If to love is to accept unconditionally all the virtues and failings of the object of your affections, then I truly love Letter from an Unknown Woman. A masterpiece of cinema, treacly kitsch, or something else entirely—it doesn’t matter. How other people feel about it is irrelevant because for me, the film can do no wrong. It is not just a film I would love to have made; it creates a world I would love to live.
I put it that way because movies have often been my window on to a world that transcends the limitations of my own life. I do not mean this purely or even primarily in terms of escape. Cinematic worlds in which beauty and style are synonymous with necessity have been my models in life, challenges for self-improvement, a vision of how to live more fully. It is primarily the environments, the ways of living created in the semi-dream world of the movies that have had the most lasting influence on me, not their stories or characters. Watching Letter, I do not literally feel I am in 1900 Vienna, of course, but I would like to be because of the film’s ability to summon up a place and time with an imaginative power that exceeds rational awareness.
I do not mean to suggest that I have no emotional investment in the story or the characters, however. Quite the contrary, I have a strong sense of identification with the dissolute pianist Stefan Brand played by Louis Jourdan, and not for the most pleasant of reasons. But as I once said to a surprised friend on this question of identification, I do not so much respond emotionally to a movie because I share traits with a character. I identify viscerally with the camera as it moves through and creates a space in our imagination.
In Letter, for example, the fates of Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) or Brand interest me less than moving with them through Ophuls’s lightly frosted recreation of turn of the century city life. This is not the decrepit Hapsburg empire as it was, but as it has been imagined by an exquisite stylist with keys to the backlot. It is more “Vienna” than the real thing because shooting on a sound stage gives Ophuls absolute control over the environment. As the camera glides with the characters along the streets or in a café, or at the opera, the idealized spaces evoke through selective detail, enabling the viewer to experience the movie as a series of distilled, romantic essences.
If that distillation is bittersweet, it is so only in the service of recognizing the fullness of life’s experiences. For what is most haunting about Letter from an Unknown Woman is that it is about our failures in life, our recognition of missed opportunities. It is nonetheless a regret in which memories and lost moments are no less precious for having ended sadly.