Thursday, February 26, 2015

Max Ophüls | Letter from an Unknown Woman

over the edge of memory
by Douglas Messerli

Howard Koch and Max Ophüls (screenplay, based on a story by Stefan Zweig), Max Ophüls (director) Letter from an Unknown Woman / 1948

If there was ever proof that a highly sentimental and even uneventful story can become a great work of art in the hands of an auteur-director, one has only to see Max Ophüls’ memorable Letter to an Unknown Woman, which I watched yesterday in memory of its male lead, Louis Jourdan, who died this past week on February 14.

     The Stefan Zweig story is less developed than Olive Higgins Prouty's Stella Dallas, and the lead actors of a work might describe as a woman’s “weepie”—Jourdan as the pianist Stefan Brand and Joan Fontaine as Lisa Berndle—spend much of the film in silent suffering. Lisa daydreams her life away with an imaginary affair with Stefan, and Stefan reads, throughout, the 86 minute-long letter which makes up the film’s plot. When she has the opportunity to speak, Fontaine manages only a few self-demurring remarks similar to what made her so memorable in both Suspicion and Rebecca; Jourdan charmingly gushes over his new-found “sorceress,” and, later, spends his last few minutes with her praising the same “unknown” woman’s cleverness in  having outwitted her husband in finding a way to join him in what he clearly expects will be a quick sexual fling. 
    In fact, hardly any of the film’s characters speak more than a few lines: Lisa’s mother (Mady Christians) manages to ignore her daughter so completely that she has no clue to effects upon her by the new, handsome tenant next door. Lisa’s kind, if imperious, husband, Johann Stauffer (Marcel Journet) politely questions his wife’s infatuation with Brand before—offstage—challenging the ex-pianist to a duel. At least, early in the film, Jourdan can express his presumably deep passions and irritation with his own failures through pretending to play the piano, but in the latter half of the film even that mechanism is “locked up” (a very odd trope indeed), and  he is left—after expressing his reaction to encountering Lisa again, “I feel that I am at the edge of memory”—with nothing but a would-be lover’s chatter in lines like “let’s have some champagne” and “put on some records.”

     The real hero of Ophül’s melodrama, accordingly, is his camera, as he artfully dances it up and down stairways, focuses it over perfectly designed railroad stations, and props it up against the cartoon set-up of an amusement park train ride around the world. Lisa hovers outside her dream-lover’s apartment, darts in and out of the local restaurants he haunts, and even sneaks into her would-be Lothario’s apartment, knowingly abandoning herself to him again and again. The only thing she is awarded for her desperate love is a bastard son, whom she keeps secret from the father, determining to be the only woman who asks him for nothing. In short, Lisa is the perfect chump, willing to be isolated from her parents, ostracized from proper society, and to suffer her punishment through her son’s and her own deaths—all for a passion she never quite has the opportunity to express.

      Yet for all that, the director is able to convince, even the most hard-boiled cynic, surely, of the beauty and intensity of that passion through his opera-like use of music, the detail-perfect costumes, the stunningly-appointed sets, and the luster of Jourdan’s and Fontaine’s faces. The Vienna Ophüls creates is obviously the superior one of the filmmaker’s soundstage as opposed to the haunted Austrian city. Who wouldn’t prefer the metal grille-work of the swirling staircase that leads to Lisa’s heaven, the commodious and affair-friendly cafes and the embroidered restaurant banquets, and the gracefully modulated moldings of grand opera and theater houses of that waltzing city to a small garrison city like Linz, where the major activity seems to be promenading around the central square during weekly band concerts? Who wouldn’t tell a lie about a mysterious lover to release the embrace of even a handsome soldier in order to get back to such a magical city?

    In short, Ophüls is not really as much interested in his addicted-to-love characters as he is determined to intoxicate his audiences with the wein of Wien. And toward that end, he becomes the male version of what Stefan calls Lisa, a sorcerer. Just as Vienna weaves such figures as the rakish hero into its spell, so too is Lisa re-modeled, so to speak, in the city’s image as she forces herself to study music, learn to dance, and, in general, to become a graceful partner worthy of the music-maker’s dapper company. As Stefan says, upon first meeting up with Lisa, “I very seldom get to where I have started out to go,”  so does the director of this masterwork lead us in every direction but straight-forward through this thinly-threaded plot. And when it ends—presumably with the deaths of son, holy mother, and father—we suffer more from the end of the voyage through the city than with the closing of these character’s lives.

Los Angeles, February 26, 2015

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