Letter From an Unknown Woman

(Max Ophüls, USA, 1948)


Stefan (Louis Jourdan), a concert pianist and gentleman dandy in turn of the century Vienna, arrives home after yet another evening of dissipation. His mute servant hands him a letter. It is from a woman, and its first words well and truly halt him in his tracks: "By the time you read this, I will be dead."

What unfolds from this extraordinary opening has more than a fair claim to be not only the best film of director Max Ophüls, and a supreme achievement in the often unfairly maligned genre of melodrama, but also one of the greatest films in world cinema history. It is, in its own terms, one of the few movies that deserve to be rated as perfect, right down to the smallest detail.

Superbly adapted from Stefan Zweig’s novella by Howard Koch, this is the apotheosis of doomed-love fiction. Flashing back to trace the hopeless infatuation of young Lisa (Joan Fontaine) for Stefan, Ophüls gives us a vivid, heartbreaking portrait of a love that should never have been: her naïve romanticism of artistic men mismatched with his indifferent objectification of available women adds up to gloomy tragedy. Ophüls’ intuitive grasp of the inequity of gender roles in 20th century Western society is still breathtaking in its insight.

Ophüls constructs a most exquisitely poised work. While encouraging us to identify with Lisa’s longing, and the dreams of a whole society fed by its popular culture (a mobile scenic backdrop standing in for a later era’s movies), the film at the same time provides a trenchant and devastating critique of the myth and ideology of romantic love. Our understanding of the tale hinges on its delicate shifts in mood and viewpoint.

Relentlessly and hypnotically, Ophüls’ mise en scène strips away the veils of illusion that enswathe Lisa and, indeed, so many seemingly similar Hollywood love stories. Either the staging reveals shows the banal conditions of reality that underwrite these flights of fantasy, or the camera suggests, in subtle positionings and movements slightly detached from the story’s world, a knowing perspective that eludes the characters.

The film is a triumph not just of meaningful, expressive style, but also of purposive narrative structure. With the aid of a poignant, pared down voice-over narration from Lisa, decades are bridged and key years artfully skipped thanks to a patterning of significant details arranged as motifs, concentrated in repeated gestures (such as the giving of a flower), lines of dialogue (references to passing time are ubiquitous) and key objects (the staircase leading to Stefan’s apartment).

By the time Ophüls reaches a Hollywood staple – the ghost-like apparition of young Lisa at last conjured in Stefan’s memory – the cliché is gloriously transcended, and tears overcome even those modern viewers who resist such old-fashioned soapies.

This is an inexhaustibly rich film, one that has drawn cinephile after cinephile to attempt to unravel its themes, patterns, suggestions and ironies. But no amount of close analysis can ever extinguish the rich, tearing emotion that this masterpiece elicits.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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