Saturday, 13 March 2010

Letter From an Unknown Woman

I've been swamped with work, hence the silence here, but now my time is more manageable.

One of the greatest of all films, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), has been re-released in Britain this month, and it's an opportunity not to be missed by anyone. I've seen it many times but yet I had to see it again, and it was just as perfect as ever. It's based on a short story by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, written for the screen by Howard Koch and Max Ophüls, and of course directed by Ophüls, one of the greatest of filmmakers, in Germany, the US and France.

This is the kind of movie where the story is so utterly unimportant that I'm even reluctant to say what the film is about. What matters is the camera movements, the voices, gestures and looks of the characters, and the milieu. Suffice to say that it's about tragic love in Vienna around 1900, that Lisa (Joan Fontaine) loves Stefan (Louis Jourdan), but he never realise it until it's too late.

The film is only 88 minutes long, but those 88 minutes are handled so beautifully it's like it was made by angels. The compositions, the pacing and the graceful movements, both of the camera and of the people in the shots, are so brilliant it's enough to bring tears to your eyes. And on top of that there's the acting by Jourdan and especially Joan Fontaine. Her shy, nervous personality, so dedicated and yet so hesitant, is both very moving and somewhat scary. It's debatable whether or not she is really mentally stable, in the sense that her fixation with Stefan is clearly unhealthy. And Stefan, who goes from a man in full possession of his powers, a man who believes himself to be flawless, to a man who loses everything without even understanding why, is also very moving.

And with this material, Ophüls and his cameraman Franz Planer (credited as Frank Planer), builds an elaborate mise-en-scène, with shadows like spiderwebs, and repetition of scenes that add to the poignancy and tragedy in the story. An example of this is one early scene we see Stefan entering his home with a woman, from the perspective of Lisa hidden on a staircase. Later in the film the camera is in the same position, although now the woman Stefan brings home is Lisa, and there is no one hiding on the staircase, no one but us. A passing moment of happiness.

This is a film about dreams and make-belief, and perhaps the central sequence in the film is when Lisa and Stefan, on a first date, takes a fake train journey to, first, Venice and then Switzerland, staged in an amusement park in Vienna. This is a very cinematic scene, and it is not in Zweig's short story.

What adds to the tragedy and the complexity of the film is the fact that although Lisa is the one hopelessly and selflessly in love, she is also the one with insight and awareness. She knows both herself and Stefan better than he does, and yet she's incapable of controlling herself when he shows up.

As she says in Zweig's novella: "I know that what I am writing here is a record of grotesque absurdities, of a girl's extravagant fantasies. I ought to be ashamed of them; but I am not ashamed, for never was my love purer and more passionate than at this time."

Coincidentally, there's a review in today's Guardian of another short story by Zweig, Fear, and in it the critic debates with both himself and a critical article in The London Review of Books on whether Zweig was a good writer. Michael Hofmann in The London Review of Books says vehemently No!. But Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian is much more sympathetic, and ends the review with the words "Make up your own minds." Personally I love Zweig's The World of Yesterday, but the short stories are of lesser quality, at least the ones I've read. And, as Lezard, I much prefer Arthur Schnitzler of that time and place (Vienna in the beginning of the previous century). But none of Schnitzler's stories ever became such a flawless cinematic masterpiece as Letter from an Unknown Woman. Surely even Hofmann would agree with that?

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