Letter from an Unknown Woman ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The key moment of this film is the second goodbye at the train, which suddenly becomes a moment of horror for Lisa. This horror should not occur, but the non-diegesis of Daniele Amfitheatrof's score combined with the sudden look of shock registered by Fontaine's face tell us that this moment is tragedy. What has happened exactly? Her son has exclaimed as the train rushes out the station that he expects to see her in two weeks. This is of course what happened with her one time love years ago, who she then abandoned in hoping never to force any pressures on her. But as it turns out, at least in her perception of the events, her decision to leave him is what drove him away from music and toward his frivolously useless existence.

This moment takes a lot of complex logic to build to happen, though Max Ophüls never met a complex narrative he didn't find ways to smooth into the simple whims of melodramatic emotions. Lisa's son saying he would see her in two weeks does not express anything of obvious concern. But critical to our psychological understanding of Lisa so far has been her perchance for poetic license. She will literally repeat the gestures and moments of her past as fantasy, seeing resonance in moments and ideas others might register as entirely benign. But she finds weight in there because of their possibility for repetition. So for Lisa to hear "see you in two weeks" registers to her as symbolic repetition, and thus the signal of horrors to come.

Lisa does not know her son is going to die. We know, because before this moment, we hear about a case of fever going around, and after this moment we see the dead coming out. But Lisa knows she may be doomed to never see her son again because of the symbolic power. No longer tied to her son's fate—the only detail that prevented her from returning to Stefan—she can freely return to him in hope of saving his soul. What is built here then is a delicate balance between the text and the meta-text, the use of poetic repetition and how one character registers what usually is left for comprehension by the audience.

Ophüls has always been one to deconstruct melodrama at the same time he indulges its passions. Farber had one odd line on the director in 1968: "Any Ophüls movie is supposed to be fluid magic, but after the first five minutes of circus, it is hauling an old corpse around and around in sawdust." Like those best of Farber lines, what reads like as dismissal soon sounds like the most astute of praise. And like Fontaine hearing a poetic callback, the sudden awareness of narrative repetition—one she has constructed in her letter—becomes the impetus for the film to reach its illogically obvious climax.