Letter revisited


There was a beautiful theory, or rather a myth, that one remembers everything one experiences, down to the smallest detail. Everything is stored somewhere in the brain; it is just a question of whether or not we are able to retrieve them. Normally we can’t, since it is deeply buried in our consciousness. But in special moments, thanks to unexpected clues—such as the taste of Madeleine biscuit mingled with tea on your upper lip—a whole passage of our past live emerges. I was obsessed with this idea for a long time, partly because it supports Proust. But the fallacy of this theory is that the more we know how memory works, the more we realize that one only remembers that which has significance. In other words, memory is selective and constructive from the very beginning. And even before that, human senses (visual, aural, in particular) all work in a selective and constructive manner.

Fail to remember, therefore, signifies a failure to assign significance. Why is that I don’t remember much from my childhood? Simply because it lacks significance, even for myself. This in turn means I was indifferent to them. But my childhood is not the issue here. Recently I got to read several articles on Letter from an Unknown Woman that are not covered by last year’s Ophuls course. In Letter, there is this myth that Lisa remembers everything. Lisa does remember more of the story we are being told, and shown. This is because it is exactly she who, from the outset, has grasped its thematic coherency. Therefore, Hunt makes the following observation,

The sort of recounting she must give—in which a series of events is described in such a way as to exhibit them as being related to one another in ways (by cause and effect, for instance) that can be perceived as meaningful—is precisely what a narrative is. To create narrative art is, in a way, exactly what Lisa does. Her letter is such a creation.

In other words, it is not so much that Lisa remembers more than Stefan, but rather, we opt for her memory instead of Stefan’s, the latter Hunt describes as “his way of life splits experience into an unordered array of self-contained moments”. In a sense, what we witness as the film progresses is that Lisa imposes her story/memory upon Stefan, and he finally accepts it as his own. Insomuch as we as spectator do the same, it can be said that we are aligned to Stefan—we have to take her story as the official story, simply because it makes sense, and we are always looking forward to making sense of our life, as Stefan does. If this is true, then there is an important distinction to be made here. It is generally agreed upon that the point of identification of this film is Lisa. But as I would argue here, we do not identify with Lisa; we admire her. Her action is too heroic/crazy that we cannot follow but only admire from a distance; it offers an ideal (pure Eros) that we are willing to be absorbed into and never can. Conversely, we align to Stefan’s position in every possible way. Our life lacks coherence; we are ignorant of The story until being told and read. This is why it has to be her voice, whose persuasive power leads our imagination.

Hunt also makes the observation that Lisa knows Stefan without knowing herself, whereas Stefan knows himself but not Lisa. Lisa’s knowing of Stefan, however, is only partial. She sees in him as much as she is willing to see, that is, an ideal image. Robin wood makes the point clear by saying

Romantic love is never love for a person but for an ideal, and this ideal can only originate within the psyche of the lover. The ideal (related to Freud's 'ideal ego') is projected on to the chosen love object, and the lover then believes that the love object is the ideal. On whatever level of psychoanalytical awareness the filmmakers consciously worked, Letter is very clear and precise about this: Lisa falls in love with Stefan before she even knows what he looks like. (It is of course fortunate for the continuation and development of the fantasy that he looks like Louis Jourdan, but physical attraction is not its origin.) Her desire is to construct him as her ideal self, the 'self' that is denied expression by the conditions of her society.

In the film this idea is supported by the ways in which the main theme, Liszt’s un sospiro, is used. First it is established by having him playing it twice. The first time he made a mistake and left. Note that she hears the music before she actually gets to know who he is. The second time, already, the music is presented acoustimatically. From then on the music is transferred from a sign of “him” to a sign of “love” and it is often rendered in his absence. The third time one hears it in the rug-beating day. When Lisa sneaks into the room we are offered an orchestra setting, with the tune rendered only on strings. The music stops as the sheets fall. The fourth time one hears the music in Lisa’s last night before she goes to Linz. This time we have, for a few phrases, the full orchestra on the tune, before she knocks at the door. And then, when she wanders in the empty rooms, we have a piano version of it with much echo. The acoustic quality signifies that it is a music “remembered”. For a long stretch of time we do not hear it again. Not even when she finally meets him as an adult woman and successfully dates him: the whole time they spend on the street, in the café, restaurant, carriage, amusement park, the train and finally the dancing hall, we do not hear it. But this doesn’t mean we do not have music all this “romantic” time—we have mostly folk music and cheap Waltzes. He plays it when the woman military band leaves and this waltz even carries on inside the apartment, up to the moment when they kiss and ‘consummate” this love. Or do they? I believe that Ophuls is making a rather sarcastic comment here. The next time we do hear it is, obviously, in Lisa’s last visit of the apartment. In a summarizing way, not only do we have the orchestra version of this music before she enters the building (it starts when she exits the cafe) and after she leaves in disillusion (she bumps into John on the staircase), we also have it inside the apartment, first a touch of harp and celesta, and when he appears, on string.

It might be that this signifies that Lisa has a faint hope of rekindling their love. But honestly I believe the composer should be better off leaving here an absence. This way one can argue that this Liszt piece is not associated with Brand, but rather, her ideal image of him. It is his physical presence (an old womanizer in his habitual course of ordering the “usual things”) that presents this image to emerge. She has to leave the room immediately, although she confesses that she has much to tell him. She has to leave because if she stays she risks losing this image that she has been cultivating with her life for so many years—it is to lose one’s meaning of life.

One last time we hear the music from Lisa’s perspective: her face is blocked from our view, writing her last words.

I love you now as I’ve always loved you. My life can be measured by the moments I’ve had with you and our child.

Now we are back to the present tense. Stefan has been converted. He now remembers the images. To climate this conversion, John offers him the name. At this moment, the music emerges again, from the dead. Only now it turns into his music. And it has even acquired a heroic touch when he decides to carry on with the duel.

In fact, for this particular film one could say the subjective mode of Lisa, characterized by the use of extradiegetic music, symbolizes the very notion of the romantic love, or as Hunt put it, pure Eros. It is for this reason that it is brought up so many times (one gets the impression that music permeates the whole film) because it is her story. On the other hand, the occasions where the music is silenced, replaced by diegetic sounds invariably suggest a disillusion, or at least the danger of it. In the sequence where Lisa returns before she parts for Linz, the whole time her rambling of the empty rooms and corridors are suffused with music; the moment she realizes that Brandt has come back with a woman the music suddenly stops, leaving us the usual things: good morning Mr. Brandt, footsteps, Stephan’s whispering, the woman’s giggling, etc. The sequence in which Lisa and Stefan finally have physical love, we also do not hear this music. This I take to mean that the physical love is in a sense an antithesis of the kind of love Lisa maintains. She is consummated by it and for a moment becomes aimless—although one cannot say this is definitely what she wants.


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