I recently saw, for the third time over a space of many years, this well-made (though the background music is sometimes quite intrusive) Max Ophuls flick, based upon a Stefan Zweig tale. This time, it struck me as somewhat more complex than I had thought.
Adolescent Lisa (Joan Fontaine) falls madly in love with a new neighbor, Stefan Brand, played by Louis Jourdan. (By the way, I have never understood why Jourdan did not become a bigger star than he was.) He is a successful concert pianist, handsome and highly charming. While a roue (and Lisa sees him bring home many women so she is not ignorant of this), the famous words of Edmund Burke might be applied to him, “”…vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.” Eventually Lisa comes to his notice and they spend an evening and a night together. We learn all of this in the form of a letter sent to Brand. So the film is largely a flashback.
While made in 1948, the film takes place in Vienna in the early part of the twentieth century, and there is a very romantic and sophisticated feel to it. “Letter From an Unknown Woman” is certainly a moving tale of unrequited love but I think it is also something in addition to that. Brand means no harm and is more thoughtless than cruel, but this does not avert a tragedy he has, to some extent, caused. Lisa is clearly a victim of a grand passion and is willing to break up what seems to be her happy marriage and home because, at least so she tells herself, she thinks she can help Brand to realize his full potentialities as a pianist. It seems to me that this film is, with delicacy and circumspection, a cautionary tale about both unbridled passion (however refined) and romantic delusion.