Perhaps it's merely a reaction to the present-day bombast of busy action and animation franchises, but I've developed a healthy appetite for delicate filmmaking. Max Ophüls' Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948), adapted from Stefan Zweig's 1922 novella, is about as gently intimate as a movie can get. While its quiet tale of longing didn't quite affect me as deeply as, say, David Lean's superb Brief Encounter (1945), Ophüls' film shares a similar and well-delivered quality of aching resignation.
Letter From An Unknown Woman is an epistolary tale, as its title suggests: Louis Jourdan stars as Stefan Brand, a once-celebrated but stagnant concert pianist whose myopic complacency is shaken by a deathbed confession from an admirer. Joan Fontaine stars as Lisa Berndle, whose infatuation with Stefan began during her meager childhood in early 20th century Vienna, where she listened enrapt outside Stefan's window as he practiced. While Stefan's incredible talent carries him to a life of fame and fortune, enabling him to indulge in whims without a thought, Lisa's devotion to Stefan results in hardship. Even when the two share an evening's interlude, and unexpected turns of fortune intervene in what seems like certain outcomes, Stefan never understands until he receives her letter just how meaningless his comfortable life has been and how difficult and fulfilling has been her steady course of single-minded devotion.
Jourdan, whose effortless charm has helped him excel as both leading men and villains, is well-cast as Stefan. His slick carelessness carries not a hint of maliciousness but is just as damaging. Fontaine, who is playing a role not too dissimilar to her breakthrough in Alfred Hitchcock's Oscar-winner Rebecca (1940), captures just the right combination of fragile yearning and reckless determination. Her performance is subtle and yet piercing.
It would be easy for Letter From An Unknown Woman to veer in different directions. Stefan is, in fact, a shit who deserves little empathy. Lisa, likewise, is no paragon of healthy self-care and, frankly, she might think of herself more in the romantic terms of Brief Encounter but she is not too far from the single-minded stalker horror of Eckhardt Schmidt's brilliant Der Fan (1982). But Ophüls reins in a plot that could too easily twist itself into heavy melodrama. His touch is so soft and restrained that the slight wisps of breeze which regularly catch the loose tendrils of Lisa's hair are his most pronounced expressions of directorial emotion. Likewise, Ophüls frames the story as a needle slowly inserted into Stefan's bubble of obliviousness, creating the finest of leaks, and allowing his easy self-regard to wither lazily. Ophüls skillfully holds everything at a distance, like the chasm felt between Lisa and Stefan, loosening just enough for the intricately witty script to remain engaging, but maintaining a delicious ache.