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Jun 26 2015

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Continuing the theme of looking back at 1948 ahead of this weekend's Smackdown.Here'sAngelicadiscussing one of Joan Fontaine's greatest roles...

A few years ago when working at the Chicago International Film Festival I got into a conversation with a coworker about classic Hollywood actresses who,for whatever reason,do not connect with modern women as much as they did in their own time.The conversation centered on Norma Shearer but I think it can also apply to Joan Fontaine.I've often had trouble introducing my friends to Fontaine.Sure,they may likeRebeccabut the tenor of her infatuation and willingness to lose her identity in love always hits a sour note.At her best,Fontaine made martyrdom on the altar of love an art form.This was never clearer than in the 1948 Max Ophuls film,Letter from an Unknown Woman.IfNow,Voyagerrepresents the women's picture at its most transformative,Letter from an Unknown Womanshows the genre at its most tragic and masochistic.

Based on the novella by Stefan Zweig,the film begins in Vienna 1900.We meet Stefan (Louis Jordan) a rakish pianist planning to run out of town before a scheduled duel.Before he can do so his mute servant (Art Smith) gives him the titular letter.It begins ominously,"By the time you read this letter I may be dead."


Young Lisa.

The writer of this letter is Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine).Her voice over of this letter frames the narrative covers her life from the moment she Stefan swooped into her life until her death.As a teenager she became infatuated with Stefan,then a new tenant in her apartment complex just making a name for himself as a concert pianist.We may be able to tell Stefan is a cad but to the young Lisa he's good looking,talented,and charming.She watches him intently,tries to become more graceful,studies music,and even sneaks into home to understand him better.Even after she's forced to move away because of her mother's engagement,her one-sided love continues unabated.Throughout the film time passes,life continues but her obsession remains.

He isn't worth it,Lisa!

Stefan knows his a cad,going as far as saying early in the film that he has no plans to go through with the duel because "honor is a luxury only gentleman can afford."He also has more experience in matters of lust and love than Lisa.No matter where we are in the narrative or how much has happened to her,Fontaine plays Lisa with a sort of girlhood hopefulness.Fontaine was about 31 when playing the teenage Lisa at the beginning of the narrative.Her fumbling awkwardness and girlish dress go a long way convincing us that she's actually a teenager.

He never had a chance!

We watch Lisa turn down the engagement of a young military officer from a good family saying she's in love and set to be married to another man.It's at this point that I realize Lisa has more than a hint of delusion.For Lisa it is more comfortable to live in the fantasy of a future with Stefan than even entertaining the idea of finding love or even simple joy with another man.

Years later,Lisa is back in Vienna working as a dress model and estranged from her parents.And finally Stefan more than passingly notices her while she waits near his home.He doesn't recognize her but he's drawn to her nonetheless.For one night Lisa is the center of her own fairytale where girls like her can believe in happy endings.It is particularly apparent during this extended romantic evening that Lisa's memories are touched by more than just the haziness of nostalgia,I think she's delusion giving weight to even the smallest actions by Stefan when they don't deserve it.Ophuls shoots the film with a swooning elegance always drawing us to Fontaine's face within the composition of the frame.And Fontaine excels at rendering the naïve desire that rules Lisa.

One of the most telling scenes about Lisa's outlook in the film comes much later.A decade after her long,romantic even with Stefan Lisa has married Johann (Marcel Journet) and is raising a son who carries the name of his father: Stefan.She seems relaxed amongst the wealth and leisurely lifestyle Johann provides.After surprisingly crossing paths with Stefan at the opera Lisa feels her comfortable life is on the verge of collapse and the nervous girlishness of her teenage self returns.Johann tells Lisa that she as choice whether to go after the empty obsession of Stefan ruining not only her life but her son's or staying with him in a marriage that is comfortable albeit passionless on her part.

For Lisa (and many Joan Fontaine characters) free will in the face of love is inconceivable."I've had no will but his,ever,"she whispers."That's romantic nonsense,"Johann replies sternly.Of course,common sense and integrity don't get in the way of Lisa going against her husband's wishes and visiting Stefan.Despite their long discussion he still doesn't recognize her.

Ophuls decides to focus mostly on Fontaine as her face contorts and her chest heaves,fighting desperately to contain the well of emotion in realizing Stefan never loved her.Worse yet,he doesn't even know who she is!Things only get worse for Lisa from there.

In lesser hands this film would be pathetic,masochistic melodrama.But Ophuls and screenwriter Howard Koch never look down upon the lead character.There is no disdain toward her actions.Instead,they treat the story with tender sympathy.But,that doesn't fully erase the underlying darkness of this story in my mind.The film makes love both decadent and horrific.Even with the moving score and romantic cinematographyLetter from an Unknown Womanfeels truly haunting.

Lisa is an unreliable narrator trying to give meaning to her life and its all-consuming obsession.She may not be a masochistic in the strictest sense.But I think she confuses pain with love.Lisa ultimately loves a man who doesn't exist because doesn't really know Stefan no matter how much of his music she listens to or how intently she watches him from afar.If she did she would know why she's so forgettable to him.She is dedicated to the suffering his presence provides.

It is a testament to Fontaine as an actress that I don't utterly revile Lisa.Often watching Fontaine I have the urge to scream,"grow a backbone,woman!"Which I guess is what many of my female friends think when I put on a Fontaine film for a movie night.You may feel sympathy for Lisa's heartbreak and angry at her circumstances inLetter from an Unknown Woman.After all haven't all of us dealt with unrequited love in some way or another?But it is hard to forget that Lisa continued tochooseStefan even when he couldn't remember her and doing so would could only lead to misery.

Fontaine renders Lisa with a sensitivity,intelligence,and naïve hope so that it is hard to hate her.Instead,you're whisked away into the fairytale she so desperately wants to become reality.Lisa's life peaked early she's forever replaying distorted images of Stefan.She created a narrative for him in her youth that neither reality nor age could break.Ultimately,Letter from an Unknownisn't a love story,it is beautifully rendered portrait of obsession.

Angelica Jade Bastién
Angelica Jade Bastién is a Southern born essayist and screenwriter.She's written for Bustle and Bright Wall/Dark Room.She primarily writes about noir,Old Hollywood,and female madness.'The Feminine Grotesque' is the best way to describe her aesthetic.  She is currently obsessed with the beauty of Cary Fukunaga,baking the perfect pie,and Bette Davis.You can find her musings and other writerly experiments on her site,Madwomen & Muses. [Follow Angelica on Twitter]

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Reader Comments (10)

Great write-up!Fontaine was magnificent in this and should have won the Oscar.

June 26,2015 | Unregistered CommenterMike M.

Love the writing!

This movie is a masterpiece.There's a wonderful scene in Billy Wilder's Love in the Afternoon in which,for a second,Gary Cooper doesn't recognize Audrey Hepburn
It reads as a nod to this movie,but Wilder plays it like comedy.Only Ophuls could made this as a melodrama and still make it work.

I think it's one of the best movies of all time.Love Ophulsn

June 26,2015 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I have never seen this film before this past week and where has this film been in my life before.It's so beautiful and Fontaine is so captivating and this film not being fully embraced my Oscars back in 1948 is baffling to me.亚博主页Maybe the academy could only go for one of the de Havilland sisters and they choose Olivia's films The Snake Pit another film I love.I could imagine the two sisters who hated each would not have wanted to be nominated in the same category even though both of them should have been nominated.This film put all modern love stories to shame because these actors in the 40's & 50's really were masters of creating believable love stories no matter how massive in scale they are.

June 26,2015 | Unregistered CommenterEoin Daly

That's a good take on the film.I'm not a huge fan of Fontaine.Did any other star's screen persona change so radically mid-stream?She started out as you said a milksop desperately in need of a backbone and seemingly overnight around the start of the 50's turned into the brittle sophisticate with a chilly reserve that was extremely off putting.However in this she may be the ultimate in unrequited love but she does a lovely job of making Lisa relatable.To me not only did she deserve a nomination but should have taken the prize,she's so much better then she was in Suspicion.She does a great deal of the heavy lifting but credit must go to Ophuls for his direction and Franz Planer for his evocative cinematography both of which create an excellent framework for Joan's work.

June 26,2015 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

In my all time top 10 (maybe top 5) of favorite movies.Fontaine is great in it.
Thanks for the write-up,Angelica!

June 27,2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

I want to add:
- Are you getting lonely out there?
- Very lonely.

June 27,2015 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

You're welcome,everyone.

joel6 - Fontaine has an odd star trajectory,that's for sure.Some of her roles I absolutely adore like Born to Be Bad and Letter from an Unknown Woman.She can be amazing which is why her choices overall are so baffling!

Eoin - I agree about 40's and 50's love stories.

Cal Roth - This movie is indeed a masterpiece with so much depth and an excellent handling of melodrama.I honestly didn't think of that in Love in the Afternoon!I haven't seen it in ages,I'd have to give it a rewatch to see if I agree.

June 27,2015 | Registered CommenterAngelica Jade Bastién

I stopped reading this review before the end,because I've never seen this film,and what I'd read up to that point really made me want to see it.Bookmarked this to finish after I've watched the movie.

BTW,there are an incredible number of typos in the article--the kind that spellcheck overlooks.It was a distraction from the otherwise v well written analysis.

June 27,2015 | Unregistered Commenterbcarter3

Thanks for this write-up of one of the most fascinating films I've seen.It was a favourite of one of my university lecturers and he taught it so well that it inspired me and a whole generation of students to remember it and revisit it.I think Joan Fontaine is excellent in it and I'm baffled as to why it didn't get nominated for any Oscars.亚博主页

June 28,2015 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

LOVE this movie.I was the only one on a film trivia team that knew it though (they played a clip of the train sequence with the revolving backdrop),which maybe suggests it's not that well known?

June 29,2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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