It's a beautiful film, for sure, on a visual and dramatic level. The story of a famous pianist who receives a mysterious letter from a woman who claims to have loved him for her entire life only to have been turned away because he was too blind to see who she was. Of course, the tragedy becomes twofold for reasons that seem rather obvious from the opening scene, but that's neither here nor there. For somebody who is notoriously fickle with the tears they shed, I did get quite a bit misty-eyed of Unknown Woman with its delicately fragile lead performance by Joan Fontaine (we were just have a laugh with her last week!) and her tale of operatic woe. The cinematography of Franz Planer is gorgeous with its beautiful rendering of snow and shadow. My particular favourite shot it that overhead shot of Fontaine's "unknown woman" walking away her body casts a shadow as long as her gloom. Just divine.
But where the connection to Birth comes in is remarkable. The films share so much and yet it was something that I only noticed when Unknown Woman, which I had obviously never seen before, utilised the scene of an opera in a very similar way to Glazer's. As Fontaine's Lisa takes her seat to watch Mozart's The Magic Flute, she has just been confronted with the realisation that her one true love has returned. Whilst not quite in the same mysterious fashion as the situation that confronts Nicole Kidman's character in Birth, but the two characters wrestle with their feelings as the power of the music wash over them. It's remarkable how similar the scenes and the character motivations behind them are. Sadly, we are not treated to a masterful three-minute sequence of beguiling close-up in Letter from the Unknown Woman like we are in Birth - I suppose this very mainstream-leaning romance film wasn't quite the place for such a visual move in 1940s Hollywood - but the effect is one and the same. It works.
|Image source, FIPRESCI|
I was thankfully able to view Letter from an Unknown Woman in 35mm print form, which was a wonderful relief. MoMA are screening it again on Monday at 5pm so hopefully I have maybe inspired you to jump on the subway to 53rd street. Coincidentally, Birth will also be screening on 5 June and 12 June at MoMA in a tribute season to cinematographer Harris Savides. I have been told by the MoMA people that it too is screening in 35mm. If somebody would put them together, side-by-side, I think you'd have one hell of devastating double.