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.