Last week we discovered that the Merle Oberon drama of a woman retelling stories from her youth in flashback has a great plot, but tonal shifts between the jovial present day and tragedies in the past are far too jarring and disorienting.
In Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), an adapted Stefan Zweig novella, the tone between present and past remains steady and yet, despite its slight plot and meticulous pacing, is not boring. This drama is thoroughly arresting and well-made.
Unknown Woman follows Lisa Berndle’s (Joan Fontaine) somewhat unrequited, life-long infatuation for playboy pianist next door, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan). That’s really all there is to the story. How do they keep our attention for so long? The screenwriter for Unknown Woman, Howard Koch, explains.
“Letter from an Unknown Woman, by its nature, required slow pacing and minute attention to evocative detail…. Since the film had very little plot in the usual sense, and since its highly romantic premise was difficult to sustain, it would only work if the audience were so caught up in its spell that they were willing to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the show.”
We do appreciate the detail. For instance, when Lisa is a young girl sitting in the courtyard, listening to Stefan practicing, Lisa’s daydreaming is interrupted by her mother calling her name. In a film critique series, author Virginia Wexman notes that this moment is symbolic of Lisa being torn between two worlds - the seductive, feckless world of Stefan who lives only for today and the traditional and stable life promoted by her mother. This premise is set up at the beginning; Lisa will forever vacillate between the two.
So Koch seems to be saying that storytellers should stick to the rules of their characters’ world or risk making the audience aware of the clock and, thus, restless and uneasy. That uneasiness happens in Lydia when the older character telling the story chuckles over the past, but the audience hasn’t recovered from the tragedy in the story that she’s telling. Not so with Unknown Woman. The tone here is consistent. Great attention to detail has gone into this film.
One also appreciates the gradual and subtle aging used here. Last Tuesday we dealt with the hideous wigs on actors in Lydia that served to distract from rather than promote the idea that the characters have grown older. In Unknown Woman, the movie must also deal with the physical effects of time since the relationship between Lisa and Stefan goes through three phases – young girl and young prodigy; young woman and burgeoning concert star; older, married woman and formerly famous concert pianist.
Ms. Fontaine’s face is that of a mature woman, truth be told, but her character’s age is helped by costuming and great acting. Lisa wears flat shoes and her hair is down for scenes as a young girl; she swings her legs about on a swing and uses awkward body language to indicate a girl who is not quite accustomed to her body. What could so easily swing into parody, Baby Snooks-style, does not. Ms. Fontaine plays her infatuation sincerely and convinces the audience that she is twelve or so.
Her hair goes up into a casual, loose bun for scenes as a carefree young adult. And during her older years and motherhood, the hair is swooped up into a majestic, cathedral hairstyle for the opera – signifying not only her maturity in years but also her upward financial mobility. Still, it’s her poise and grace which indicates her age.
Jourdan, in his mid-twenties, has no problem playing the young prodigy. For the older version of Stefan the actor is given a wisp of gray. As it is with Ms. Fontaine, much of the rest of his aging is done with acting. Stefan gives up his career when he happens to catch sight of himself in the mirror and discovers he is no longer young. Now there is an air of resignation in everything he does and says. What was once a zesty, eager, young lover is now one who flatters a woman by rote. There is a pervasive sadness to this man who is worn down with time and his own foolishness.
Well done, movie. Well done.
- Howard Koch is also co-writer for the legendary Casablanca. The Silver Screen Modiste will review the film for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous ‘40s Blogathon on February 17th.
- Read Letter from an Unknown Woman, Rutgers Films in Print Vol. 5 by Virginia Wright Wexman, e.d. There are insightful interviews from the makers of this film.