Fontaine Flows through her Love Letter
"Letter from an Unknown Woman" is the sort of movie they don't make any more, but they really should because this bittersweet tale made in 1948 is magnificent. From the storyline, the acting, the beautiful construction and direction everything about it works and right from the minute you hear the words "By the time you read this letter, I may be dead" it has you in its grasp. And once it's got you it never lets you go with this tale of unrequited love, this tale which is both beautiful and painful as we hear about from how as a young girl Lisa fell for the charming Stefan and never stopped loving him even if he never knew her.
Vienna, about 1900, former concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan - Three Coins in the Fountain) returns home the night before he is set for a duel, but he has no plans of being there in the morning and instructs his servant to pack his backs. But he is handed a letter, a letter which was dropped off for him and before he knows it he is engrossed in this long letter from an unknown woman. The letter is from Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) and explains how from the first time she saw him she fell in love, how as an adult she still loved him and after a brief romance ended up having his child. Yet despite her life of love for him he never knew her, never remembered her or knew about their child.
One of the greatest aspects of "Letter from an Unknown Woman" is that it doesn't take long to get going. There is the mystery of the opening as we watch this man return home the night before he is supposed to be having a duel and receiving a letter but the minute he opens that letter and he reads the line "By the time you read this letter, I may be dead" it starts to make sense. What follows on from there is basically Lisa recounting her life to Stefan, from her adoration of him when she was a young girl and he moved next door through to adulthood where her love for him never ended.
But what makes this great is the blend of romance and pain because whilst Lisa remembers Stefan fondly he has no idea of who she is. Even more shocking that they even for a brief time were lovers yet life drove them apart. And that is not all life did as life brought more heart break as Lisa has his child but never tells him as she doesn't want to hurt him. It's hard to really explain as it sounds on paper contrived but this story is in fact beautifully constructed covering periods in Lisa's life where she keeps on meeting Stefan but he is never aware of who she is.
What it comes down to is what the outcome is when Stefan finishes the letter, will Lisa be dead as she suggests may be the case and if so how will she have died. Plus having read this personal love letter will Stefan actually remember who Lisa is, that he shared so much with her without ever knowing it. It's so beautifully worked by director Max OphÃ¼ls that you hang on every single word of this letter whilst becoming immersed in every single scene, be it Lisa as a young girl wistfully listing to Stefan play piano or when as an adult he takes her on a romantic date yet never learns who she is.
Whilst it is fascinating to watch how shallow Stefan is, and Louis Jourdan does a brilliant job of making him into this charming creature who works his way through a list of women, it is the character of Lisa which really drives the movie. And as such Joan Fontaine is not only central to everything but absolutely brilliant, delivering the emotion of this woman who is in love with a man who doesn't really know her. In some latter scenes as we watch Lisa run into Stefan many years after they briefly were involved and he doesn't remember that they were once lovers is so emotional because of the restrain which Fontaine delivers, you can see that she is heart broken but still loves him so much that she can't bring herself to tell him and embarrass him.
What this all boils down to is that "Letter from an Unknown Woman" is a magnificent movie of the sort which never gets made anymore but really should. The bittersweet tale of Lisa's life long love of Stefan is both beautiful and painful and right from the start it draws you in, not only in need to find out what happens in the end but also what happens in between. It maybe a movie from a bygone era but it doesn't feel like it and is truly a magnificent movie which leaves you with memories that will last a life time.