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It is often said that ‘Love hurts’, ‘love conquers all’, and ‘it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’. Hollywood films often approach the complex and contradictory topic of romance in disappointingly simple terms; boy meets girl, instant attraction, and obstacles that are inevitably overcome. One film from Hollywood’s golden age, however, shows how love can be an ugly, consuming, and selfish thing that doesn’t always overcome after all. 1948’s Letter From an Unknown Woman shows the way in which the life of one impressionable woman is completely devoured by her adoration for a man who can never remember that she exists, let alone return her affections.
The story begins in 1900 as former concert pianist turned jet setting playboy, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), learns that he has been challenged to a duel by the husband of one of his many conquests. While Brand convinces his friends that he will bravely face the challenge, he later confides to his servant (Art Smith) that he has no intentions of attending the duel, and instead plans to safely leave town before dawn. The servant then hands Stefan a letter that came while he was out, which launches the film into a flashback that takes up the majority of its running time. The letter is revealed to have been written by a dying woman named Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) and chronicles her love story with Stefan over the course of twenty five years. In her letter, Lisa explains how she first encountered him when she was fourteen and he moved into an apartment one floor above her own. During this time, she nurses her schoolgirl crush and spends her days attempting to make herself worthy of his affection by attending classes in etiquette and dancing, while devoting her nights to listening outside his apartment door as he practices his compositions. Eventually, however, this routine is disturbed when Lisa’s widowed mother accepts a proposal to remarry, forcing the family to move from Vienna to a distant small town. Distraught at the prospect of losing her connection to her idol, Lisa rebels by first insisting that she won’t move, and then running away when her mother and stepfather prepare to board their train out of the city. Lisa considers her escape a success until she returns to her apartment building only to find Stefan escorting another woman back to his apartment for the night. Crushed, Lisa resigns herself to her new life until she is approached by a young lieutenant (John Good) who asks her to marry him. Despite the man’s kindness and honorable intentions towards her, Lisa refuses his proposal and insists that she is already engaged to someone else in Vienna whom her parents don’t know about. After this sabotage of their plans for her, Lisa’s parents give up on trying to reason with her and allow her to return to Vienna, where she obtains a job modeling dresses in a seamstress’ shop. Unlike her coworkers, who use their jobs to attract wealthy men, Lisa leads a reclusive life in which she is entirely devoted to the elusive Stefan. After months of spending her nights waiting outside of his building to listen to him play, Lisa finally has a chance meeting with Stefan, which leads to him asking her out for a date. After a magical night of visiting a local fair, dinner, and dancing, Lisa reaches her childhood goal of becoming the latest woman to be invited back to his apartment. The next morning, he informs her that he has to leave for a concert in Milan that he ‘forgot’ about and asks her to see him off at the train, promising to return in two weeks. Despite his promise, Stefan never returns and all that Lisa has left of him is his illegitimate son (Leo B. Pessin) whom she gives birth to in secret. Years later, Lisa has remarried and provided a stable life for her son only to have her new life put in danger when her path crosses with Stefan’s once again.
Unlike most romances, which portray love as a beautiful, transforming, experience, Letter From an Unknown Woman instead focuses upon the shortcomings and fickleness of love. While most romances show the leading couple elevated by their love to become better people living more fulfilled lives, Stefan continues to be the same frivolous womanizer at the film’s finish that he was at its start, and Lisa’s life steadily declines as she continues to pursue her unrequited love for him. Although his life remains largely unchanged by their acquaintance, she eventually destroys not one but two chances at a respectable marriage, loses her job, and becomes a single mother (in a time when such situations were socially unacceptable), all in her vain pursuit of a man to whom she means nothing but temporary amusement. Through its unequal love story, the film reiterates the simple truth that loving does not guarantee that either one will be loved in return or that the object of one’s affection will be deserving of that love. As a result, the film shows a more adult approach to the trials and tribulations that too often accompany real life love stories.
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Unfortunately, although the film’s premise of a tragic one-sided love story is unique, its execution prevents it from being truly realistic. While Lisa tells a compelling and detailed account of her life-long romance, her narration does not allow the viewer to gain a deeper understanding of her feelings or motives. As a result, the audience never learns what attracted Lisa to Stefan in the first place, or what it is about him that leads her to remain slavishly devoted to him regardless of his shoddy treatment of her. The film hints that it is Stefan’s musical talent that is the key to Lisa’s childhood attraction and later full blown obsession, but the story never differentiates between her adoration for his music and her awe at his celebrity. This in turn makes Lisa’s ‘love’ ring false, as she continues to remain stubbornly fixated on a man whom she never really knows anything about. This is not the fault of Joan Fontaine, who aptly portrays Lisa as she grows from innocent child to wronged woman, but the film’s script which treats its heroine’s motivation as a mere afterthought. As a result, Lisa’s love story reads more like a pathological obsession that would befit a psychological thriller like Fatal Attraction than the genuine, self sacrificing, love that the script demands.
The film’s performances are uniformly excellent, lending superb support to a sometimes unbelievable script. Mady Christians and Howard Freeman as Lisa’s concerned parents and Carol Yorke as Lisa’s childhood friend provide the film’s beginning with necessary grounding as they try to first understand, and then reason with, the willful Lisa. Similarly Marcel Journet portrays Lisa’s husband as an excellent foil to his obsessed wife, as he provides a life of love and leisure to her and her son, despite his knowledge that she will never be able to return his feelings. Art Smith stands out as Stefan’s mute servant, whose friendship brings a level of humanity to Stefan’s frivolous life, despite the fact that he never utters a single line. Finally, Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan are both believable and human in their portrait of unattainable love. Fontaine perfectly captures the mixture of stubbornness and innocent naivete that are essential to Lisa’s character. Through her heartfelt performance, Fontaine makes Lisa an intriguing, if not entirely relatable, character who garners more of viewers’ interest than frustration or pity despite her self-destructive actions. Similarly, Louis Jourdan makes Stefan an understandable and almost likable character, despite his constant thoughtlessness, by imbuing him with amiable charm. As a result, while in another actor’s hands Stefan would be callous or cruel, Jourdan makes him too childishly self-absorbed to even notice the drastic consequences of his actions.
While their love does not conquer life’s hardships, Lisa and Stefan’s affair remains one of the most unusual and fascinating romances ever put to celluloid. Through their multidimensional performances, Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan make the central lovers more than just types and bring a level of genuine tragedy and honest emotion to the film’s proceedings. While its heroine and her all-consuming love remain enigmatic, the film manages to maturely portray the pitfalls and degradations that love has all too often led to, and refuses to lower its story to sentimentality or easy answers. As a result, Letter From an Unknown Woman is far more memorable than its hero’s convenient memory loss would suggest, and is a film that is certainly worth getting to know.
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