Thursday, November 05, 2020

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948); Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin (Letters from an Unknown Woman, Xu Jinglei, 2004)

A pair of unknown women 

(WARNING: details of Stefan Zweig's story, on page or in the big screen, are explicitly discussed!) 

Speaking of great, what other word can you use to describe Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman? Hollywood refused to allow Ophuls his trademark long shots but even so you recognize the Ophuls style--in shorter gasps perhaps but thrillingly alive. The characters are filmed--caught if you like--in constant flux, literally and dramatically, fully aware that their life at any moment will irrevocably transform, like moths in an oil lamp.

And O! The delicate brittle beauty. Vienna is all studio sets, the actors a collection of accents; the two lovers board a train with rolling painted backdrop for a view, yet the moment instead of being tawdry is arguably the film's loveliest, its very artificiality breathtaking, the experience not unlike watching figures spin within a crystalline globe, or cutouts flutter across a diorama town. Even more remarkable, the cutouts live--they talk walk make frantic little gestures somehow pierce you with their tragicomedy. Magic.

Instructive to compare with Xu Jinglei's Yi ge mo sheng nu ren de lai xin (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 2004). Turn-of-the-century Vienna is transposed to wartime Beijing, the characters rejiggered (Louis Jordan's celebrity pianist Stefan is now Wen Jiang's Mr. Xu, a writer); the plot remains unchanged, though style and tone differs. After Ophuls' rapturous theatricality it's difficult to appreciate Jinglei's quiet realism; Wen Jiang is a tremendous actor, but his Mr. Xu as written and directed tends to fade into the background--this is more the story of Miss Jiang (the director herself), told almost exclusively from her point of view. 

I prefer Jordan's Stefan, a comic creation constantly aware of his boyish beauty, confident of even dependent on his impact on women. He gives the grim tale a yeasty uplift, and with his trajectory--from foppish dandy to disillusioned has-been to shaken figure in whose eyes glimmer the spark of human dignity--even offers the poignancy of belated redemption.

Some have suggested that Jinglei's picture nurtures a more feminist agenda: Joan Fontaine's Lisa is a gentler creature, more accepting of her social position, less likely to take advantage--however furtively--of her beloved's ignorance. What's really interesting is that when you compare both film versions with Stefan Zweig's original story you realize Jinglei's is the more faithful version, not Ophuls': Stefan was originally a writer not a pianist, he never fell into obscurity, and the story isn't framed by a duel meant to seal his fate--those are likely Ophuls' and screenwriter Howard Koch's contributions, presumably to make the man more 'morally acceptable' (whatever that means). 

Which raises the question: is Jinglei's version genuinely feminist, or simply more faithful to Zweig? The story is told from the girl's point of view (she's unnamed in the story--an easy feat on text) and right off you know whose voice will dominate. Her fixation on Stefan is overt; in Ophuls' it's more subtle. Is it just coincidence or is the subtext--neglected woman finally able to stand up and speak for herself--simply the accidental byproduct of Zweig's desire to accurately depict a young girl's psychology? Or is Jinglei trying to make the point that one can eke out a feminist reading from a turn-of-the-century writer--or that this particular turn-of-the-century writer is a feminist, at least within the limits of the story? Fascinating to think Jinglei and Zweig--a beautiful Chinese actress/filmmaker, an Austrian writer--share more things in common than Ophuls (German filmmaker) does with Zweig.

There is a point in Zweig's story where the woman dispassionately notes the man's kindness and probable willingness to help--which is why she'll never ask. She doesn't want that kind of kindness from him, with its attendant dismissal. In a single sweeping glance she takes in the man's full measure, from meanest sentiment to most charitable act, and ruthlessly judges its worth.

In Jinglei's version a similar moment occurs: Mr. Xu has left town, comes back; in voiceover Miss Jiang notes that she could contact him but doesn't bother--he never even thinks to look for her. Again a swift judgment, a harsh verdict.

Finally, there's that moment in Ophuls' film when Lisa (note the movement from nameless entities to formally-addressed characters to first-name acquaintances) abandons her husband to be with Stefan. She realizes Stefan is chatting away at her like he would at any other conquest, walks out of his apartment without another word. Again the judgment the quiet rejection but this time in the face of so much loss--she can't go back to her husband now, and one wonders how she can afford to keep her son in that expensive boarding school. She has taken years of carefully assembled wealth and security, for both herself and her child, and tossed it aside like used tissue.

Three scenes at three different emotional temperatures involving two characters addressed three different ways. I'm a romantic fool I suppose--I prefer the Ophuls. But they're all different, all fascinating to observe when set beside each other. 


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