Monday, December 03, 2007

Letter From An Unknown Woman

I saw Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) this weekend. What can I say about it? Shall I throw the word "sublime" around a lot in this post? I think I shall.

Plotwise, the film is pure melodrama. The story revolves around lovelorn schoolgirl Lisa (Joan Fontaine) and the object of her desire, self-obsessed concert pianist Stefan (Louis Jourdan). But this is a perfect melodrama, perhaps the perfect melodrama, certainly among the very best of the genre. In a cheap melodrama, we may laugh at the characters on screen, we are certainly detached. But in a successful tragedy, we are right there with them, forgetting for a moment the supreme artifice, even overlooking what is often infuriating stupidity on the part of the characters (no, Juliet, don't drink it! it's poison!). Tragic heroines are by nature impractical.

There's a scene in the film where Fontaine's character attends the opera (I'm pretty sure it's the Magic Flute) and it occurred to me while watching it that this film is like an opera: the story is melodramatic, characters are frustratingly blinded to reality, and sometimes individual moments may seem (at first glance) over the top but in the end, the result is sublime.

The scene where Fontaine finds out Jourdan is just feeding her platitudes, for example, is one of the most devastating things I've ever seen. With a single phrase, he makes her realize she's wasted an entire lifetime on false hopes. Sublime indeed.

Ophuls' abilities as a director are obvious throughout: tropes of framing and artifice make us aware of Jourdan's theatrical world and his inability to see or feel anything real; the repetition of certain themes leads the story around in graceful patterns, like dancers tracing circles on the floor (trains, travel, train travel); the mise-en-scene is perfect -- I loved the economical use of studio sets to set up a circumscribed world that comments on the heroine's single-minded focus on her man -- and the performances are astonishing; I'm not familiar with the actors, but I was blown away by Joan Fontaine (particularly after she stopped playing a teenager and let a little bitterness and discontent mingle with her longing). Plus the writing is great: the dialogue, by turns witty and heartbreaking, is marvelous.

I found this remark in the BAM program notes, and I think it sums up how I feel about this melodrama:

"Some critics dismissed his inimitable style as superficial, like many of the characters he portrays. Yet, as a character from The Earrings of Madame de… says, it is 'only superficially superficial.'"

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