Letter From An Unknown Woman

After a long period of closure Birmingham’s main ‘arthouse’ cinema at the Midlands Arts Centre (MAC) has reopened. Actually the whole of MAC has been resigned/redecorated/refitted and it is now a much more pleasant and airy space. I don’t think they have done that much to the cinema, but it does mean that foreign language/independent/reissues have somewhere to be shown in Birmingham. In fact the lack of such a cinema was the main blight on Birmingham’s cultural map (there is The Electric – see https://movingtoyshop.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/october-movies/ but it is very inaccessible). Anyway I do intend to start going to more movies than I have done now I have a wider selection.

And first off came a true classic – the reissued print of Max Ophuls Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948). This was pure pleasure. For me the outstanding feature of this movie is the crossing of full-bodied European R/romanticism with a Noir/Expressionist cinematic sensibility and Ophuls’ characteristic mastery of the tracking shot. Large parts of the film are visually dark; much of it occurs at night. And this is no simple symbolic equation of the night/dark with the bad and unhappy: far from it, the great ‘happy’ sequence when the lovers actually spend time together is at night, the provincial town which is seen as the epitome of human limitation and stuffiness is shot in bright day.

Rather than advancing my own thesis directly however, I am going to spend my time in dialogue with Ellen Moody’s wonderful, rich consideration of the film which can be found at http://misssylviadrake.livejournal.com/2566.html. Ellen draws particular comparisons with Sense and Sensibility and with Brief Encounter, and she has also read Stefan Zweig’s original story, which I have not. There is one obvious and utterly crucial difference between the story and the film apparently. In the story when Lisa and Stefan (the Stefan of the story!) meet again after 10 years apart – what Ellen calls their ‘second night’ – in the story they make love again. In the film, and the scene is almost unwatchable in its heartrending poignancy,  Stefan does not recognise Lisa and treats her as he obviously has countless other woman, as a sex object to be treated with the paraphernalia, food and drink and inconsequential chat and flattery, of seduction (he sends his deaf-mute servant – who has instantly recognised Lisa – out for the food in what is clearly a well-oiled routine): it is this which, understandably breaks Lisa’s heart. Ellen writes of this “In the movie on the second night she flees (it would then be adultery) on the grounds he doesn’t remember her,” with the implication I think (I hope I am not misreading Ellen) that the movie would not have wanted to portray actual adultery in the Hollywood of the 1940’s. Now I recognise that there may be an element of truh in this but it seems to me that…

  • the film has already shown us Lisa committing ‘moral’ adultery by choosing Stefan over her husband : she is viciously punished for this because she sends her son away and he catches typhus on the train and subsequently dies (this punishment is so over the top and unpleasant that I am not sure it is not some kind of satire of this kind of story?)
  • once Lisa has had her heart broken then there is nothing for her but to die – which she does catching typhus as she nurses her son. In this understanding the son almost has to die as a plot device (because he could not be left motherless) ; but crucially Lisa’s death is not a moral punishment but the only logically and emotionally possible way for her story to end.

Ellen also writes with concision ‘By contrast, Letter feels like “old Europe.” ‘. I think this is spot on. By chance and coincidence I am reading E.H. Carr’s The Romantic Exiles about the lives of Herzen and his circle in mid-19thC Europe. Central to the book is an account of the various romantic entanglements, above all between the Herzens and the Herweghs, all of which ended at best unhappily, in which the characters were involved. They, and especially the women, attempted to live their lives by the highest possible dictates of Romantic Idealism, and their Bible was the work of Georges Sand. Really before I read this book and some of the letters which it contains I would have said that such prose and such a mode of life could only exist in fiction. Apart from demonstrating my ignorance of Sand’s cultural and social importance this also shows that in some circles – and I am certainly not claiming this as a major strand – the identification of Romanticism and romanticism was a living reality. In this strand of thought ‘Love’ (and a very idealistic concept of it at that) was the highest, if not only, God or Goddess, and to oppose its path was to be a reactionary of the worst hue. This is exactly the kind of sensibility which it seems to me drenches Letter From An Unknown Woman. I can see (loath though I am to venture into waters Austenian) that it is relevant to SandS – although I am sure the fictional Marianne would certainly not have gone as far as the factual Natalie Herzen.

But it is Ellen’s brilliant contrast with Brief Encounter which I think is of the most use…

It should be placed with Brief Encounter — as a contrast for the latter is for repression and realistic, though at the close of Letters the woman has certainly suffered and been punished. By contrast, Laura returns to her husband, her children and she survive in peace. But perhaps we are to think she might spend a little time regretting her choice? Not in the film as constructed.

The thing I am unsure about is the punishment. I have already started to argue about this above, but I want to pursue the matter because it does seem central to me.  In Brief Encounter the morality is fairly stark – Laura is faced with a choice between acting wrongly (running off with Alec) and acting rightly (staying with her husband). Love is opposed to duty and in the equation here duty is clearly presented as being morally superior: reason must triumph over emotion. This is the opposite of Romantic Idealism (it is also worth noting that Brief Encounter does not duck the question which – sorry Austenites – SandS may be said to do by making Willoughby a rotten human being: it is not implied that Alec is anything other than decent and Laura probably would have been happier with him than she will be with her husband, where Marianne’s life with Willoughby would obviously be a misery – and my apologies if this is a simplistic misreading). Now Letter From An Unknown Woman operates in wholly different moral universe. Once again love and duty are opposed but, I think, the implication is that Lisa is wholly right to choose love. Yes this choice ends tragically and badly, but that is because things of this world do end tragically and badly. For Lisa to have chosen differently, to put Love and happiness second, would have been – to stray for a moment into Existentialism – to act in bad faith, to be inauthentic and hence morally inferior. In this interpretation and construction Lisa is not punished for her decision: her death is in a way a fulfilment.

Now of course presenting this interpretation does not mean I endorse the morality involved. Ellen gives her own judgement when she says “I do not think I am susceptible to this kind of thing nor really ever was.” I don’t think I am either. Or at least not to this kind of idealisation of abstract ‘Love’.  Now I want to be quick to say that my own scepticism is at least in part fuelled by what is very probably a gender-driven belief that it is the abstraction that, in large part, I  find so difficult. I just cannot conceive of love, or at least attraction, without some physical element, some lust in the first place. It is vital to note that in Letter From An Unknown Woman Lisa falls in love with the sound of Stefan’s piano-playing before she ever sees him. This emphasises the idealist nature of her Love. It is most definitely not a carnal matter. And it is only she who is able to really understand and encourage his genius: when he does not return to her his musician-ship declines and eventually deserts him. All part of the same R/romantic mythos. Indeed one can go a little further than this and say that physicality, sex, unless accompanied by Love (though not marriage) is a positive moral evil. This is a development of the idea out of Sand, which the Exiles followed, that to sleep with a husband one did not ‘love’ was prostitution (yes the idea was around in the 19thC). That again is why Lisa makes the ‘right’ choice (and it is interesting that she very clearly has a separate bed-room from her husband).

So what are we to make of this as a ‘women’s film’? As Ellen observes….

Now why do I outline it: because if made by men and under the aegis of a male hegemony, it is understood as woman’s film. It’s made for women and I am to suppose they made it a hit. But it is utterly subversive.

I think, as should be clear from all I have argued above, that I wholly agree about its subversiveness. But how does this relate to its treatment of men and women? Is there a double-standard? How does this operate? I think – and my suggestions are tentative here – that there is one, but of a very peculiar sort. Lisa is a privileged human being in that she operates at a higher level than anyone else in the film. Her husband is dull and dim (and military – and the military are shown here as absurd and pompous), Stefan is a womaniser and a drunk, Lisa’s mother and step-father are figures of bourgeois fun, her fellow mannequins are presented as one step above prostitutes. It is only Lisa who rises above all this, who operates on the higher plane of idealism (and Joan Fontaine is utterly brilliant in the part – typically she was not even Oscar nominated! – it is one of the great Hollywood performances : Ellen talks of her ‘evasive angular face’ but I think I would say that she conveys, above all, a sense of separateness from the world around her). Now does the film endorse or deride or punish this idealism? I believe that one could find arguments for all three attitudes. The famous train-ride scene is a classic example – this is a fairground attraction where Stefan and Lisa sit in a carriage and changing panoramas of various destinations are drawn past the window: periodically the train ‘stops’ and Stefan gets out of the carriage to order another ‘journey’ – we are shown him paying the money to an old woman who shouts an order to an old man, who then has to start pedalling to make the scenery move. This scene might be seen as satiric, and it is funny, but the instant we get back inside the carriage with Lisa we are back in a world of heightened seriousness and emotion. It is worth remarking that the film is punctuated by comic scenes (the best of them featuring an absurd brass band). So perhaps Ophuls himself was undecided on the question. I think that ultimately however one has, as nearly always, to go with the film’s ending and one’s reaction to it. My sense is that Lisa is vindicated – her death is a triumph and her letter means that Stefan will redeem himself too – also by dying (at the hands of her husband in a duel). Now this may very well be ‘sick’ as Ellen also remarks…’It is a work of art and in its (maybe very sick) way perfect of its kind.’ I would tend to agree and am always suspicious about anything which glorifies death. But that is another aspect of some shades of R/romantic ideology. And I would certainly say that my own feeling about the ending is that it is certainly not condemnatory of Lisa – quite the contrary. The truly tragic scene is that in which she finds her idol is just a man with feet of clay: her death is a consequence of the death of her idealism, but her death, by restoring Stefan to what he was, is a triumph of idealism.

In conclusion I can only echo Ellen’s wonderful words…

I doubt I’m beginning to do justice to why this is a remarkable film. My instinct is it is because it’s madness, over the top with no stops anywhere.

That is exactly how I feel. This is a movie of immense power and charm both visually and emotionally. It is also, as I hope my dialogue with Ellen’s original thought has shown,  a movie of ideas.

2 thoughts on “Letter From An Unknown Woman

  1. ellenandjim

    An extraordinary meditation, Nick. What makes it transcendent and escape my cavils, both pragmatic and realistic, is your contextualizing it with the 19th century world of romantic art. My feeling is the letters, novels, and memoirs these people wrote are believed in by them as _art_; that is they only half-believe what they write as part of a living life. They dismiss the real physical world, life, its sordidness and compromises and all the venal fleeting motives and create another realm they know doesn’t quite exist. We can see this best in their music.

    On some of our disagreements: the comment about not allowing adultery in the movie refers to how the studio or film-makers expected the average movie-goer to react. To the average movie-goer literal adultery and imaginative are worlds apart. If a woman doesn’t go to bed with the man, it’s not “cheating” (how I loathe that stupid word used in the way it usually is, but it’s the word used by so many people for sexual intercourse with someone other than a spouse). I agree with you but the average movie-goer would not begin to listen to you.

    Quite right on Austen: she’s evasive, very evasive, partly because she’s careful not to offend her family and because she’s narrow herself about literal sex. In all her fictions moral people make one another happy and amoral ones don’t; that holds true of many 18th century English writers (Fielding comes to mind). The French go beyond this.

    There is in this film a kind of paean to death, a wish for oblivion itself; this is part of what makes the ending happy — I admit I do not call _Clarissa_ sick when I say she desires death as oblivion from the viciousness she finds herself confronted with at every turn, but the problem with Ophuls is that the heroine was not tortured by cruel and mean people at every turn. It may be said she was bored and wanted to soar; the reply comes from the Faustus story where the hero discovered that his dreams when realized were repeatedly fragments of sordid appetite, he could not get beyond his animal humanity. That’s why it’s so important (to return to 19th century romanticism) that the love be recognized as not carnal but spiritual.

    As I wrote and you agree with me I see, this is a sight too refined for me. I do appreciate the ethical Mr Knightley for safety and quiet _real_ content.


  2. Nick

    Many, many thanks Ellen. As ever your comments and insights help me clarify my thoughts.

    I do see the point about Hollywood audiences. I am just still unsure as to whether Ophuls changed the story here for commercial or artistic purposes. Well I don’t suppose we will ever know unless there is an interview or similar somewhere!

    And I do understand your point about the sickness. Indeed I feel this strongly – I do not really have any patience with this aspect/trope of Romanticism. I think I have written before about my dislike of Keats’ ‘half in love with easeful death’ etc. – my dislike comes out of personal experience. I have been more than half in love with easeful death, to the extent of making an attempt at it. The reality is that to be in such a state is to be in mental torment, and the reality of the attempts is that they are messy, unpleasant and very corporeal ; as well of course as causing a great deal of misery and trouble for other people. This may sound like absurd empiricism but I do not think it is so. Of course, as you say, for some Romantics it was a part of their rejection of this world – carried to its ultimate conclusion, escape from the world through death. But I cannot really be sympathetic to anything which endorses this ideology. So I think I would agree that there is a sickness at the heart of the film. This does not stop me revelling in its artistic mastery though!

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