Letter from an Unknown Woman Max Ophuls (USA; 1948) Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan
viewed 1st Jan 2024 on BBC 2
and the dead speak to the living
Based on a Stephan Zweig novel, Max Ophuls ‘Letter from an Unknown Woman’ is a ‘love’ film that penetrates into the core of obsessive desire. Ophuls whilst not staying true to the nature of Zweig’s uncompromising male protagonist, nevertheless delivers a movie that picks up the story’s initial proposition of fateful infatuation and follows it through to its logical conclusion: the bliss of death.
Ophuls ‘Letter from…’ scenario formulates time for Lisa as a series of crystallised events. Most films encompassing passion or love render the experience as a series of naturalistic events, each with their own particular resonance, events that are bound within a strict passage of time. Ophuls recalibrates sequential time as emotional time, time as crystallised by the emotions. Outside the intensities of the experience of being in direct contact with Stefan the object of her worship, Lisa’s days and nights slip into the void of inexistence.
Told by Lisa’s voice over as she reads the eponymous letter she has sent to Stefan, her whole life from girl to death bed has been lived only for the moments of her several meetings with him. Whilst with Stefan, Lisa is in ecstasy; removed from his presence, she is as one of the dead, mechanically going through the motions of being alive. The letter is her last expressive gesture, testament to the clarity of her rapture in suffering the ‘Passion of Lisa’.
Time for Lisa has been compressed into the singularity of a vision, a vision of love becoming worship, that for her ‘splits’ time forever. Her experience is the opposite of an epiphany. Epiphany is an experience in time that changes everything so that life and perception open up new vistas taking the individual on new paths through an ever unravelling renewed world. Lisa’s moment of vision, the vision of Stefan as the ultimate object of her love/worship entraps her in a beatific quasi religious moment that never expands never develops. The vision of Stefan simply reduces her life to the infinite quest of trying to renew repeat replicate or recapture that singular moment. She is trapped in a time crystal. To some extent her life takes on a form similar to that of a heroine addict or a person who has had an intense numinous experience. What is yearned for, desired above all else is to achieve the moment once again, a repetition, to capture the same rapturous intensity of that first experience. The heroine addict seeks to repeat the glorious sensation of the first hit; the feeling of being charged with the numinous, drives a need to re-experience this elation, by prayer by flagellation to remove all obstacles imagined or real, to arrive at this goal.
There is no logic in Lisa’s total infatuation. There are few clues as to its source. Lisa has experienced instantaneously some ego shattering truth. It’s a vision which like a cancer will grow within her and eventually overwhelm her. There is no why; there is only the spectacle of a self consumed by an internalised daemon. In another form, in another context, with another kind of vision she might have been a saint.
Ophuls creates for Lisa the necessary filmic vehicle for the experience of her life. ‘Letter from…’ is structured purely about her crystallised moments and realisations. Her whole life compacted into her moments, her experiences of and with Stefan. The first rapture occurs when she is a girl. Stefan, a concert pianist, moves into an apartment in the same building. Stricken by his presence and the world his presence creates, she watches him from afar, listens to him playing, secretly enters his home. Like a spy she watches secreting her passion never interacting with him except one delirious moment where she holds open the entrance door for Stefan: he oblivious she consumed. Growing up marriage childbirth all pass by as in a grey void. Orphuls’ film expands and fills out the scenario with Lisa’s brief episodes with the object of her worship. The one night stand which makes her pregnant; her abandonment of her husband as she glimpses Stefan at the opera and makes one last effort to re-experience the rapture. And of course, the final chapter her final letter: the statement of her idealised love/worship of this indifferent being unaware of her until the letter which like cupid’s arrow pierces him.
So as Lisa’s life time isn’t a continuum a series of events, but rather a number of crystallised moments. Ironically in relation to Stefan whose life has been ‘one thing after another’ her letter becomes a defining event in his life. (Orphuls script deviates radically here from the Stefan Zweig story which ends on a colder note). After reading Lisa’s letter, Stefan’s life also crystallises into a life / death decision: he changes his mind about running away from the challenge of Lisa’s husband, and accepts the duel.
Opus shooting of ‘Letter from…’ underpins the emotionally episodic nature of Lisa’s life. Lisa’s actual life is an internality, Ophuls contrasts this by filming the context of her life in Vienna as a vivid externality. The street scenes, the detailing of interiors and exteriors are caught in movement using tracks and cranes linking the bustle and immanency of life to Lisa’s immobility. Much of the filming of Lisa is in these sort of wide shots which allow the viewer to make the linkages between Lisa and the world in which she moves. The psychological weakness in the filming comprises the over long close-ups of Lisa as she hovers close by Stefan under the spell of her own enchantment. Joan Fontaine simply runs out facial expressions for her to adopt in the presence of her ‘God’.
The scripted voice over device serves the dramatic realisation of the story superbly well: the dead communicating to the living. It is certain that Billy Wilder will have seen Orphuls film. When ‘Letter from…’ was released Wilder was engaged in preparing the script for Sunset Boulevard and Orphals use of the voice over device may well have fed into his scripting of this film which of course begins with the dead man in the swimming pool introducing himself in voice over and taking us into the movie.