I have heard so much great praise for Letter from an Unknown Woman so a few nights ago I decided finally to give this one a shot. As I began to watch it I discovered the film was, indeed, as dreamily gorgeous as I had been told to expect. And yet, the more I wallowed in Ophüls’ movie, the more surprising and intriguing it became.
Joan Fontaine plays a woman by the name of Lisa Berndle, a lady loving a handsome stranger from afar. After admiring his piano-playing as his neighbour and a girl of 17, her love continues, stretching her entire life and fuelled by two brief romantic encounters. Each time they meet, she realises the womanising pianist (with whom she has even had a child) has forgotten her completely, even feeding her the same callous lines he had used before.
The simple story is framed by a letter, sent from the deathbed of this unknown woman. This tale of unrequited love is told absolutely from the point of view of Lisa, and it is not until the final frame that we see her story from the eyes of the object of her affection: Stefan Brand. It is this that is probably the most crucial aspect of Ophüls’ (and, of course, Zweig’s) storytelling.
I think we often dismiss the idea of an unreliable narrator in film; we often ask ourselves: surely if we the audience saw it happen before our eyes, we can take it is as true? Not that I am suggesting Lisa is out-and-out lying to us, (if we were to assume that for every movie, why would one even bother) but I do believe she paints herself as she would want the world to see her; she leaves out less favourable details, and maximises her strongest and most praiseworthy characteristics.
We are made to feel great sympathy for Miss Berndle, but if we give her plight only the tiniest bit of thought it would become obvious that she is frankly a bit of a loon. “Night after night” we are told fleetingly, she stands on the street of his home, waiting for only a glimpse of him. Yet we never see this borderline insanity, but only the fruit of it: the ultimate meeting with Stephan.
As for her innocence and fragility at the hands of the treacherous Brand, it too is open to interpretation. Is a woman who stands up to her parents, who sets up for herself in the big city, and who ultimately bags a kindly (not to mention obscenely wealthy) gentleman, is that a woman who is truly helpless and at the mercy of others? I think the answer is quite clear.
I would also like to draw attention to two particularly compelling scenes, the first depicting Lisa at 17 watching Brand and an unknown lover of his ascending the stairs to his apartment, the second showing Lisa herself with Brand for the first time. The camera pans in exactly the same way from exactly the same position; even the way the figures are in relation to each other are virtually identical. This begs a few questions. Is Lisa projecting her own fantasies onto our screen? Does she consider herself, perhaps does she want to consider herself, just another woman to Mr Brand?
Letter from an Unknown Woman is obviously an interesting movie, and despite my “suspicions” (it was there…I took it) about Fontaine’s character I do not think it detracts from the film’s beauty in any way. To me, it is indeed a romance, if not quite in the conventional sense. Both Lisa and Stefan are, at least to some extent certainly, in love with their illusions. She in a more obvious manner, but he also for believing in his superficial happiness, as well as the great confidence he has in his natural abilities as a performer.
The scene in the make-believe railway carriage in which the two ride through to various countries, sampling the painted views through their window, makes for a perfect symbol for their fantasies. It is, I believe, this element of the film that is the real tragedy. Stefan and Lisa are lost in their delusions about themselves and the world around them. However, when they choose finally to confront their realities, it is also ironically what leads them to their downfall.