Saturday, April 19, 2008

Letter from an Unknown Woman

Max Ophuls' 1948 classic Letter from an Unknown Woman should be the last stop for all connoisseurs of doomed love and extreme fatalism. Actually the film remains exquisite even for those people who are, like me (on bad days at least), suspicious of all the sentimentality that goes with the standard formula. It is actually very hard to write about the film without making it sound ridiculous. There is something very mysterious and magical about it. It is more like a film-version of a piece of music, or actually, an opera.

The film is based on a short story of the same name by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. The whole story is available on the internet though the translation looks questionable. Zweig's novel Beware of Pity is still lying unread on my reading pile. Actually the story lacks the magic of the film. First at the heart of the story is the "unknown woman" herself who is made alive by a terrific Joan Fontaine who is at her best doing her shy and tremulous young girl act. (She played similar roles in two Hitchcock classics too - Rebecca and Suspicion.) And second, and more important, is the brilliant way the film uses music - both diegetic and extra-diegetic - as expected for a story set in Vienna. The music provides the emotional resonance and gives it an "aura" which the story on its own doesn't have. In particular the central theme which uses a composition of Liszt - it's been haunting me ever since I heard it in the film.

I wanted to write some serious things about romanticism, masochism, fatalism and why the film left such a bitter aftertaste in me. But really I don't know what to say...

It seems someone has put the entire movie on youtube. Not the best way to watch it but the first part here.

3 comments:

Puccinio said...

It's a beautiful film. Max Ophuls' films in any case don't ever make sense plot-wise. He's in a way like an upmarquet Douglas Sirk(they were pals).

Ophuls' ''Letter From An Unknown Woman'' is the quintessential romantic film in both story and style as well as a eulogy. The film was made in America after all and the Vienna of the film as Ophuls well knew was long, long gone. And the carnival fair ride is beauitful with the world going around them.

Alok said...

I tried writing in a little detail about what I liked but really couldn't find a way to put it in words... it is very different from Sirk's films (the one that I have seen - All that Heaven Allows) and also other hollywood melodrama and "women's films", even though you can find the same basic plot in so many of those films. It also doesn't really belong to the romantic genre .. though again individual scenes taken in isolation do fit the description (that wonderful carnival scene for example) of what a romantic scene should be.

The fatalism, sense of doom and mystery is there in a few noir films of that era... it is different in the way it sticks to the female perspective. but again really its romanticism is in a totally different league.

may be i am only speaking for myself but the irony felt so extreme to me that i couldn't think of it as a eulogy or a celebration of romantic spirit. in one scene her husband asks her if things like honour and decency don't matter to her at all. to which she replies that she has thought about it thousand times but still can't help it... the film has a very ironical view of this kind of fatalism, it can even be called critical, definitely not a eulogy.

Puccinio said...

What I meant is that like Sirk, his plots are often cornball on paper but come alive on the screen. The best example is ''Madame de...'', where the whole concept of the earrings comes of obviously as a device if you read about it but seen on screen it's sparkling.

Sirk's movies often had the worst possible plots(''Magnificent Obsession'' taking the cake) but on screen it works almost in spite of it.

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It also doesn't really belong to the romantic genre .. though again individual scenes taken in isolation do fit the description (that wonderful carnival scene for example) of what a romantic scene should be.
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By romantic I meant in the sense of 19th Century Romanticism, the romanticism of Shelley, Byron, Lizst, Beethoven, Victor Hugo et al. That attitude to life which is both a sentimental attitude to fatalism and a critical attitude to the assumptions people take for granted. Irony is central to romanticism.

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to which she replies that she has thought about it thousand times but still can't help it... the film has a very ironical view of this kind of fatalism, it can even be called critical, definitely not a eulogy.
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Yes but the action of the letter reader to go with the duel in the end is not looked at uncritically.