What's Old: Letter From an Unknown Woman | Bleader

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

What's Old: Letter From an Unknown Woman

Posted By on 04.29.09 at 11:22 AM

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Here's one you don't want to miss: Max Ophuls' simple, elegant, sublimely painful melodrama Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948) screens at 7 PM tonight at University of Chicago Film Studies Center, 5811 S. Ellis, with an introduction by UC film professor Miriam Hansen.

Adapted from a story by Stephan Stefan Zweig, the movie indulges in one of those classic narrative structures you don't see much anymore: a present-tense story forms the parentheses for a flashback that lasts nearly the entire film and, as it unfolds, powerfully inflects the story framing it. One night in Vienna, around 1900, a graying and rather dissipated concert pianist (Louis Joudan) is dropped off at his flat by two friends, and the dialogue among them reveals that an irate husband has challenged the pianist to a duel the next morning. But when he arrives in his flat, waiting for him is a long letter from a woman (Joan Fontaine) who's been hovering at the periphery of his consciousness for more than a decade. By the time the pianist finishes reading it, he's come to realize that her silent devotion to him might have brought great meaning to his life—but by then it's too late.

A Jew who fled Germany after the Reichstag fire and continued his career in France, then the U.S. (Caught, The Reckless Moment), and then France again (La Ronde, Lola Montes, The Earrings of Madame de...), Ophuls developed a silken mise-en-scene that allowed him to transform stock story ideas into films of surprising emotional force. He was a master of visual storytelling as well: in one typically rich shot, he foregrounds the young woman and her mother against a second-floor bannister as the mother prepares to tell her daughter she's remarrying. In the background her prospective husband descends the circular staircase, studying the women anxiously as he passes out of the frame and, then, on the next level of stairs, in and out again.

Some kind soul has posted the entire movie on YouTube, and I've linked to the first segment below. See if you can watch it without being pulled through the other 15.

 

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