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Letter From an Unknown Woman

1948 : Letter from an Unknown Woman
Lettre d'une inconnue de Max Ophüls
Avec Louis Jourdan dans le rôle de Stefan Brand,
Joan Fontaine & Mady Christians

Letter from an Unknown Woman was based on the novella of the same name, which was written by Stefan Zweig. The film stars Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians and Marcel Journet.
In 1992, Letter from an Unknown Woman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

In magical, fin-de-siècle Vienna, Stefan (Louis Jourdan), a cynical pianist, receives a passionate letter from a dying woman (Joan Fontaine, in her favorite role) he doesn’t remember. In flashbacks, we see their tragic love story enacted. Art, devotion, and loss are indissolubly tied together in this heartbreaking romance. Director Ophüls displays his masterly directing talent through his celebrated long camera takes, in the film widely considered his American masterpiece.

Autour du film : C'est pour tourner le rôle de Stefan Brand que les studios Universal firent d'abord venir le jeune Jacques François à Hollywood. Comme ce dernier tardait à arriver, à cause d'une phobie des avions qui l'obligea à venir de France par bateau puis par train, le rôle fut finalement confié à Louis Jourdan pour qui ce sera le lancement d'une carrière. Engagé sous contrat, François attendit, quant à lui, plusieurs mois avant de tourner le moindre film.

Critique : « Passion bafouée. Celle d’une femme (Joan Fontaine) dont le cœur bat en secret pour un pianiste volage qu’elle a croisé à trois reprises, qu’elle épie, qui l’ignore, auquel elle s’offre corps et âme, mais qui ne la reconnaît pas, ou trop tard, en recevant une lettre posthume dans laquelle elle avoue sa vaine quête : « Je n’ai que toi, toi qui ne m’as jamais connue et que j’ai toujours aimé. »

Seule la caméra rapproche dans un même mouvement les amants que tout sépare. La dévotion de la femme douce illuminée par un amour absolu se heurte à l’aveuglement d’un amant frivole aux abandons sensuels sans lendemains. Cette Adèle H. viennoise hante des lieux qui trahissent la malédiction de ses espoirs, son chagrin et l’irrémédiable incompatibilité du cynisme et du sacré. »
Jean-Luc Douin

The film is set mainly in Vienna in the early 1900s. Pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) arrives home a few hours before he is due to fight with a champion duellist, a challenge he has every intention of evading by leaving the city. Before leaving, he reads a letter received that night that begins with "by the time you read this I may be dead."

The story then switches to the point of view of the letter-writer, Lisa (Joan Fontaine), as it goes back in time to when she was a teenage girl living in a Vienna apartment complex. She is fascinated by a new tenant, prodigious musician Stefan, and his variety of fabulous instruments, including a harp and a piano. Stefan is a concert pianist making a name for himself through his energetic performances, and Lisa becomes obsessed with him, staying up late to listen to him playing, sneaking into his apartment and admiring his very good looks from a distance...

Adaptation notes : The film was adapted from the original Stefan Zweig nouvelle by screenwriter Howard Koch. The film is mostly faithful to the book, though featuring minor divergences. The male protagonist in the book is simply referred to (once) as 'R', and is a novellist rather than a musician. The film renames him Stefan Brand (referencing Zweig, who also loans his name to the protagonist's infant son, also unnamed in the original source material). The "unknown woman" receives no name in the book; in the film she is called Lisa Brendle (a noted quirk of Ophüls, having his female characters names' starting with an L). Fernand, a relative of Lisa's mother and eventual husband, is turned into the completely unrelated "Mr. Kastner", with the family moving to Linz rather than Innsbruck. John, the servant, retains his name, but in the film, he is mute.

The novel's sexual content is quite implicit, but because of censorship, the movie adaptation further dims it. In the book, the "unknown woman" spends three nights with the writer (rather than one) before his departure. She only meets him one more time, many years later, at the opera, at which she promptly looses her present lover in favor of spending a fourth night with the writer. At the conclusion of this, she is humiliated when he mistakes her for a prostitute, and rushes off, never to see him again. The movie adaptation splits these into two separate encounters (first meeting him at the opera, and then rushing off humiliated from his house), and ignores another sexual encounter.

Further divergences include a more prolonged "first encounter" between the two lovers (taking them through stagecoaches, fairs and ball rooms rather than simply cutting to the long-waited sexual encounter), revealing the disease that kills Stefan Jr. and Lisa to be typhus and ignoring Lisa's tradition of sending Brand white roses every birthday. At the start of the novel, Brand has just turned 41 (and forgotten about his birthday). This is significant because the absence of white roses confirms Lisa's death at the time of reading.

The most noted divergence is a structural change: there is no duel in the original story, nor is there a character such as Johann. The "unknown woman" from the book never marries, but lives off a series of lovers who remain unnamed and mostly unintrusive. Because of this, the protagonist's actions offend no one in particular. In the film, Brand is challenged to a duel, which he initially plans to ditch. The finale reveals the contestant to be Johann, who demands satisfaction over Lisa's affair. Having read Lisa's letter, Brand boldly accepts the duel and walks into it, his fate uncertain. This redeeming action has no literary equivalent. In fact, Brand's literary equivalent can only faintly recall Lisa after reading the letter, and there's no significant event past this.

Fiche technique :
* Titre : Lettre d'une inconnue
* Titre original : Letter from an Unknown Woman
* Réalisation : Max Ophüls
* Scénario : Howard Koch et Max Ophüls d'après le roman Lettre d'une inconnue de Stefan Zweig
* Production : John Houseman et William Dozier pour Universal Pictures
* Musique : Daniele Amfitheatrof, Franz Liszt (Etude in D Flat Major), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (La Flûte enchantée), et Richard Wagner (Tannhäuser: O du mein holder Abendstern)
* Photographie : Franz Planer
* Montage : Ted J. Kent
* Direction artistique : Alexander Golitzen
* Décorateur de plateau : Russell A. Gausman et Ruby R. Levitt
* Costumes : Travis Banton (robes) et Virginia Tutwiler (non créditée)
* Pays d'origine : États-Unis
* Format : Noir et blanc - 1,37:1 - Mono (Western Electric Recording) - 35 mm
* Genre : Drame romantique
* Durée : 86 minutes
* Date de sortie :
o Drapeau : États-Unis États-Unis 28 avril 1948 New York
o Drapeau : France France 5 novembre 1948

Distribution :
* Joan Fontaine : Lisa Berndle
* Louis Jourdan : Stefan Brand
* Mady Christians : Madame Berndle
* Marcel Journet : Johann Stauffer
* Art Smith : John
* Carol Yorke : Marie
* Howard Freeman : Monsieur Kastner
* John Good : Lieutenant Leopold von Kaltnegger
* Leo B. Pessin : Stefan Junior
* Sonja Bryden : Frau Spitzer
* Erskine Sanford : Porteur
* Otto Waldis : Concierge

ernal links
Une analyse du film (English) sur
Letter from an Unknown Woman at the Internet Movie Database
Letter from an Unknown Woman at Allmovie essay
Senses of Cinema essay by Alexander Dhoest
Senses of Cinema essay by Carla Marcantonio




Featured in Mon Film N°120
6 Décembre 1948

The Letter

1948 : Letter from an Unknown Woman
Lettre d'une inconnue de Max Ophüls
starring Joan Fontaine.

Mais tout ce qui s'est passé
But everything that happened
Glisse à côté
Glides onto the side
Comme l'eau sur les joues
Like water on cheeks
Rester comme ça attaché
Staying attached like this
Quand l'autre a quitté
When the other's gone

Et tous ces mots qu'on a dit
And all those words we said
Mots qu'on a fuit
Words we avoided
Où sont ils allés
Where did they go to
Rester comme ça attaché
Staying attached like this
Ne peut rien changer
Can't change anything
Alors va
So go

Je laisse le vent emporter tout
I let the wind take everything away
Laisse le vent prendre soin de tout
Let the wind take care of everything
Je laisse le vent emporter tout
I let the wind take everything away
Laisse le vent prendre soin de tout
Let the wind take care of everything

Je t'ai rêvé homme sans pied
I dreamed you were a feetless man
Dieu ou névé
A god or a firn
Ou comme un bruit doux
Or as a soft rustle
Là j'irai bien te chercher
Now I'd like to go to you
J'ai tellement changé
I've changed so much

Mais tout ce qui s'est passé
But everything that happened
Glisse à côté
Glides onto the side
Comme l'eau sur les joues
Like water on cheeks
Quand je t'ai pris par la main
When I took you by the hand
C'était un matin
It was one morning

Je laisse le vent emporter tout
I let the wind take everything away
Laisse le vent prendre soin de tout
Let the wind take care of everything
Je laisse le vent emporter tout
I let the wind take everything away
Laisse le vent prendre soin de nous
Let the wind take care of us

Laisse Le Vent Emporter Tout
Mylène Farmer
Anamorphosée (1995)

Cover Story in Positif N°232 233 Revue de Cinéma
juillet août(1980