Letter from an Unknown Woman is such a beautiful movie, it seems incredible that it is not better known. It was a box-office failure when it was released in 1948 and received some critical praise, but nothing lavish. Through the years, it has risen in critical estimation , but still has not garnered the attention it deserves, though it has, fortunately, been released on DVD and Blue-ray.
Perhaps one of the reasons is that the movie has a very European feel and the director, Max Ophüls, is not a well-known director in America. German born, he made many movies, but fled first to France, becoming a citizen, and then to America before WWII. He didn’t like Hollywood, however, and made only a few movies, most of which are not well-remembered today. Most of his masterpieces came later, when he was in France; but Letter From an Unknown is still an achievement, with brilliant direction, fine acting, and a beautiful score that captures the era and mood of each scene. It is a stunningly, achingly beautiful film.
The movie follows the unrequited love of Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) for the charming libertine and pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a man so self-absorbed that he does not remember her each time they meet.
It opens in Vienna in the early 1900s with Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) having been challenged to a duel. An irresponsible man – at this point he’s thrown away his career as a pianist – he intends to leave before the morning when he is supposed to fight the duel. But when he returns to his house in the evening he is given a letter by his servant from an unknown woman, detailing to him her lifelong love for him.
The movie is told in a series of flashbacks, narrated by Lisa, of the three separate occasions that she saw him. The first time was when she was a very young woman, still a girl, and he was still studying music and preparing for his career. He moves into her apartment complex and she sees him several times, living it up, mostly with other women, and hears him practicing constantly on his piano. He only notices her once, but he has become everything to her and, she writes in the letter, she “began quite consciously to prepare [herself] for [him],” taking lessons, studying music.
But her mother remarries and they move away from Vienna. Having refused a very eligible offer of marriage, she returns to Vienna when she is grown and meets him, now a burgeoning concert pianist, and they have one night together, though he has to leave the following morning. The third time they meet is many years later. She has had his child, but married a man who loves her and is willing to raise her son as his own. But she runs into Stefan at the opera. He has given up concerts and now seems to live a very idle life, but she is determined to explain to him about her love for him and their child, and perhaps re-spark his career. She goes to him that night, much to the anger and sadness of her husband, only to find that Stefan still does not remember her from the previous occasions. She is just another casual pick-up for him and in grief she leaves him.
It sounds quite melodramatic, but is a surprisingly moving film and there are a variety of things going on. On one level it is a tragic romance, but on another level it is look at romantic obsession, delusion and self-destruction. What is surprising is, despite the blatantly self-destructive tendencies of the characters, how beautiful the film remains. You can see what’s going on, but find yourself drawn into the romance nonetheless.
Glenn Erickson, in his review for DVD Savant, calls the film a taking “of the romantic coming of age’ fantasy to its logical extreme.” It is like a fairy tale gone terribly awry. In a fairy tale, they would have been meant for each other and eventually she would have been noticed by him and he would have realized that she is what he has always been searching for, his ideal woman. And in the film, it is as if Lisa lives in a fairy tale, though the rest of the world is going on prosaically. The film looks like a fairy tale, but there is enough evidence for us to realize that we are seeing the world through Lisa’s eyes because we are hearing her story, told by her, but with our clearer eye we can see her self-delusion and how utterly self-absorbed and unworthy Stefan is. The film draws us into her fantasy, but we remain aware that it is a fantasy.
Both Fontaine and Jourdan are excellent in this film. She plays the role with complete simplicity, naiveté, sincerity and purity of love, as if the very purity of her love ought to be rewarded. But in reality it is not so much purity of love as an obsessive delusion. Fontaine ages quite believably from girl to young woman to mature woman of society and through the very intensity of her devotion, despite its less admirable aspects (like leaving her kind husband for this man she has foolishly dedicated her life to) she retains your sympathy.
There is also a very good performance from Art Smith, who plays Stefan’s servant who, cannot speak, but his eyes are very speaking and you can see his compassion as he watches what unfolds. At the end of the film, after Stefan has finished the letter, Stefan realizes that his servant knew who she was all along and the servant quietly writes down her name for Stefan: Lisa Berndle.
Louis Jourdan is charming, handsome, completely selfish, but earnestly searching in his own, dissolute way, and Jourdan conveys this exceedingly well. You can see the shallowness of the man, but also his desire for something more ,which he is too lazy or pleasure-focused to truly seek. Each time they meet, he always asks if they’ve met before; he’s sure he’s seen her before. Alexander Dhoest, in his article on the use of music in the film, writes “Stefan’s words sound like hollow pick-up lines, but his insistence suggests a genuine internal restlessness, thus adding to the complexity of his portrayal.” And truly, he has seen her before, if he would only really look at her (though he has had so many women it is understandable that it would be difficult to keep track).
There is a scene, during the night that Lisa and Stefan spend together, where the two of them are at an amusement park. It is winter and covered with snow and carnival music is playing in the background (as many writers have pointed out, demonstrating the artificiality of the relationship that is in contrast to her belief in him). He says he likes the amusement park better in the winter, when there are no people around. That way he can imagine it as they could be instead of as it really is. One suspects he feels the same way about his music, he can imagine what it should be, but can’t quite produce it. He definitely feels that way about women; he’s never found his ideal.
Scenes like the one at the amusement park are illustrative of the physical beauty of the film and Ophüls was known for his tracking shots and fluidity of camera work. Vienna looks artificial, but also so stunning that you want to believe in the artificiality (like fairy tales and romances). Music is also extremely important in the film, with every kind of music you would expect to hear in Vienna. Daniele Amfitheatrof wrote the score and weaves in” Un Sospiro” into the score, an etude by Franz Liszt that Stefan is practicing at the beginning, which becomes his theme. But, as Dhoest writes in his article, there is quite a fair use of diegetic music (music that occurs from the action of the film). There is the etude that Stefan plays, street singers, carnival music, a military band, opera. And apparently (I read somewhere) the song from the opera playing in the background is from “The Magic Flute,” by Mozart, where a character is singing, but does not recognize the woman he loves.
It’s really amazing the layers that are in the film. I don’t usually pay much attention to what kind of music is playing or to symbolism, but it enhances the film in a very natural way, without being showy or bizarre. Despite the fact that Letter from an Unknown Woman is often described as a melodrama and a tearjerker (i.e. women’s picture), it’s much more than that.