There’s so much to watch that, even though I’ve had pretty steady progress through the List since Day One, I still get a pep in my step when I know that the next movie I have to watch is only ninety or a hundred minutes long. Means I’ll be moving on that much sooner to the next one, and the next. It’s not that the Project isn’t fun or even that I want it to be over (I’m flat-out unwilling to imagine for even a moment how vacuous my life will feel when this is done). It’s just that I have this need to constantly be showing evidence of progress – even if all it means is I’m scratching one more title off the List.
So even though I generally like fora movie to be under rather than over two hours I do, occasionally, worry about a movie being so slight that I just forget about it all together – which is nearly the case with Letter from an Unknown Woman, a beautiful, well-shaped, quick and poignant romantic tragedy directed by Max Ophuls. It’s about a young girl named Lisa (Joan Fontaine) who develops a crush (i.e. respectfully distanced obsession) on Stefan (Louis Jourdan), the concert pianist who’s moved in next door. It follows their progression from strangers to acquaintances to lovers and onward, ending on a dark note, and since it’s a period romance with death at the end it keeps company with Jezebel and Queen Christina and Camille and The Man in Grey, but Ophuls directs this with such a tight and intimate focus on his characters that the historical setting feels inconsequential. Like I’ve made it clear at this point that I’m not a fan of period romances, but this hardly feels like one.
The movie itself may’ve proven inconsequential too if not for Joan Fontaine. Her character is innocent, naïve, hopeful, trusting – hers is a sensibility tailor-made for some sort of brutal awakening, especially after falling so hard in love with a man so much older than her, so popular and self-obsessed and artsy.
That rude awakening comes in the form of a bastard child and she greets it with a lip-biting complicity that might look subservient, or weak, but is played by Fontaine with such quiet courage that, though clearly fucked up and tragic and annoying, attests at the same time to a huge strength of will.
Fontaine plays her character from early adolescence to full adulthood and in each phase of her life shows,beautifully, that some ember of her young innocence and trust – for better or worse – has survived all these years of disappointment.
The movie is beautifully shot, with characters moving through larger and larger spaces as they get older and,presumably, develop a greater sense of their smallness in the world; their smallness, even, in the lives of one another. The story is strong and lean,well-rounded, and the heartbreak of its ending is effectively and honestly achieved. That being said: I don’t think it deserves to be on this List. I can’t name something off the top of my head that should take its place, but…this is just a solid movie. Nothing exceptional.
But that Joan Fontaine, man. She’s something to see.