For a long while during Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman one gets the sense that the reason the filmmaker’s camera is constantly gliding up, down, and all around his thwarted would-be lovers is because they themselves can’t find it within their constitutions to move on their own. It’s as if the self-inflicted emotional torture of one and the thoughtlessly cruel indifference of the other create a low-pressure system that displaces every single camera setup. In other words, it’s a melodramatic perfect storm.
Based on a Stefan Zweig novella, the film stars Joan Fontaine as Lisa, a plain young Viennese woman who becomes infatuated with the concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), trilling away on his baby grand in the apartment upstairs from her mother’s den. Stefan is a carefree playboy, but still manages to occupy Lisa’s every waking thought. Their paths cross one evening, and he treats her to a romantic evening in an amusement park, capped off by a, for her, years-deferred tryst that she hopes will kick-start their lives together. Sadly, he moves onto the next conquest without a second thought—or, really, a first one. Lisa gives birth to their son but remains either too proud or too idealistic to bother Stefan with the news, or perhaps she’s deluded enough to presume true love will still emerge from their chemistry, and refuses to allow for the possibility that she would be seen as an extortionist.
Ophüls’s direction is, as ever, florid and extravagant, stopping just short of ostentatious, which for some might indicate some sort of betrayal against Lisa’s cradle-to-grave reticence—which is so pronounced that one could be forgiven for thinking, during the film’s earliest scenes, that she’s been bilocated over from Johnny Belinda. There’s little to indicate that Lisa would go for a “make him see what he missed” form of retribution, but the film’s form nonetheless emerges from her subjective point of view.
The titular letter that the typhus-afflicted Lisa writes to Stefan is tinged with nostalgia and wisdom, and the film’s tone reflects her feverish attempt to summarize the disparity between the life they spent predominately apart and the life she still feels they should have spent together. That gulf is never more prominent than the lengthy scene showing their one official date, a stunning yet intimate series of stolen moments set against the backdrop of a nearly closed amusement park. Their play allows Ophüls the opportunity to indulge his self-awareness; it may as well be him putting another coin in the admission booth worker’s palm, begging her for one more rolling painted backdrop to simulate a train ride across the Alps. However, in a film filled with remarkably responsive cinematic gestures, Ophüls’s truest moment comes the moment Lisa and Stefan’s second date reveals itself to be something crushingly disappointing, a moment his roving camera freezes in its tracks.
Olive Films nail another transfer for a film that has been wanting for a North American digital release for far too long. Though there’s some damage to the print, the image contrast is impressive, though black levels are understandably a little thin. A lush, grainy picture otherwise. The mono sound mix is mostly representative of the recording standards of the film’s era, nothing more, nothing less.
Bonus features aren’t Olive Films’s game. Someone should write them a letter from an unknown critic.
The waltzing heartbreak of Letter from an Unknown Woman serves as the gateway to Max Ophüls’s late-period string of masterpieces.