Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

Synopsis: Mellow Drama of the classiest kind. Louis Jordan and Joan Fontaine play sort of lovers in Vienna in this fin de siecle tale of very, very unrequited love.

I missed this at the recent season at BFI Southbank, so caught up on DVD. Not all restored etc. but the story doesn't lose any of its power. There is some really lovely photography in this, not least the rushing camera work when Lisa runs to say goodbye to Stefan at the station. It transported me instantly to Truffaut and Jules, Jim and Catherine's freewheeling days.

This film is an essay on how to do unrequited love. All the stops are pulled out with letter-reading-voiceover and flashback to tell the story. As we listen to Joan Fontaine's voice taking us back in time with the line "By the time you read this, I may be dead..." we can all think back to those fantasy letters we wished we had written to the one that got away, the one that just didn't get how great you were and how wonderful their life would be if only they had noticed you...

I love the way the film is structured around Lisa's memories through her letter and the way that someone can have such an impression on you (even after only meeting briefly) that you suddenly only care about what they care about, only want to read the books they read, listen to the music they listen to...

I kept asking myself whilst watching this - where is the line drawn between unrequited love and just being a crazy stalker? There are certainly stalker-ish tendencies in Lisa's behaviour and it's not really until they spend the night together that she can really shift from being Barry George to being the voice of Dorothy Parker's Two Volume Novel. Even so, there is so little for Lisa to base her love for Stefan on, she never gets the chance to test out a real relationship with him and is only really left with if only's and what if's.

We see her happily dreaming of an imaginary life with Stefan - not in the here and now but somewhere else that never actually exists and through her actions Lisa shows how if you can't live with the man of your dreams you can end up living 'for' them instead, desperately waiting for them to look your way.

The really pathetic side to this is that Lisa never gets to see Stefan's feet of clay until it's far too late. In any normal relationship, each partner gradually exposes to the other their flaws, with the other either accepting or rejecting the whole person that they are. Lisa is never given the chance to do this so she is left with only part of Stefan, a brief encounter (and doubtless many more imaginary encounters) to keep replaying over and over in her mind, driving her mad.

It is amazing how one can exist on the periphery of someone else's life, having been touched by them for only a moment and yet the reverberations and repercussions of that moment can go on forever and without conclusion. There are moments in the film when you get the impression that Lisa revels in this state. On their first (and only?) evening out together, they visit a fairground park. It is winter and Lisa tells Stefan how much she prefers it as in spring time "there would be nothing to imagine, nothing to wish for" - in this line we understand that Lisa exists purely to hope and to wish her life away, never able to exist fully in her love for Stefan.

(Another scene that illustrates this nicely is when they are on the train ride to nowhere, signifying both Lisa's lack of experience, her naivety and the strength of her imagination).

Can you be in love with someone but barely know them? Undoubtedly, yes. But that love is a million miles from the love of a fulfilled relationship. In some ways purer and in some ways an arrested development. There is also the way in which Lisa completely decieves herself as to her relationship and importance to Stefan. Just as Stefan is about to introduce himself to Lisa, she proclaims "I know who you are". There are two levels to this exchange, she does know who he is, literally speaking, but there is a foretelling of the rest of their story - the truth is that she will never know him properly but that she has already moulded a vision of him in her mind and it's this vision that really matters, right up until much later in the film.

After their brief fling, Stefan leaves Vienna and doesn't see Lisa again until years later. She has had a son, their son, and is married. They have a chance encounter at the opera (interestingly The Magic Flute - another story about disguising ourselves and lost loves) and it is ambiguous as to whether Stefan remembers Lisa or not. Lisa then visits Stefan, at which point it becomes obvious that he does not remember her. As Stefan leaves the room to fetch champagne, Lisa realises this and is devastated.

There follows what I think is the absolute killer line (and dramatic climax) of the film. Stefan jokingly asks Lisa if she is lonely as he has left the room to get the drinks and she replies "Yes, very lonely". Her worlds, both real and imaginary, come crashing down around her and she quickly leaves. She has finally been forced to see the reality of the situation, there are no more what if's as Stefan finally breaks the spell of Lisa's lifelong disillusionment.

Of course, it is Lisa herself who has willed all of this to happen and makes this clear herself by saying how nothing in life happens by chance. She has been the motivator, the impetus to action throughout and in the end it kills her. Her son dead from Typhus and Lisa now following suit, her letter to Stefan finally lays to rest a life of self-deception and torment.

See also: Brief Encounter, Journey to Italy (see below), Casablanca.

More info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040536/

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