Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948). Director: Max Ophuls.

"I came to offer you my whole life -- but you didn't even remember me."

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a movie that it seems you either love passionately or feel complete dispassion for, although on previous viewings I've always held the middle ground. I've finally begun to see this as a very good picture, but it has to be taken with a grain of salt. To those people who feel that there's no such thing as a one-man woman (or vice versa) -- or that such women are mentally diseased [and they may be right] -- Letter from an Unknown Woman  may seem more of a pathological study that a moving romantic movie.

The film is based on a story of the same name by Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, which is one of the most powerful and moving studies of unrequited love and romantic obsession ever written. [It is highly recommended for any lover of the short story/novella. It also explains a lot of Lisa's decisions that have appalled the film's detractors.] This Hollywood film version changes the object of desire from a writer to a composer and makes some other changes as well -- Lisa never gets married to anyone in the story --  although the basic substance remains the same. Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) has loved a neighbor Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) since childhood. At first she worshiped from afar, but when she becomes an adult she has an affair with Brand, and even gives birth to his son (unknown to him). Unfortunately, Brand goes away for "two weeks" and she never sees him again ... until years later. The title refers to a letter Lisa sends Brand which forms the story of the movie, told in flashback.

Jourdan is excellent as the not evil but simply unknowing Brand. Fontaine is also excellent, although she's perhaps too sophisticated in the second half of the movie to make us believe she would fall for the same old lines from Brand [once bitten, twice shy, and all that].

Letter from an Unknown Woman was remade twice, first for French television in 2001 as Lettre d'une inconnue and then in 2004 in China. I will post about these in the near future, but for now I'll say that the Chinese version, despite changes in setting and era, is a actually more faithful to Zweig's story. 

Verdict: Memorable and moving. ***1/2.

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