Letter from an Unknown Woman is as romantic a tearjerker as they come. The movie apparantly concerns the heartbreak of a young girl deceived by a serial seducer, made pregnant by him and then later meeting him as a married woman whilst still in love with him and having an affair with him. The film is told through the means of a letter that she sends to him the night before he is to duel with her husband, as she herself mortally sick is about to die. Tears coat this film, and Ophuls makes the whole impression more emotional through a subtle and thoughtful use of music, suitably for a movie set in Austria the music of Strauss, Mozart and Liszt dominates the entire film- as Alexander Dhoest argues music in this film provides a context to the descriptions of the story.
Tearjerkers are not normally profound, but this is an exception. Ophuls definitely anchors his story in the conventional realities of the early 20th Century- Lisa (our heroine) sleeps with our hero on their first night of meeting- she conceives a child whilst he unaware floats away. Her feelings are those of a young and inexperienced girl, she beleives that when men vow their eternal devotion they mean it. Whereas Stefan (our hero) is remarkably callous: he takes and she gives, she wishes to be the one woman who had never taken anything from him. Her only other passion in life seems to be her son- she loves her son with such devotion that she would marry for him to live a prosperous life. In a sense this is a film that such a luminary as Dennis Prager might find something to find joy in, all the perceptions of men and women are devoutly traditional and all the archetypes are those of the fifties and earlier periods of time. Women seem here to be soft and failing types, always reverting to love and not understanding cynical men, whereas men seem always to be toying with the emotions of women and frivolously seeking to sleep with them.
Of course such a perception is wrong and we now know is wrong, women and men are individuals with different desires and needs. The films of the forties with the figure of the lusting femme fatale was undermining it at just the point that Ophuls made his film and this film too has elements which display that this condition is a condition not of the sex but of the character. For two characters violate the Prager principle that women are innocent and loving and men are vicious and horrible. Fontaine's husband is a caring individual who treats her illegitimate child as though he was his son. Fontaine's mother is cynical and wants to get married to fortify her and her daughter's position. Whatever the truth at the time, what this film does is explore something much more interesting than the confrontation between the sexes, the confrontation between innocence and experience, feeling and frivolity.
Fontaine made a living out of playing girls who looked inexperienced and young- and in a way her performance here is very similar to her performance in Rebecca (reviewed on Bits here). What Fontaine conveys is a continual kind of tentativeness- Hitchcock made that the signature tune of a symmetrical drama of the loss of innocence and gains in power- but Ophuls is more interested in the actual substance of innocence. There is something Jane Eyreish in both Fontaine's character and Jourdain's pianist- he is Rotchester to her Eyre, crushing her with his charisma. The degree to which he has power over her is revealed when he asks her not to leave, and he responds that she will not be the one who leaves him.
The collision between the two realities is controlled by the female character. In reality its the collision between her dreams and his reality- Ophuls here gives the female character the privilege of writing her own story, she actually tells the story, all we see of the male is that he is a cad and a bounder. Lisa imagines that Stefan is truly in love with her, that he truly desires her because of some connection between their characters. Ophuls reinforces this by not letting Lisa age because she is imagining and reconstructing her history from the age of thirty backwards and so its a thirty year old woman who always appears in every shot. Until right at the end she professes that she doesn't see through his foppish exterior to the cad beneath, doesn't see that his feeling is a lie, that his descriptions of true feeling are but a folly. Symbollically at the moment her esteem for Jourdain dies so does her son, the outgrowth of that love dies at the moment that that innocence of love dies and she has to die then herself. She tells him in the letter that her life began with his entry into it and ends with his exit and her son's exit from it.
In this way Ophuls of course is subverting and playing with that notion of innocence- because of course this is Lisa's tale and has a subjective point of view. For Stefan she is one more body- but for Lisa she sees herself as the angel, the woman that is key to him. The point about the madness that Lisa endures is that her act of agression is one of silence- she allows Stefan to beleive that he is a cad- allows him to assume that role because she never says that he isn't. The courtship that she has with an officer is very different to the courtship that she has with Stefan, the one is equal, the other unequal and she seeks the masochistic. In this sense she crafts her own death.
For Jourdain the moment he receives the letter is a moment of realisation of the accuracy of Lisa's impression. It gives him a story. Throughout the film we hear of Stefan's listlessness, his inability to focus himself on music, to focus on a woman, to focus his talent and his brain on things worthy of him. Honour a code is something that he deserts at will. But of course the letter gives him a focus, it gives him a moment and a story to tell someone. Strangely the moment of his emergance into the film is the moment of his emergance into life- the moment of consciousness that Lisa says was marked by Stefan's entrance into her life is marked for Stefan by her exit.
In many ways the film therefore is a description of suicide, a double suicide predicated on strangerhood. Both characters play aggressive roles- one as the aggressive mute (the butler as a signal is a mute)- the other as a seducer who encounters on his voyage through the world a woman with a delusion about the world in which she is a powerless victim, a romantic heroine- a true Jane Eyre (who manages to have a job, snare a rich husband and all the rest).
The interplaying of innocence and experience, overlaid upon each other like interlocking patterns, is crucial to the film. Ultimately its a film written and crafted by a professed innocent, to snare an innocent villain. Ultimately what it reflects is the way that passivity is really aggressive, it attempts to make a calim upon the attention of the world as much as any attempt to wrest that attention to it. Lisa's ultimate death is as much a lunge at Stefan, as if she hd actually lunged at his all too human flesh.
Lisa ultimately is destroyed by Stefan, Stefan is ultimately also destroyed by Lisa- that is the heart of this film- the aggressiveness of innocence something everyone from either sex should heed.