Once again, Max Ophuls. Did any other man back so many hearts with so few films?
Sometimes you watch a film dealing with the story of a romance and the filmmaker will be content enough to reside in the realm of melodrama, of heightened emotions serving a tale of doomed romance - or maybe it won't turn 'doomed' per-say, but the stakes are always so monumental, incredible and just downright heightened that some in the audience may need handkerchiefs for their un-dry eyes and noses. For Max Ophuls, going past melodrama was a key thing.
The ingredients in Letter from an Unknown Woman certainly make up melodrama, and as I watched the film I thought it would just comfortably rest there. But it was in the last reel - and especially in the minutes after the end, where I could let my mind catch up with what I was feeling - that this is closer to grand opera, and it's by nature of how determined, how passionate and versatile Ophuls camera is. He is such an active participant, but by making us the audience as well, that it raises the stakes even higher. This is a fabulous but painfully sad movie.
It concerns the (mostly) unrequieted romance between Lisa (Fontaine) and Stefan (Jourdan), the latter being a concert pianist who comes to take a room with her family when she's younger. She sees him play, and see him with his swagger and confidence, and is smitten right away. Does she know really that much about him? Who cares? The piano seems to express how soulful, how achingly beautiful he is - but more than that how he is not quite happy with how far he's gotten (when he stumbles playing at one point, it seems like maybe he breaks something in disgust with himself - and later she comments on this to him, that he hasn't found what he's looking for). But she leaves with her family and she never gets to tell him who she is or how she feels. Until...
But no, the letter that Stefan is reading from is not at this point, which he comes across in his room as he is plotting to run away from a duel with a man who is after him for such and such a reason (and suffice to say you'll figure it out after a while, perhaps). They do meet some time later, when she returns to Vienna and they share one of those perfect romantic evenings that people may have in real life as well as in the movies. Unlike earlier in the story when she's shy and reserved, here she does open up a little more (though in this first real date she won't say she was there during the time they shared living quarters), and he is about the most charming guy on the planet in that moment. It's the kind of date where, I suppose this was a thing in the early 20th century, they go for a buggy ride... with the backdrop being changed by operators.
It's interesting to note that at first I didn't really notice that the backdrop was fake until the buggy first stopped. And for a split moment I wondered, 'hey, come on, can it be that cheap a production to... oh, wait, no, it's supposed to be fake.' Thinking about it more, this is kind of like a good metaphor for their relationship - it has the veneer of gorgeous scope and splendor, but when you look closer it's not real. Jourdan has to go away after their very brief whirlwind romance, and she is left with a baby. She gets married, and the story goes ahead to years later, when the child is older and Lisa is now married to a well-off man.
Again, you can see many parts of this story I've just described have the air of melodrama: a woman pining for a man she may (or may not) be able to have, and that her passions take on another light when seen through the framing - the framing is the essential thing, what sets it up as being all about the 'hindsight-is-always-20/20' aspect - that you don't know what you got until it's gone. And of course Fontaine and Jourdan are so terrific in their roles, with the former beaming with young love in the early scenes (I almost didn't recognize her in the slightly 'lower-class' get-up), and on through the middle section with her and Stefan's date, and Jourdan is... well, kind of a matinee idol, almost too good looking, if that makes sense, like deceptively the perfect guy.
A lot of the brilliance of the film comes down to its economy of storytelling - it's a brisk 83 minutes, though it doesn't feel too short while watching it - and that Ophuls is not one to ever keep things static. Even that buggy scene where they share a magical moment of connection in conversation and perhaps more, because of that backdrop we're not feeling as if this is something stagey or stolid. And yet I don't feel like the technique is there just to please Ophuls demands for a crane shot here or there or most places; the high style is there for the high emotions, that this is a woman expressing how she felt through much of her adult life, and the fact that this guy seemed to be caring for her but on a totally superficial level, and never for very long.
When I call this grand opera, I mean that it takes notions we have in everyday life and expands them into another dimension, where heart-ache is meant to be everyone's heart-ache at the 'one that got away', and then some (it's not just Lisa and her affection at stake, of course). Letter from an Unknown Woman is a tragedy of taking things for granted, of believing love at a certain level will be reciprocated, and the fluidity of style matches the fluidity of intense emotions that, when broken, become all the more gut-wrenching. That it's also set at the time it's set in adds to the feel of high hopes and dashed dreams, given where women were at in that time and place of late 19th/early 20th century Europe.