Letter to an Unknown Woman: From Lisa Berndle to Rebecca Bunch

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The lovelorn woman, then and now.

Once upon a time, women were the target movie-going audience. As I wrote last week, this actually allowed for a surprising number of female creatives behind the camera in the nascent days of the film industry, only to be flushed out over the course of a few short years once the film industry demonstrated both extreme profitability and staying power. However, women maintained their dominance both on screen ‐ as the highest paid, highest billed, and most influential performers of their time ‐ and as the target audience for decades. Only in the 1950s with the discovery of the (male) teenage market did the scales start to shift, culminating in a total reversal that had completed by the 1970s. The male-oriented, male-dominated movie paradigm is not the one that Hollywood was founded on or that the studio system prospered with. It can be almost hard to imagine as a modern film consumer, which only goes to demonstrate that the latter paradigm is the one that still has a hold today, even if it is perhaps loosening a little and subject to ever-increasing resistance.

However, if we go back before this paradigm shift we will encounter a genre that inspired irreverence even from contemporary critics and yet still lingers as a subject of considerable scholastic debate to this day: the woman’s film. A genre either closely linked to melodrama or a subcategory within it (depending on who you ask), women’s films revolved around female characters and were geared specifically towards female audiences.

One of the most iconic films belonging to the genre is Max Ophüls’ 1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman. Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, it consists of a frame narrative in which Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), an aging musician and poster boy for wasted talent, who has been challenged to a duel he has no intention of attending, receives a letter which begins “By the time you read this, I may be dead.”

Lisa’s first actual interaction with Stefan

The contents of the letter serve to narrate the film, voiced by the sender: Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine), a woman who has devotedly admired Stefan since she was a girl. The film retells the story of Lisa’s life, beginning with when she first saw Stefan as a young teenager, when he moved into the apartment above hers ‐ a day which she refers to as the beginning of her “conscious life.” From there she falls head over heels, mostly from afar, barring a few trivial exchanges. As time goes by, Lisa’s adoration only grows. Seeing the elegance of Stefan’s female “friends” inspires Lisa to emulate them, learning everything from dancing to the history of music “to prepare herself” for him. However, after a few years Lisa’s widowed mother receives a marriage proposal, and Lisa is forced to move to Linz, much to her dismay. In Linz she is courted by a young military officer, but rejects his proposal by claiming to already have a fiancé in Vienna, much to her parents’ dismay.

Lisa returns to Vienna and finds work as a model in order to ‐ quite frankly ‐ stalk Stefan, standing and waiting on the street across from his home every night, hoping he might notice her. Eventually one evening he does (though he doesn’t remember any of their earlier encounters), inviting her out to dinner and then back to his apartment, just as Lisa knows he has with a veritable parade of women before her ‐ but she agrees regardless.

Lisa’s persistence pays off… for a day

After their night together, Stefan leaves for a two-week concert tour, promising to return. He, of course, does not, and Lisa gives birth to his son in a charity hospital, doggedly refusing to name the father of her child. She makes no attempt to contact Stefan, writing in her letter that she “wanted to be one woman you had known who asked you for nothing.” When her son is a little older, Lisa marries, thinking it in his best interests.

One night, Lisa goes out to the opera with her dull but reasonable husband, only to see Stefan again. He is hardly the virtuoso she remembers, his career having fallen apart due to his lack of drive or ambition.

This ends about as well as you’d expect

Once they return home, Lisa’s husband confronts her about Stefan, but she still refuses to abandon him, arguing that he now needs her. Lisa, clearly ready to abandon her comfortable marriage for the musician her life has revolved around, puts her son on a train (her exact plan in this regard is decidedly unclear) and goes to Stefan. Only once there, given a chance to truly speak to him, does Lisa come to understand that Stefan has unequivocally and entirely forgotten about her.

Unwilling to be a meaningless conquest twice over, Lisa leaves, and spends a few days in a haze of misery before seeking out her son, who, as it turns out, came down with typhus on the train. He dies soon after, but not before spreading the infection to her. In her letter, she declares her love for Stefan once more, and expresses her anguish at his not having recognized her, lamenting the happiness they possibly could have had. Her letter ends mid-sentence, indicating her death. Stefan, racked with feelings of guilt for perhaps the first time in his entire life, tearily attempts to remember Lisa and kinda-sorta-ish does, but not really. The film reveals (though it’s not much of a reveal by this point) that Stefan’s duel is with Lisa’s husband. Stefan leaves his apartment with one last backward glance, finally remembering Lisa ‐ notably as he first saw her (as a girl of fourteen) as opposed to an adult ‐ before getting into a carriage, which will presumably take him towards his almost certain (redemptive) death.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is regarded as a masterpiece, and was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry in 1992. It is also a film that still gets semi-regularly lambasted from various angles by feminist film scholars.

Stefan finally remembers their first meeting

Representation is the issue in media right now. As alluded to earlier, in this regard women were better off in the 30s and 40s than they are today. Looking at matters in terms of “how many women?” is a decent enough starting point, but it is also just that: a starting point, nothing more. It’s well enough to point out the pathetically small percentage of dialogue spoken by women in films, or the equally poor representation of women in film in terms of the percentage of characters on screen that happen to be female, but if these female characters are always saying the exact same things and falling in the exact same archetypes, it doesn’t matter if these numbers are bettered by ten or twenty or however-many percent, the only progress it will actually represent is more actresses getting work.

With that in mind, let’s return to the genre of the woman’s film, and actually get to the bottom of what it was.

Basically, women’s films were marketed and sold as the female equivalent of the male adventure film (what British critic Raymond Durgnat used to refer to as “male weepies”). Both kinds of movies reveal a kind of self-pitying mindset in their intended audiences ‐ the male adventure film by presenting an escapist fantasy of excitement and achievement that is unreachable and avoids any resemblance to the daily life of the everyman (e.g. the Western), and the woman’s film by presenting a female martyr for female audiences to identify with. As Molly Haskell describes in From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, they are, at their most basic level, “soft-core emotional porn for the frustrated housewife.”

Whereas a Western adventure is a matter of escaping one’s troubles and the painfully mundane nature of everyday life for a few hours, women’s films had the added, underlying function of not just giving female audiences the catharsis of a good cry but to be moved, “by self-pity and tears, to accept, rather than reject, their lot.” She understandably concludes this sentiment by writing, “That there should be a need and an audience for such an opiate suggests an unholy amount of real misery.”

“The Myrna Loy ‐ William Powell of the seventies” (not my words, but I can see it)

Haskell also adds that as Hollywood started to pander more and more exclusively to male audiences, the staples of women-oriented films ‐ “the love and loyalty, the yearning and spirituality, the eroticism sublimated in action and banter, the futility and fatalism, the willingness to die for someone” ‐ were transferred to male-male pairings and male-oriented films (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the specific example that she gives ‐ the book was first published in 1973).

But what about the defining character archetypes? What about that ultimate female martyr, the unknown woman?

She’s alive and well, I would argue (but also paradoxically dead, in a specific sense, but more on that later). First, it is necessary to acknowledge that Lisa Berndle represents not one unknown woman, but two: first, a woman unknown to the object of her affections (though not for lack of trying on her part), and second, a woman unknown to herself.

An important concept in feminist theory which traces back to Simone de Beauvoir is that of women seeking some of the power of masculinity through emulating, loving, and being loved by a man, but in doing so destroying her own identity (Film scholar Lucy Fischer extensively connects this concept to Lisa Berndle in the essay “Seduced and Abandoned: Recollection and Romance in Letter from an Unknown Woman.”)

Pining in the 21st Century: Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) in “Doctor Who”

Now, one of these is an unfortunate but undeniably real, relatable, and pretty much unavoidable part of being human. The other is ‐ and I’m going to use the technical term here ‐ just icky. Lisa Berndle’s modern equivalents in the first sense ‐ women who are notably, lastingly, and proactively enamored with, but overlooked or flat-out ignored by, specific men ‐ have little else in common with her. They are ambitious, educated, and career-oriented; often as accomplished in their professional lives as they are unsuccessful in their personal lives. They also are now almost exclusively secondary characters: Molly Hooper in Sherlock. Martha Jones in Doctor Who. Felicity Smoak as characterized in the first two seasons of Arrow (before she got, in the immortal words of TV Tropes, Promoted to Love Interest, which coincidentally destroyed her character, as fully and eloquently laid out by Meredith Borders in an article for Birth.Movies.Death.).

Interestingly, in two out of these three cases the objects of these characters’ affections also fit a particular trend in woman’s films, as noted by Tania Modleski in the Cinema Journal article “Time and Desire in the Woman’s Film”:

“It is paradoxically not the virile, masculinized male, the so-called "man's man," who elicits woman's desire in many of these films, but the feminine man: the attractive, cosmopolitan type… or the well-bred, charming foreigner.”

“Attractive, cosmopolitan type” is pretty much the trademark of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes, and you don’t get any more foreign or well-bred than an alien called a Time Lord ‐ the charming part is a bit more hit-or-miss. On the other hand, Oliver Queen is about as much of a “man’s man” as one is likely to find, but two out of three ain’t bad.

One of these is not like the others… (and I’m not talking about the alien)

I mentioned earlier that Lisa Berndle’s heirs, in this first sense (why don’t we call them Type 1 Unknown Women from now on?), are almost exclusively secondary characters, meaning there are exceptions. In this case, in the comedy genre: Susan Cooper in Spy, and, of course, Rebecca Bunch in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But why comedy?

Well, this is the point where me researching becomes me theorizing (because I didn’t come across anything in my research discussing this), but comedy is sometimes the genre where people feel comfortable dealing with things they are wary of discussing seriously. The lovelorn woman used to be a staple of drama, but sensibilities have changed. A lot of people want strong ‐ as in well-rounded ‐ female characters. And a lot of other people still seem to think strong female characters are the same thing as Strong Female Characters (SFCs) ‐ as in can kick your ass and somehow has logical emotions (or, you know, seemingly none at all). [If you’re still not quite sure what I’m talking about, here’s one explanation from Black Girl Nerds and another from .Mic.]

A character can very easily be both a Type 1 Unknown Woman and a strong female character, but not an SFC. As someone interested in seeing women be portrayed like actual human beings, that is fine, but as a substantial number of people still think SFC = feminism, lovelorn female characters can be really dicey business, even if handled well. Louise Brealey, for example, who plays Molly Hooper, deals with a considerable deal of backlash (which is, of course, ridiculous on several levels). The season 4 finale last month sent a particular storm of hate her way (certainly not helped by Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat’s tasteless post-finale interview ‐ in other words, Moffat just being himself), inspiring her to tweet something that I think sums this whole thing up quite nicely:

“Loving someone after years is not reductive, retrograde, antifeminist or weak. Fight the patriarchy, not me, and read some fucking Chekhov.”

However, something that is antifeminist and incredibly problematic is the second type of unknown woman, also represented by Lisa Berndle: the woman unknown to herself, who has become, in the words of de Beauvoir, “another incarnation of her loved one, his reflection, his double… she lets her own world collapse in contingence, for she really lives in his.” The one word where the particular trend I am going to discuss differs from de Beauvoir’s quote is the word “lets,” and that is incredibly important. Because “lets” implies some agency at some stage. The woman in question makes a choice, and even if it’s a choice between multiple terrible options, it’s still something.

The modern day equivalent of Lisa Berndle in this second sense doesn’t get to make a choice, because she’s dead. She’s not Molly Hooper from Sherlock, she’s Mary Watson. Not Felicity Smoak from Arrow, but Shado. She is unknown to herself because she no longer has a self. She is literally reduced to “another incarnation of her loved one,” because she only exists in his head, as a ghost.

It is an admittedly clever but ultimately cheap way of getting to keep one-dimensional female characters around when people are coming to expect more. Ironically enough, an exchange that illustrates the point I’m getting at comes from Inception, the brainchild of Christopher Nolan, uncrowned king of this trope:

Ariadne: “You can’t stay here to be with her.”
Cobb: “I can’t stay with her anymore because she doesn’t exist.”
Mal: “I’m the only thing you do believe in anymore.”
Cobb: “I wish ‐ I wish more than anything. But I can’t imagine you with all your complexity, all your perfection, all your imperfection. Look at you. You’re just a shade, you’re just a shade of my real wife.”

Inception (2010): The ultimate dead wife movie from the king of the dead wives trope

The problem with this trend is not that it involves women dying. It’s that it involves women dying so that they can be reduced to one-dimensional characters in a “justifiable” way, so they can be stripped of their agency but still kept around. Now both of the examples I listed before easily classified as Strong Female Characters in life (Mary even defied the laws of physics to take a bullet for Sherlock), and arguably remain so in death. Though neither truly had a chance to be fleshed out all that well, their “ghost” personas were undeniably less than their characters in life, for the very reason Cobb gives in the quote above.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is known, stylistically, for its skillful use of repetition and meaningful cyclic images ‐ usually, shots or particular elements occurring exactly twice. One such repeated image is that of Lisa standing at the door: first, as a love-struck young woman, second, as her ghost, filtered through Stefan’s decidedly shoddy memory. The woman’s film as a genre may be dead, but both Lisa Berndle and her ghost live on through completely separate legacies. That said, there’s one I certainly wouldn’t be sad to see go…

But then again: how do you kill a ghost?

Human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.