Letter from an Unknown Woman

30/12/2021 19:30.
Cert U

Letter from an Unknown Woman review – gripping and tragic story, fashioned  to perfection | Drama films | The GuardianIn the opening credits of this 1948 old-Hollywood classic, the legendary German director’s name is Americanised, mistakenly, as ‘Max Opuls’. Somehow this is appropriate because, from its painstakingly designed interiors to its sweeping, fluid camerawork, from its overblown score to its devastating central performances, Letter From an Unknown Woman is suffused with opulence.

However, the film is no Sternbergian exercise in glamour – in his telling of young Viennese dreamer Lisa (Joan Fontaine) and her desire for an unattainable man (Louis Jourdan) and the high-style world he inhabits, Ophuls comes down on the side of the outsider – those of us with our noses pressed up against the glass. So for all its florid melodramatic trappings, this grand, heartbreaking masterpiece resonates with sad, simple truths – just because one can appreciate beauty, that does not make one beautiful, and just because one loves does not mean one is loved.

Dir: Max Ophuls, USA, 86 minutes, 1948.

Programme Notes

Joan Fontaine is wonderfully understated in her portrayal of the innocent and loving obsessive (Fatal Attraction this is not), and manages not to grate on the nerves despite remaining painfully worthy throughout. Jourdan does his standard charming man about town turn (given the time and setting you can’t help but think of Gigi), who remains surprised and moved by Fontaine each time he believes he is just meeting her anew.

Few other actors get a look-in (it really is Fontaine’s film) but the cameos in the earlier sections of the film lead to a few lovely little comic scenes, and Jourdan’s butler/manservant remains satisfyingly all-knowing throughout. Though the final resolution of the story is perhaps over-redemptive, Letter From an Unknown Woman remains a beautifully shot and involving tragic classic.