement comes in spurts, awkward one moment and graceful the next. Lisa doesn't yet have the ability to conceal fascination, she doesn't even have the desire to do so. She stops and gives her whole focus. When she sneaks into Stefan's rooms, her face shows a fleeting sense of wrongdoing only at the beginning and when she flees at the end; while looking around she is too thrilled to care.



Lisa has been living in this shabby-genteel boarding house with her mother, a woman who seems nice enough but as ordinary as a bar of soap. We get glimpses of the girl's routine: shapeless clothes, drab furniture, dimwitted playmates, a whole day set aside each week to beat the dust out of the rugs. Lisa is one of those creatures who sometimes arise in such an environment, intelligent and sensitive in a way wholly unsuited to the life laid out for her. And so she falls in love, not with a face or a voice, but with the sound of a piano. Lisa listens to Stefan's practicing with an expression as ardent as any she shows later. When Lisa finally sees Stefan and pulls the door open for him--which Fontaine does not tenderly, but with a swift jerk--she isn't enamored for the first time. She is already in love, her feelings bound up with his music. His handsome face is just the fulfillment.

Her mother finds a fat, affable husband, and Lisa leaves Vienna for Linz. Before she goes, she makes one last humiliating attempt to see Stefan, who comes reeling home with another woman and never sees Lisa waiting for him on the landing above. She is far from resigned, however. In Linz, Lisa is courted by an impossibly stiff, good-looking lieutenant. And again art comes into play--she strolls around the town square with the soldier, listening to a proficient but uninspired military band. They play an amiable tune with none of the febrile emotion of "Il Sospiro," the Liszt piece played by Stefan and heard on the soundtrack again and again. Fontaine moves her eyes between the lieutenant and the band, and her boredom becomes almost frantic. She heads off the officer's proposal by telling him she is already engaged, a scene Fontaine plays not as telling a lie, but revealing a secret truth, relief uncoiling her body as she finally blurts it out.

Later, when she works as a model in a dressmaker's shop, Fontaine again flips expectations. She is ill at ease walking in the elegant clothes, she is tremulous when waiting in the snow to catch Stefan's eye, but she is no stammering wreck when he finally begins his seduction. Of course not, why would she be? These are conversations she has already played out in her head. In the train car at the carnival, she isn't tongue-tied. She wants desperately to hear Stefan, but when she does talk the words pour out like the painted scenery unspooling behind them. Like all great Romantics, Lisa hurtles toward the fate she's chosen. Jourdan kisses her, and Ophuls' camera shows the actor's head blotting out that of Fontaine--but it isn't obliteration, it's apotheosis.

Lisa's later life finds her trapped in a more golden version of the boarding house at the beginning, with a kind but severe husband and a house decked not with pictures and musical scores, but with swords and guns. Fontaine's movements are more assured, but she talks to her husband with the polite distance you might use for a father-in-law. Even when she addresses her son, whom she clearly loves, she seems to talk to herself: "Can't you call him father?" Later, after Lisa encounters Stefan and her husband knows she is going to leave, he tells her she has free will and she replies, "I can't help it." Fontaine won't look at him during this exchange, but her face shows deception, not shame. Lisa claims she has no choice, but she has chosen every step, and she knows it.



When David Thomson wrote about this movie in the Guardian in January, he claimed (after faulting Fontaine's acting, which is crazy talk) that the movie is not Lisa's story, but that of Stefan. This is only half-right. Letter is Lisa's story, but the tragedy is Stefan's. When she goes to see him for the last time, Lisa immediately asks him to play, a request that echos a moment years earlier when she knelt and to hear him play on a creaky, ill-tuned piano, and listened with a face more rapt than when he kissed her later. Now, when she finds his piano locked, Fontaine's face already registers the betrayal that's coming. She's lost him, but he has lost his art to hedonism. Lisa pursues her Romantic ideal; he does not.

There are many great women's pictures about unrequited love, such as The Old Maid, or thankless devotion, such as the 1941 Back Street. The key difference between the female characters in those movies and Letter from an Unknown Woman is Fontaine. She helps turn Ophuls' film into a tale of obsessive love not as masochism, but a heretical, even noble pursuit.

22 comments:

MrJeffery said...

i dvr'ed this one. can't wait to see it!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well let's split the difference and say she makes masochism a noble pursuit.

Great observations, Siren -- partcularly about her falling in love with him through his music.

I suspect Thomson was taken aback by such a woman-centered story. There are tons of films about women (Bette Davis) and "women's films" (Jane Wyman) but few get right inside a woman's romantic obsession the way LFAUW does.

It's the Raging Bull of "women's pictures" in that respect.

The tragedy is of course Stefan's too in that he had happiness right at his fingertips yet refused to see it.

For me the most magical scene is in the railway car machine. It's a "fake" ride that's emotionally real. Fontaine and Jourdan (who is still alive, btw, but obviously hospitalized) are really close here in a way tha they aren't in other scenes. Both characters are fantasists and their fantasies nearly move in sync here.

But of course not quite.

It should be pointed out that during his American sojourn Ophuls NEVER worked for a major studio. All his films were indies.

He was Sundance avant la lettre in that respect.

Shamus said...

I always thought that Letter would form a great double bill with City Lights: unrequited love quietly traced by a lack of recognition.

And, of course, Chaplin was the ultimate independent filmmaker.

DavidEhrenstein said...

True, but City Lights ends wit recogntion and reconciliation -- and therefore hope.

LFAUW ends with Death.

I think it would be best double-featured with Chereau's Gabrielle as they're both films about male narcissism blinding standing in the way of love.

X. Trapnel said...

I cannot see Lisa's romantic obsession as masochistic; to do so is to pathologize the story or worse suggest that for a woman such passion is neurotic. Nor does Ophuls or Fontaine in her magnificent performance suggest anything like nobility (leave that for Greer Garson's beaming face over the decapitated neck of Ronald Colman). This is sex and a high stakes game for happiness in a benignly hostile society. Lisa Berndl is a female Julien Sorel (no masochist he) with the same all conquering passion and fatal blindness.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Masochism is obviously distasteful to you, X. But it's an undercurrent of any number of relationships -- even those that don't blossom into full-blown Venis in Furs

It has a flexible power dynamic, you know. Consider Truffaut's L'Histoire d'Adele H. which has much in common with LFAUW.

X. Trapnel said...

Well, I've never seen the point of masochism. I'd say that Ophuls is dealing with the reality of suffering rather than sentimentalizing or glorifying it in the manner, say, of the younger Dumas. Likewise, Fontaine's performance is understated and realistic, no grand theatrics.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Masochism need not be sentementalized. Terence Davies is the least sentimental filmmaker I know.

X. Trapnel said...

Of course not, but given the realities of commercial drama from La Dame aux Camelias onward it usually is sentimental, up to and including the narcissistic writhings of method acting. Lisa Berndl is not a passive character and her final act, the writing of the letter, is a search for value and meaning in her life.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's why I've compared it to Raging Bull. Lisa's resolve and determination sets her apart.

Yojimboen said...

More than a little surprised by all these squinty-eyed, "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" comparisons.

(The back of my hand to you, X! Snap out of it!) It's Zweig and it's Ophuls - no comparisons - it just doesn't get any fucking better.

WV: "Exazzle" Need I say more?

X. Trapnel said...

No argument Y! Just wanted to point out LFAUW has (1) a noble lineage and (2) more importantly that the social and psychological landscape is within normative experience, realism as opposed to the sur-realism of Vertigo. The changes Ophuls made to Zweig's novella are a perfect study in what would work/not work on page and screen. It also illustrates Truffaut's wise and ever-unheeded words on adaptation: you may change the original work but you must not diminish it. Damn, I wish SZ could have held on a few years more just to see it.

Rachel said...

Without dipping my toe into the masochism debate, I think I'd vote for Letter on a double bill with Cocteau's Orphee. The three-way entanglement of Love, Art, and Death. Lisa's story is in some sense, a reverse of Eurydice's; she desperately needs her artist-lover to look back at her, to recognize her, but he can't do it. It's easy enough to get him to marry her, even easier to get him to desire her, but to get him to actually see her...in the end, she can only free them both by dying.

I appreciate Thomson's desire to give Jourdan his due, although I think he goes too far in giving the whole story to Stefan. It seems like it was Jourdan's fate to always be playing the hedonist and rake, even though by all accounts, he was a pretty serious-minded man in real life. Which probably contributed to the air of impatience he gave to Stefan and Gaston, as if the arts of pleasure are only taking up one-tenth of his brain power.

X. Trapnel said...

"...she desperately needs her artist-lover to look back at her, to recognize her, but he can't do it."

Or like that other fun couple Scottie Ferguson and Judy Barton.

Rachel said...

No arguments, X, though I'd probably need several stiff drinks to handle Vertigo and Letter From an Unknown Woman on the same night.

X. Trapnel said...

I see your point, Rachel, but I'd want to have all my wits about me(insert still of Jimmy Stewart handing Kim Novak a stiff drink as he says her hair color can't matter to her).

I'll never forget the Lincoln Center double bill of Letter and Madame de... Bliss it was and very heaven.

Shamus said...

XT, comparing Letter with Vertigo brings out one crucial difference between the two films: Scottie wants to impose his will on Judy (and does); Lisa would rather die (and does) than influence Stefan in the slightest. Thus proving irreovocably, the difference between misguided male love and misguided female love. At least in cinema.

Shamus said...

Oh, and one another thing. If we consider that "Stefan" is a creation of Lisa, the "Stefan" she worships that shares nothing with the Stefan who actually exists, then Ophuls never shows us Lisa's "Stefan". The object of Lisa's love is viewed, um, objectively.

Hitchcock of course shows us both Scotty's creation, "Madeleine", as well as Judy, who exists independent of Scotty (although he will remedy that pretty soon).

X. Trapnel said...

Good point, Shamus, but I'm not so sure that Lisa's image of Stefan is entirely false, rather something in him that never comes to realization (see his uncertainties about his musicality and the goddess figurine in his apartment). Can't go into it just now as I'm taking a brief intermission midway through (Korngold fanfare) THE CONSTANT NYMPH. Quite a number of paralles here too with LFAUW.

gmoke said...

There's a moment early in the movie* where Lisa says something to Stefan about the meaning in his music that lights him up and centers him - then he goes out with another pretty girl leaving Lisa, the child, alone.

Lisa in her appreciation of Stefan's music would have made him a much better musician and man. Not only is his cavalier losing of Lisa a tragedy for both of them, it was a tragedy for his talent** as well.

*Sorry I can't pinpoint the scene but it's before Lisa moves to LInz.

** Lisa also loses her chance to be a real muse and manager but then, as the poet Lew Welch said, "Any man who confuses his mistress with his muse is asking for trouble from both of them."

Yojimboen said...

Re Scottie's preference twixt Judy and Madeleine, this should answer most questions.

Tom Block said...

Siren, this is totally off-topic but it's been plaguing me ever since you put up your new banner. Can you ID everyone? Peck and Grant are easy but I'm losing my vision over the rest. Who's the woman in center with her back turned to us? Is that Visconti next to her? (Nah, too short.) Who's the gamine on the stage--is that Hepburn? And how did John Waters get in there?