“Love,” as Ambrose Bierce once described it, “is a temporary insanity curable by marriage.” Years later, but channeling that same spirit of bitter denunciation, H.L. Mencken offered that amour, above all, is “the delusion that one woman differs from another.” Cynics – namely women – might insist that such remarks drip from the lips of the lonely; frustrated rationalizations for the endless stretches of sand and sky that exist between all-too-infrequent orgasms. Cold sheets, and even colder showers, are somehow indicative of a despair best relieved by an open and unjust hostility directed at the feminine race, an indictment that reduces the brilliant aphorisms of history’s greatest minds to the accidental ruptures of sexual frustration. But Bierce, so contemptuous of existence that he preferred to disappear forever, sans corpse, into the wilds of Mexico, hit the mark, as one would expect, with unfailing accuracy. As did the similarly inclined Sage of Baltimore, the very man who insisted that the only way one can ever be happy is to wallow in the very things that make one miserable. Neither would be hosting self-help seminars any time soon, but regarding matters of the heart, few offered a keener peek into the psyche of masculine indifference.
This very indifference, so often ignored in movies unless caricatured in raucous comedies, is on glorious display in Max Ophuls’ delightfully dour Letter from an Unknown Woman, one of the few chapters from Hollywood’s golden age that mocks the very idea that man can be tagged, bagged, and forced to give a shit. Romantic love, the very stuff of childhood dreams and starry-eyed girlishness, is a stage from which to move beyond, not, as the storybooks tell us, in which to establish permanence. When we first meet Lisa (Joan Fontaine), she is the standard vision of her sex; all righteous longing, still able to be moved by the music and passion that so often wither in the hearts of the jaded. There, next door, she spies Stefan (Louis Jourdan), an improbably handsome pianist who dazzles Lisa’s young ears with the sort of superlative talent best reserved for the angels. Idealized out of proportion, he is an object of instant infatuation. More so, he becomes her lone obsession; a full-blown substitution for the required eating and breathing. She is transformed by Stefan, so taken by his gift that she seems curiously unmoved by the endless parade of like-minded devotees who flock to his abode. Fragile and pure and so enchanted by love that she breaks tradition by refusing an arranged marriage, she does little else but assault the universe until it contrives events in her favor.
And so it does. She is eventually noticed, and brought into Stefan’s world, and though we know that she is but a stock item to be bled dry for ego’s call, she is convinced her brief affair constitutes the fulfillment of a dream. Their “dates” – whether at a street carnival or solo dancing at the behest of an aggrieved orchestra – have obvious allure for her, but more sinister eyes understand his end of the bargain. How many times has Stefan wined and dined and promised the moon? Has that inner script even flirted with deviation? Perhaps enough humanity remains to render his movements a shade above robotic, but there will be no “us” by journey’s end, only the expectations of one, slamming head on into the dogmatic self-involvement of the other. Where she drips authenticity, he feigns; the accoutrements of a gentleman with all the spontaneous goodwill of rusted circuitry. She envisions marriage and family, he the cautious peeling back of a sin-filled sheet to avoid early morning detection.
Reality intrudes, of course, and Lisa, human at last, marries for money, her object of desire a fading fossil who can provide in the only way that truly matters when hunger outweighs sentiment. She still envisions Stefan as the ideal, but now saddled with a child – a result, expectedly, of her early dalliance with her pianist – she must bow to convention. One evening, at the opera, she spies Stefan once again and, faking illness, she retreats from the box to meet him. In a beautiful turn, he has no idea who she is, but, being in possession of loins, he instantly craves her attention. All the expected lines follow, one after the other, and she vows to meet him at his place. Don’t bother with the address, sir, she knows it all too well. And what about the aging trust fund waiting inside? No fool he, as her passionate glances in Stefan’s direction were not out of admiration for his coat. As she catches the carriage, her husband unexpectedly inside, we know she’s but a heart flutter away from throwing her family to the winds for Stefan. Glorious Stefan. Still so handsome! She’s a fool for love, as always, and Stefan – at home prepping his nest like a demented bird – has yet another arrangement. The only kind he could ever hope to understand.
Their final meeting, whose result is painfully obvious to us from the start (and that long-awaited trial by fire for her), at last displays to Lisa the core of Stefan, that stand-in for manhood’s dishonor. She gave so much – even her womanhood, hence the child – and he has no recollection whatsoever of her existence. We’ve met? Surely not. She is indistinguishable from furniture for all time, a temporary fix until the bell rings again. One would think, then, that she might come to some good, what with her rapid departure before risking a second bout of maternity. Ophuls, thankfully, is far less kind. Lisa is destroyed – cursed by death and disease in quick succession, for son and mother alike – and her last act can be but a whimper in his direction via the letter of the title (the story is told via flashback). As he reads this “confession” on what might be the last night of his life (he has been challenged to a duel for, well, what one does with the wife of another), he appears moved, but one can only guess the brief pang of conscience is but a hiccup before eyeing some lass on the way to his execution. Both will be no more, but Stefan has pushed the boundaries of ecstasy; Lisa, sadly, has spent her brief excursion chasing ghosts. She dies never having tasted love, while he dies never having expected it to begin with. The wise grasp the more tragic of the two.