Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
’Tis woman’s whole existence.
One gets an impression that a man’s love
and a woman’s are a phase apart
It is a truism of the commercial cinema that the subject of love is central to the standard plot mechanism. Whether the genre is western, musical, crime film, or comedy, the fulcrum of the drama typically rests on a heterosexual romance. In this respect, films partake of a broader feature of the storied world which (contemporary critical theory has shown) relentlessly enacts the erotic quest.3 Roland Barthes writes: “At the origin of Narrative, desire.”4 And Teresa de Lauretis applies that notion to the cinema: “The very work of [film] narrativity is the engagement of the subject in certain positionalities of meaning and desire.”5
In their portrayal of love, however, diegetic forms have not been neutral; they have plotted the romantic quest along the lines of sexual difference, for desire does not exist in the abstract but attaches to a subject, either male or female. Here it is important that the cliched summary of a love story is the phrase “boy meets girl,” revealing the male bias at its core. As de Lauretis points out, storytelling involves the “mapping . . . of sexual difference into each text.”6
This essay will consider the portrayal of heterosexual romance in the cinema through an examination of Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a text from the Hollywood cinema that advances rather conventional attitudes toward the woman in love. In considering this film, attention will be paid to the notion of fiction as structured by desire, as “mapping” sexual difference into the text.
Kiss Me Deadly
The service of women (as well as the
military service of the State) demands that
nothing relating to that service be subject
As critic Michael Walker has noted, the “woman’s film” has always stressed “love as the most crucial determining factor in women’s actions.”8 By this standard, Letter from an Unknown Woman emerges as an exemplary work. It recounts the story of the lifelong passion of Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) for a renowned musician, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), who has seduced and abandoned her as a young woman.9 Given this emphasis, we will want to evaluate the film’s stylistic and thematic assumptions, locating them as either endorsing or resisting traditional romantic views. We will be asking whether Letter conforms to the ideology of the dominant cinema or whether it invites a reading “against the grain.”
Contemporary feminist Shulamith Firestone has written that “a book on radical feminism that did not deal with love would be a political failure.”10 One of the most profound and comprehensive discussions of this issue occurs in an early feminist classic—Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a treatise I will examine in some detail.
The author begins by making the crucial point that love has a different meaning for men and women—a phenomenon that explains the perennial misunderstandings between them.11 She then enumerates these distinctions, starting with the discrepant emphasis placed on love by the two sexes:
Men have found it possible to be passionate lovers at certain times in their lives, but . . . even on their knees before a mistress . . . they remain sovereign subjects; the beloved woman is only one value among others; . . . For woman, on the contrary, to love is to relinquish everything.12
Woman is willing to do so because she has very little to lose. Without a career or a respected cultural position, what else is there to structure her life but a grand amour that delivers her into the proper roles of wife and mother?
But de Beauvoir makes more subtle points. She notes that women devote themselves to men in order to partake of male power—a sphere from which they are otherwise excluded: “The adolescent girl wishes at first to identify herself with males; when she gives that up, she then seeks to share in their masculinity by having one of them in love with her.”13 In adoring a man, woman is allowed to live through him and to experience vicariously what it means to be a subject in the world. Through his admiration, she perceives herself valuable: “Love is the developer that brings out in clear, positive detail the dim negative, otherwise as useless as a blank exposure.”14
In living through man, however, woman obliterates her own existence, “lets her . . . world collapse in contingence.” She becomes “another incarnation of her loved one, his reflection, his double.”15 Thus she is likely to take on his interests: to read the same books, to admire the same artworks, to indulge in the same eccentricities. Given woman’s deferential attitude to her lover, it is no wonder that de Beauvoir likens their relationship to master and slave. But de Beauvoir’s real insight is to perceive how woman masks her servitude through overvaluation of her mate:
Since [woman] is anyway doomed to dependence, she will prefer to serve a god, rather than obey tyrants. . . . She chooses to desire her enslavement so ardently that it will seem to her the expression of her liberty.16
De Beauvoir’s use of the term “god” for the male lover is not gratuitous. She asserts that love is (for the traditional woman) “a religion,” an infatuation comparable to a mystical frenzy17:
The same words fall from the lips of the saint on her knees and the loving woman on her bed; the one offers her flesh to the thunderbolt of Christ, she stretches out her hands to receive the stigmata of the Cross, she calls for the burning presence of divine Love; the other, also, offers and awaits: Thunderbolt, dart, arrow, are incarnated in the male sexual organ.18
By transforming her master into a deity, woman obscures the nature of her servitude, but she also creates an illusion that is hard to maintain. De Beauvoir suggests that this “ideal” love can endure only at a distance that allows the fantasy to be sustained:
[Woman’s] worship sometimes finds better satisfaction in [her lover’s] absence than his presence . . . there are women who devote themselves to dead or otherwise inaccessible heroes, so that they may never have to face them in person, for beings of flesh and blood would be fatally contrary to their dreams.19
Woman’s overinvestment in romance places her in a precarious mental position. She “is one who waits,” and her life hangs in the balance of her paramour’s comings and goings.20 She often succumbs to “self-mutilation” and “paranoia.”21
De Beauvoir stresses the possessiveness that women feel toward the men who occupy such a disproportionate place in their world. Love “comes in the form of a gift,” she writes, “when it is really a tyranny.”22 Jealousy soon emerges, for she who has all invested in love “feels in danger at every moment.”23 Finally, de Beauvoir speaks of the catastrophe of abandonment for women—a situation she suffers more profoundly than man: “A break can leave its mark on a man; but. . . he has his man’s life to live. The abandoned woman no longer has anything.”24 Interestingly, Freud, in discussing the behavior of an hysterical patient, selects (as exemplary) her fantasy of desertion by a man:
She told me that on one occasion she had burst into tears in the street, and that, thinking quickly what she had been crying about, she realized the existence of a phantasy in her mind that a pianist well known in the town (but not personally acquainted with her) had entered into an intimate relationship with her, that she had had a child by him (she was childless) and that he had deserted her and her child and left them in misery. It was at this point of her romance that she burst into tears.25
If love, for woman, can be an experience of mystical ecstasy, it can also be an occasion for monumental pain.
In characterizing the woman in love, de Beauvoir is not dealing with “the laws of nature.” It is not female biology that places woman in this vulnerable position. “It is the difference in their situations that is reflected in the difference men and women show in their conceptions of love.”26
Significantly, de Beauvoir’s remarks on women in love—written in the 1940s and based on observation, diaries, letters, and novels—have recently been corroborated. In Women Who Love Too Much, Robin Norwood finds that an obsession with romance “is primarily a female phenomenon.”27 And in Swept Away: Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality, psychologist Carol Cassell concludes (from her survey of hundreds of individuals) that women are “love junkies” who consistently place a higher value on amorous relationships than men do.28 Cassell also advances a rather interesting new theory concerning female romanticism. Women allow themselves to be “swept off their feet” in order to justify their repressed sexual attraction to men—an impulse censored by traditional patriarchal society:
Swept Away is a sexual strategy, a coping mechanism, which allows women to be sexual in a society that is, at best, still ambivalent about, and at worst, condemnatory of female sexuality.29
Although Cassell’s theory goes beyond that of de Beauvoir, the two formulations converge. Both see the woman in love as propagating illusions—ones that represent her situation as more benign than it is. Cassell states:
The romantic aura is false and confusing. We become deceived about the meaning of our experience. . . . We use this syndrome to inject the thrill of romance into our lives, lives still subject to the constraints imposed on us because we are women, the female gender.30
Letter from an Unknown Woman (based on a story by Stefan Zweig) literalizes and exemplifies the plight of the woman in love, as characterized by de Beauvoir, Norwood, and Cassell. To analyze the film, we will focus on the heroine, Lisa Berndle, and compare her fictional experiences with the theorists more abstract formulations.
V. F. Perkins has stated that “Lisa’s offense is the ‘excessive’ enactment of those qualities which are held out as being woman’s nature and woman’s glory.”31 This is nowhere so true as in her embodiment of the woman in love. For de Beauvoir, the traditional woman views love as an allencompassing experience, the structuring principle of life. This is surely our impression of Lisa’s passion—an emotion that rules out all other possibilities for her future. As her letter to Stefan informs us (rendered in voice-over narration): “Everyone has two birthdays—the day of his physical birth and the beginning of his conscious life.” For Lisa, reality begins (and ends) on the day Stefan moves into her apartment complex, and she is smitten with love.
In keeping with this view, the narrative focuses every moment on Lisa’s relation to Stefan. Even if she thought her life began with his appearance, the diegesis might have presented her world independent of that fateful event—but its point of view is consonant with hers. From the moment she meets Stefan, her life (and the filmic story) is consecrated to him, and all subsequent events are subordinated to their encounters. This contrasts with Stefan’s world, filled with friends, lovers, and career milestones. Significantly, most of the important events in Lisa’s relationship with Stefan occur at railroad stations (their amusement-park ride, his leave-taking, the departure of their son). From the moment she meets him, she leads a decidedly “one-track” existence.
The film does offer some “explanation” for Lisa’s monomania by indicating the lack of options in her life. If her energies were not dedicated to a grand amour, they would be assigned to a bourgeois marriage. The grim social horizon is invoked in the Linz sequence, in which Lisa dates a young lieutenant. All aspects of the scene (analyzed in detail by V. F. Perkins) attest to the constraints of this cultural world: the couple’s dull conversation, the young man’s military role, the deafening church bells, the marching-band music, the entrapping camera movements. Although the film’s sympathy is obviously with Lisa’s romantic, unconventional goal (her desire to have a great passion rather than a pedestrian love), it never questions the assumption that woman’s main concern in life should be love. Rather, it seems only to inquire what kind of love it should be—traditional or otherwise.
If Stefan’s creative possibilities include being a renowned concert pianist, Lisa’s expressive outlet is limited to that of an “artist of love.” As Firestone notes: “Men [have been involved with] thinking, writing and creating, because women were pouring their energy into those men; women are not creating culture because they are preoccupied with love.”32
De Beauvoir also makes the point that women find self-worth in their lovers’ eyes. For Lisa Berndle, actualization comes through association with Stefan Brand. On the day he moves into her house, she watches his possessions carted in and wonders “about [her] neighbor who owned such beautiful things.” The quest of her life is to become another such object that he might possess and cherish. As she remarks in her letter, she “prepared” herself for him by careful grooming. She “kept [her] clothes neater so [he] wouldn’t be ashamed of [her].” Throughout the narrative, Lisa’s wish to be prized by Stefan eludes her, but at the film’s conclusion, her value is finally acknowledged. As though to literalize de Beauvoir’s metaphor of love as a “developer,” a series of images of Lisa crystallize before Stefan’s eyes.
De Beauvoir notes how women live entirely through their men. For Lisa Berndle, this is true not only of her relationship with Stefan but also with her father. On the night of Stefan and Lisa’s fairground date, they sit in a mock train car, watching false scenery pass outside the window; Lisa tells Stefan of her imaginary childhood travels with her dad. This image of Lisa—stationary (amidst the illusion of movement)—objectifies the way in which her false “travels” in life are predicated on men.
De Beauvoir postulates that woman’s intense experience of romance comes from her desire to share in male power—a wish begun in adolescence. Significantly, Lisa is smitten at this precise moment—a period when a girl abruptly learns the constraints of her female role. Her status as Stefan’s “double” comes out quite clearly in her statements and actions. She tells him: “Though I was not able to go to your concerts, I found ways of sharing in your success,” and we see her steal a concert program from a man’s pocket on a crowded trolley. Of course, the most profound way that she lives through Stefan occurs in adulthood, when she secretly bears his child and dedicates her life to father and son.
De Beauvoir sees this obsessive quality of female love as a misguided means of appropriating male power. But, as Tania Modleski has noted, in the woman’s film “it is . . . not the virile, masculinized male . . . who elicits woman’s desire . . . but the feminine man: the attractive, cosmopolitan type . . . or the well-bred, charming foreigner.”33 Stefan Brand stands among this fraternity. Modleski sees woman’s attraction to this figure as a means to subvert masculine power, since “the man with ‘feminine’ attributes frequently functions as a figure upon whom feminine desires for freedom from patriarchal authority may be projected.” However, given de Beauvoir’s theory, we might read woman’s choice of this type of man in an alternate manner. Rather than undermining patriarchy, he may secure it by making a woman’s “doubling” of him that much easier, invoking what Mary Ann Doane calls “a thematics of narcissim.”34
In Letter, Lisa fully accepts the fact that her entrée to power comes only through Stefan, and, in his absence, she bears him a child (as surrogate lover). She thereby enacts the Freudian scenario by which woman “adjusts” to her castrated status by converting her desire for a penis into the wish for a baby (a transformation made more “perfect” by the birth of a son). Echoing this sentiment, Lisa writes to Stefan: “My life was measured by the moments with you and our child.”
Lisa’s love for Stefan also embodies the master/slave dynamic. (At one point she even talks of wanting “to throw [herself] at [his] feet.”) Like a vassal, she expects nothing from him. She is content to sit in her bed at night listening to his music, believing that he is “giving [her] some of the happiest hours of [her] life.”
If Stefan offers her nothing, she makes of her life a gift to him. The night he first notices her and they enjoy a romantic interlude, she asks, “How could I help you?” And later, when she explains to him why she has never come for assistance, she says, “I wanted to be one woman whom you had known who asked you for nothing.” Finally, when they reencounter each other at the opera, she says, “I’d come to offer you my whole life,” and regrets that he cannot recognize “what was always [his].” Thus, in love, man is to be the consumer and woman the consumed.
Not only does Lisa make of her life a gift to Stefan but, as in all classical narratives, her love is “present”-ed to him at the conclusion of the story with the arrival of her confessional note. This pattern of “boy getting girl” is traditional in drama: one need only think of Northrop Frye’s analysis of comic structure as a case in point.35 This archetypal narrative pattern also conforms to the male oedipal scenario, whereby the young boy is “assured” the prize of a woman if he relinquishes his love for mother.36
Within traditional literature, woman’s position and story is quite different from man’s. Her narrative does not recount the achievement of her romantic goals but, rather, charts her role in the fulfillment of male desire. She functions as a character in somebody else’s plot. As de Lauretis writes:
The end of the girl’s journey, if successful, will bring her to the place where the boy will find her, like Sleeping Beauty, awaiting him, Prince Charming. For the boy has been promised, by the social contract he has entered into at his Oedipal phase, that he will find a woman waiting at the end of his journey.37
In Letter, Stefan realizes the gift of Lisa’s love before he faces his fatal duel. Lisa, however, never receives her reward: by the time Prince Charming bestows his kisses, Sleeping Beauty is already dead.
De Beauvoir’s perception of woman’s deification of the male lover resounds in Letter. Critics have noted the film’s Catholic sense of fate, and some have even offhandedly characterized Lisa as a “Lady Madonna.”38 But none have surfaced the parallels between her stance and that of a religious novitiate. Her attitude toward Stefan is one of worship for a god, and she seems more like a nun than a schoolgirl. Most evocative is the scene in which she sneaks into Stefan’s apartment, and walks through it in a religious thrall. His rooms have more the hallowed ambience of a church than the atmosphere of a bachelor apartment. Her worship of Stefan is apparent in her desire to “throw [herself] at [his] feet” and in her adoration of him playing the piano. As though aware of her pure transcendent quality, Stefan gives her a white (rather than a red) rose, a tribute to her bloodless holiness. Like the religious devotee, Lisa’s god/lover is conveniently absent—someone to adore in the abstract, at a material and physical distance. Significantly, she gives birth to Stefan’s child in a Catholic hospital, tended by sisters—and the letter telling Stefan of her death comes on stationery emblazoned with a cross. Both the epistolary format and the transcendent ending of the film are reminiscent not so much of other woman’s pictures as of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951). For Lisa, the struggle to maintain a self-negating love seems not so much the achievement of ideal romance as that of spiritual grace.
Stefan’s removal from Lisa also insures that his presence will be in the form of an illusory mental image. She is with him for only one night, and during the rest of her life she sustains him as a fantasy. Rather than a real flesh-and-blood man, he is like a wax figure—a comparison she suggests on the night of their carriage ride when she predicts that his likeness will one day appear in a museum.
The sense of Stefan as a mere image on Lisa’s mind screen suggests certain parallels between him and a male film star. For Stefan, love is an act: on the night of the couple’s first encounter, they sit together in a restaurant booth, framed on two sides by curtains that make the site of their tête-à-tête into a kind of stage. Stefan is also, quite literally, a performer; in the same scene, he autographs a woman’s concert program and eight-by-ten glossy photo. If Stefan is a matinee idol, Lisa is a loyal and adoring “fan.” Like a classic female viewer, she watches the romantic lead from afar—as an unseen voyeur.
Perhaps, in some sense, all women in love share Lisa’s predicament. For traditional heterosexual romance to work, they must assume the role of passive spectators of masculine power and transpose their lovers into distant, overblown images. De Lauretis finds parallels between the act of seduction and woman’s film-viewing experience:
If women spectators are to buy their tickets and their popcorn, the work of cinema . . . may be said to require woman’s consent; and we may well suspect that narrative cinema in particular must be aimed, like desire, toward seducing women into femininity.39
The situation involves a complex and infinite regression: as Lisa is seduced by Stefan (an ersatz “movie” image), so the female spectator watching Letter is seduced by the image of Stefan seducing her.
Cassell’s notion of women as Swept Away is also relevant to Letter, for the film obliquely suggests such repression of female desire. Modleski cites a particular moment in the film when Lisa reencounters Stefan at the opera house and looks at him with the erotic concentration usually reserved for men: “Here we find . . . the possibility of feminine desire being actively aimed at the passive, eroticized male.” But this impulse is ultimately denied by Lisa’s voice-over narration, which says: “Somewhere out there were your eyes and I knew I couldn’t escape them.” Thus, although the film depicts Lisa enraptured with desire for Stefan, she conceives of herself as being desired by him. Thus, as Doane notes, the patriarchal “flaw” of the traditional love story is “to posit the very possibility of female desire.” But “for this reason, it often ends badly.”40
De Beauvoir tells us that the woman in love is one who waits. On the evening of Lisa’s departure for Linz, she bolts from the train station and returns to her vacant apartment. She runs to Stefan’s door and, finding him out, decides to stay. Ultimately, he comes back with another woman, and Lisa retreats. But her vigil does not end on Stefan’s doorstep. The rest of her life is lived in suspended animation, marking time with another man but anticipating Stefan.
In The Desire to Desire, Doane discusses Roland Barthes’s insight that woman’s conventional pose of waiting generates powers of fantasy. He writes: “It is Woman who gives shape to absence, elaborates its fiction, for she has the time to do so.”41 But Doane expands the point by noting that female desire itself can take on an imaginary quality, a fact that is evident in many 1940s love stories:
The essentially fictive character of female desire is frequently demonstrated by the woman’s demand for “all of nothing.” . . . The ultimate consequence of this . . . attitude . . . is illustrated by those films in which a woman spends almost her entire life loving a man who, when he meets her again, does not recognize her.42
Letter stands among these works, and Lisa’s desire for Stefan is so fanciful that it sustains an entire life without him.
Doane also makes the point that women’s pictures reproduce scenarios of female masochism. In characterizing that syndrome (via Freud), she notes how women’s masochistic fantasies are de-eroticized. For men, sexual reveries are utilized in conjunction with masturbation, whereas for women, the “fantasy . . . becomes an end in itself.” Masochistic daydreams function not as vehicles for sexuality but instead of it.43 It is this substitution of fantasy for eroticism that we find in the life of Lisa Berndle, who survives on imaginary images of Stefan in lieu of any carnal relation with him. Perhaps there is even a way that the camera work employed in Letter accentuates Lisa’s fiction. The tracking shot is so omnipresent, so tied to her (in its anthropomorphic fluctuations), that we almost feel it her companion—a dream lover that stands in Stefan’s place.
While much of Letter conforms to de Beauvoir’s portrait of the woman in love, one aspect of her characterization is missing: the experience of malaise. (Robin Norwood will later equate woman’s enactment of romance with the sensation of pain.)44 Whereas de Beauvoir’s female lover is possessive and jealous, Lisa Berndle is saintly and selfless. While de Beauvoir’s woman veers toward madness, Lisa Berndle seems stoic and sane. On the one hand, this portrayal seems a positive view of woman, avoiding certain stereotypes of neurosis. On the other hand, the film’s denial of woman’s suffering only encourages martyrdom by imagining that such devotion can be practiced at no psychic cost.
In Letter, the difficult periods of Lisa’s life have been excised from the text. The narrative cuts directly from Stefan’s departure at the train station to Lisa’s stay at the maternity hospital, eliminating the undoubtedly stressful period of her pregnancy. Likewise, her letter skips from the nine-year period of her single parenthood to her marriage to the affluent Johann Stauffer. We are allowed to see only the high points of her life when she is seemingly in control. Yet de Beauvoir has indicated how abandonment by a lover precipitates a major crisis for woman. Despite Letter’s excision of this trauma, the repressed returns in the form of the heroine’s death. As Doane has noted, this conclusion is a staple of the genre and reveals its precarious ideological position: “The inability of a large proportion of love stories in the 40s to produce the classical happy ending . . . is a sign of the love story’s vulnerability, the fragility of its project.”45
In discussing the woman’s film, many theorists have linked the configuration of melodrama to conversion hysteria and have likened its heroines to neurotic victims.46 (Recall, too, the fantasy of Freud’s hysterical patient, who imagines an unrequited love affair with a pianist—a virtual “script” for Letter.) Modleski, however, questions the applicability of this concept to Lisa Berndle. On the one hand, her struggle could be read as “the classic dilemma of . . . the hysterical woman,” and her chronic muteness seen as a sign of this illness.47 Although Modleski admits that Lisa’s life is marked by nostalgia, she does not see her as suffering from reminiscence in the orthodox Freudian sense.48 Rather, Modleski turns critical cliches on their head and points to Stefan as the true hysteric:
Superficially it appears in the film woman’s time is hysterical time. . . . Closer analysis, however, reveals Stefan is the hysteric. . . . For Stefan is the one who truly suffers from reminiscences. . . . Unable to remember the woman who alone gives his life significance, Stefan is doomed to an existence of meaningless repetition, especially in relation to women, who become virtually indistinguishable to him.49
In conceiving Stefan as an hysteric, and in positioning the male lover as potentially unbalanced, Modleski has pointed to a crucial issue—that heterosexual love, as contained in patriarchal culture, breeds pathology. If women in love hover on the brink of destruction, men will fare no better. Thus the film gives us a sense of the limitations of both characters—of the struggles enacted by both individuals in the dynamics of love. Perhaps this is even figured into one of its stylistic tropes, which connects (with a “blur-in”/“blur-out” motif) shots of Stefan reading and flashbacks of Lisa—a technical metaphor for the psychic murkiness of their relationship. Rather than simply reverse polarities, we might also consider whether the classic male pattern is a different one, whose distinctive features explain his perils in romantic engagement.
We might begin by configuring Stefan as a particular type of hysteric, specifically an amnesiac. If Lisa is haunted by an inability to forget (anyone but herself), Stefan is plagued by an inability to remember. In a way, Stefan even suffers a double amnesia by forgetting Lisa twice—as an adolescent and as a young woman. His memory lapse runs even deeper, however. It is the fact that he has forgotten his trip to Milan that leads him to break his date with Lisa after their first night of love. Although he vows to return in two weeks, he forgets that promise as well. Through it all, Stefan even forgets his recurrent amnesia: the night after rediscovering Lisa at the opera, he thoughtlessly tells her that he “couldn’t get [her] out of [his] mind.”
In its classic configuration, amnesia constitutes a “partial or total loss of memory” and is attributed to “shock, psychological disturbance, brain injury or illness.”50 But, as Freud tells us in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, even quotidian forgetting has its tendentious causes. He refers to such mental lapses officially as “amnesia” and says that “in all cases” they “proved to be founded on a motive of displeasure”51: “One . . . finds abundant indications which show that even in healthy, not neurotic, persons resistances are found against the memory of disagreeable impressions and the idea of painful thoughts.”52 Thus Stefan’s forgetting of Lisa can be seen as more than accidental. As Freud remarks: “Lack of attention does not in itself suffice to explain . . . the forgetting of intentions.”53 But what does?
To pursue this question, let us analyze the character of Stefan once more—this time looking to the psychic syndrome of Don Juanism for clues to his motivation. Stefan is an inveterate womanizer, an “obsessive seducer.”54 He is a selfish man for whom love is a game that he seeks to win at the least possible psychic cost. Hélène Cixous has commented on how the Lothario exemplifies the patriarchal stance to the world:
Take Don Juan and you have the whole masculine economy getting together to “give women just what it takes to keep them in bed” then swiftly taking back the investment, then reinvesting etc., so that nothing ever gets given, everything gets taken back, while in the process the greatest possible dividend of pleasure is taken. Consumption without payment, of course.55
But what is the accepted psychological explanation for Don Juan’s behavior? In Beyond the Male Myth, Anthony Pietropinto and Jacqueline Simenauer advance the theory of the womanizer as a sexually insecure man who is led “to seek new women in order to validate again and again that [he] can satisfy a woman.”56 Although this explanation works up to a point, they note that it does not account for why a man “would repeatedly risk failure and discount the approval of many women in the hope of adding one more to his growing list.”57 Rather, they see this quest for the confirmation of manhood as “only half the story.”
The other part involves the idealization of women, the unconscious search for the perfect mother—a quest resulting in inevitable disillusionment and retreat. The Don Juan is a man who has not recovered from the oedipal shock of maternal separation—and the introduction of the paternal “third term.” In his adult romantic relationships, he continues to look for a “doting mother,” despite the fact that each successive woman will fail to meet his impossible expectations.58
In Letter, Stefan enacts an oedipal scenario. As Modleski has noted, for most of the film he refuses the Law of the Father; only at the end does he learn to “accept the values of duty and sacrifice espoused by his patriarchal society.”59 Furthermore, he flits from woman to woman in a hopeless and repetitious hunt for the mother. The teenaged Lisa observes Stefan kissing a woman on the stairs of his apartment building, and later she occupies the same position herself. In filming her with Stefan, the identical camera stance is adopted, implying that there will yet be others. Stefan’s search for the ideal woman is clearly driven and relentless: at one point (when he reencounters Lisa after many years), he questions which of them is the pursuer and which the pursued. This dual sense attaches to Stefan himself, who, in seeking women, is also sought by the maternal imago.
Although Stefan is an adult, sophisticated “older man” who sweeps the pubescent Lisa off her feet, he displays childlike qualities. On the night of their fateful tryst, he says that Lisa “may be able to help [him] some day.” And during the evening, she acts like a fussing parent, bundling him up on the carriage ride and putting a scarf at his neck. “It’s a long time since anyone did that for me,” he sighs, and we can guess what he means. Years later, when he meets Lisa at the opera, though he does not recognize her, he says she’s the face he’s been waiting for and asks quizzically: “Who are you?” Finally, when they rendezvous at his apartment, he tells her of a mystery goddess he has sought but never found—one who (like a mother) could makes his life “begin.”
Lisa serves a double function in Stefan’s world: she is both lover and maternal surrogate. She is familiar to him not only because he has really met her before but because all women embody for him (and recall) the archetypal mother. Because of this, she must be forgotten—for his attraction represents too great a threat.
Beyond the Don Juan’s excessive love for the mother are feelings of a darker nature, perhaps shared by all men. Nancy Friday has commented on this male hostility toward women, ascribing it to the controlling position of the mother. She notes that “power in women produces an enormous rage in men but since their need for us is equally powerful, they bury their anger.”60 Hence, it is easy to see the Don Juan’s sadistic treatment of his female lovers as a punitive, misogynistic act—one that misses its mark (the mother) and strikes other women instead. The classic Don Juan has two reasons to repress the mother figure: he loves her too much, and he hates her for claiming that affection. In Letter, even the mechanism of Stefan’s “amnesia” (his forgetting Lisa instead of his mother) conforms to Freud’s model, by which the mind “misses the target and causes something else to be forgotten—something less significant, but which has fallen into associative connection with the disagreeable material.”61
This sense of Stefan’s psychosexual repression of Lisa is particularly intriguing since any representation of the couple’s lovemaking is excised from the screen by a fade (as it is from Stefan’s mind). Stephen Heath rejects the notion that this absence is merely the result of 1940s censorship:
As always . . . the centered image mirrors a structure that is in excess of its effect of containment, that bears the traces of the heterogeneity—the trouble—it is produced to contain: sexuality here is also the “more” that the look elides, that is eluded from, the look, and that returns.62
Hence the fade, and more crucially Stefan’s forgetfulness, represents not only repression but oedipal blindness—an inability to see the psychic roots of his distress; and it seems no accident that his visual nonrecognition of Lisa is at the core of the story. Significantly, there are only two memorable shot/countershot sequences between the protagonists in Letter (which is reasonable, considering it is a film about Stefan not returning Lisa’s look). But even these moments, which, on the surface, emphasize Stefan’s apprehension of her, ultimately reveal his failed vision.
The first sequence occurs when he reencounters Lisa as a young woman, as she stalks the square where he resides. After a resonant exchange of glances (when we hope that he will recognize her), he says only that he has seen her there before—a few nights ago. The second time this dramatic shot/countershot structure is used occurs during the opera sequence. Stefan tells Lisa, “I have seen you somewhere,” but adds that he “can’t place [her.]” Only after reading Lisa’s letter does he acknowledge his love for a woman, and only then can he “see” her. Significantly, the film ends with a series of Stefan’s recollections of Lisa, whereby he finally re-vises their relationship. Ironically, at this moment of insight, Stefan covers his eyes in remorse, as thought to underscore his previous blindness. For Lisa, it has always been possible to see the invisible (to imagine Stefan in his absence). But, for Stefan it has been impossible to see what was there. His forgetfulness is made more poignant by the fact of the cinematic medium. If Stefan forgets, the film constantly “recalls” in its role as re-presentational. As de Lauretis has noted: “Film re-members (fragments and makes whole again) the object of vision for the spectator.”63
For final confirmation of Stefan as a Don Juan, we might look to the manner in which he meets his death. After realizing his repression of Lisa (and ostensibly the oedipal desire at its base), he faces a duel with Lisa’s husband—an act that Modleski has noted evokes castration.64 Johann Stauffer is an older man and the legitimate possessor of the woman Stefan loves; hence, it is not a distortion to see him as a father figure.65 At the moment of Stefan’s comprehension of the dual nature of his attraction to women (lover as mother/mother as lover), he faces a duel (a challenge of phallic swords) with an elderly opponent worthy of his infantile hostility and fear.
Thus the film configures Lisa’s sublime amorous posture not as some hysterical aberration but rather, as a “reproduction of mothering.” We should recall that Freud, in his essay on femininity, stated that a heterosexual relationship “is not made secure until the wife has succeeded in making her husband her child as well as in acting as mother to him.”66 Like a good parent, Lisa offers Stefan unconditional love—and requires nothing in return. Like a good parent, she accepts the fact that he will abandon her and go off into the world. Lisa even literalizes her maternal/romantic role by bearing Stefan’s child—a boy (named Stefan) who stands in his place. Obviously, this role for the woman in love can function only because it satisfies the traditional man, who seeks in his mate a mother substitute.
The sense of male/female relationships as being mired in the infantile past comes out on many levels in the film. Critics have remarked on its temporal complexity which involves (1) the time of Lisa’s writing the letter (as represented by her off-screen narration); (2) the time to which the letter refers (as represented by flashbacks to her childhood, adolescence, and youth); (3) the time of Stefan’s reading of the letter (the night before the duel); and (4) the time of Lisa’s death and the delivery of the letter to Stefan (which we never see). Although this chronological intricacy has been acknowledged, its symbolization of psychic entrapment has not been underscored. Direct reference to stasis is made by Stefan on several occasions in the film. On the night he first notices Lisa in his neighborhood square, he comments that he “almost never get[s] to the place [he] start[s] out for.” And later, on the fairground train ride, he jokes with Lisa about “reliving the scenes of their youth.” Finally, on the night following their meeting at the opera, he talks of how “all clocks stopped” the moment he saw her. In truth, for Stefan, all clocks stopped even earlier—at the oedipal stage. This emphasis on stagnation is made still more poignant in the film by Ophuls’s formal reliance on camera movement—a technical (and ironic) counterpoint to the narrative impasse.
It would be a mistake to think of the film as naive or sentimental in its depiction of love. Wood, for instance, states that “irony is as essential to the Ophuls tone as his romanticism.”67 What Letter shows us, after all, is a case of amour fou, one whose consummation comes in death—hardly a very sanguine circumstance. But what remains an open question is how to characterize the film’s precise attitude.
Critics have struggled with this issue and arrived at divergent conclusions. Michael Walker, for example, sees the woman’s film not merely as depicting the plight of the woman in love but as confronting the issue head-on:
In the woman’s film . . . what we so often see is how love serves to lead women into positions of oppression: to sacrifice themselves for their families/lovers, to submit “willingly” to suffering and endure wasted lives—in short, to embrace the role of “victim.” And so the woman’s film raises, very acutely, the problem of love.68
V. F. Perkins, on the other hand, reads the woman’s film in a contrary manner, finding in it only “an indulgence of the stereotyped opposition of emotional woman . . . and rational man.”69
This is clearly a very slippery issue. How do we know if the hyperbolic strategies of the text (its presentation of an extreme case of the woman in love) amount to an exaggeration of the situation or a critique? To pursue this, we must inquire how the film constructs its two protagonists. Despite Letter’s ironic presentation of Lisa’s delusional love (its emphasis on her folly and self-destructiveness), melodramatic heroism still attaches to her actions. The film tacitly endorses her hopeless passion as a valiant spiritual goal. In this respect, it denies her the tragic position, which would characterize her life as ill spent on unrequited love. Rather, it reserves that stance for Stefan, and the film recounts his loss. The tragedy lies not in the fact that a woman has made of her life a hollow tribute to a callous male but in the fact that the man has not accepted the gift. Some critics have not only refused Lisa her own tragedy but have seen her responsible for Stefan’s. Wood writes:
The more times one sees the film, the more one has the sense . . . of the possibility of a film against Lisa: it would require only a shift of emphasis for this other film to emerge. It is not simply that Ophuls makes it possible for us to blame Lisa for destroying her eminently civilized marriage to a kind (if unpassionate) man, and the familial security he has given her and her son; it is also almost possible to blame Lisa and her refusal to compromise for Stefan’s ruin.70
Lisa’s status is also denied through the undermining of her point of view. Although the story seems to be offered from her perspective, her subjectivity is qualified. Wood speaks of how the film frequently violates the conventions of first-person cinematic narrative, “taking great liberties with such an assumption.”71 If we examine the structure of Letter, we find many episodes that validate this observation. During the Linz sequence, the camera leaves Lisa to focus on secret conversations with her parents, who discuss their hopes for her engagement. Later in the film, when she and Stefan go to a café, the camera focuses on Stefan secretly instructing the maitre d’ to give his excuses to another woman. These are both scenes that delineate actions unknown to Lisa and, hence, obviate her point of view.
Lisa’s position is also subverted by the narrative structure of the film. It is true that the screen story issues from her letter, which determines the diegetic events. But her writing of the letter (and, hence, her female voice) is subsumed by the act of Stefan’s apprehension of it. Once more, the presentation of woman’s world is mediated by male consciousness; she is “read” by him. But the film is about reading in a broader sense than simply comprehending words on a page; it is about one person “reading” (or “misreading”) another. As a teenager and young woman, Lisa “reads” Stefan as a passionate lover and a promising artist—an interpretation that turns out to be grossly distorted. Likewise, Stefan “misreads” Lisa as a shallow, infatuated young woman who will recover from his callow rebuff; furthermore, he mistakes her passion for a “crush.” But the film argues for a larger sense of misprision in heterosexual relationships, whereby men and women misread their lovers by seeing them as mythic gods, children, or parents rather than as equal human beings. Ironically, when Stefan eventually “reads” Lisa correctly, on the night he scans her letter, the process kills him. Stefan’s tendency to regard Lisa as a text may also explain his inveterate amnesia. As Roland Barthes claims: “It is precisely because [we] forget that [we] read.”72
Finally, there seems a resonant truth in the film’s emphasis on the issue of visibility and invisibility, on presence and absence. Stefan not only has trouble remembering Lisa, he has difficulty envisioning her at all! She is transparent to him as a teenager, and later, as a young woman, she must stalk his street repeatedly before he notices her. For Lisa, the problem is the opposite; Stefan burns such a potent visual impression on her mind that she continues to see him when he is not there—as a haunting “afterimage” on her emotional life. Within the terms of the film, we might say that woman is invisible and man is visible; he is seen and she is unseen.
Luce Irigaray comments that in Western culture, “the male sex [has become] the sex because it is very visible,” while “[woman’s] sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to see. A defect in this systematics of representation and desire. A ‘hole’ in its scopophilic lens.”73 She also implies that, within masculine society, what is visible is valued, while what is invisible is worthless; hence, discrepant attitudes arise toward male and female sexuality.
Irigaray also discusses the two sexes’ opposing relation to the act of vision: “investment in the look is not privileged in women as in men.” With control of the gaze comes male power, for “the eye objectifies and masters” and “sets at a distance.”74 The unseen female sex does not wield or value vision like the specular/spectacular male.
In Letter, man is superficially associated with the look—be it Stefan’s seductive glance or that of the voyeuristic camera. As Irigaray implies, the look tends to objectify and master woman, establishing her as a figure of desire. In Stefan’s case, it clearly “sets” Lisa “at a distance”—one that spans their entire lifetime. But if Stefan looks at Lisa, he never sees her; thus the master of the eye is blind to more profound in-sights. As Stefan is oblivious to Lisa, so is he to his own motives for spurning her. If she is invisible to him, so is the awesome maternal ghost that haunts him—the real “unknown woman” in his life.
In some oblique fashion, these issues circle back to the plight of the woman in love (much as the film circles back to its own beginning). Though conceived as a vision of pleasure, woman remains fundamentally invisible to man. If he sees her at all, he looks right through her to the background figure of the maternal imago. Perhaps all female lovers are “unknown women”—unrecognized by the men they love. (Geoffrey Now-ell-Smith writes that in melodrama, “Femininity . . . is not only unknown but unknowable.”75) But it is an even greater loss that these women are “unknown” to themselves. In “doubling” the male lover, in living “through” him, they negate their own existence. Women may be seduced and abandoned not only by their paramours but by their own acceptance of restrictive views on love.
1. Lord Byron, quoted in Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H. M. Parshley, New York: Vintage (1974), p. 712.
2. Sigmund Freud, “Femininity,” in James Strachey, ed., The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, London: Hogarth Press (1955), vol. 22, p. 134. Quoted in Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1984), p. 133.
3. Roland Barthes, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang (1974); Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Texts, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang (1975); René Girard, Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure, trans. Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (1966); Edward Branigan, Point of View in the Cinema: A Theory of Narration and Subjectivity in Classical Film, New York: Mouton (1984).
4. Barthes, S/Z, p. 88.
5. De Lauretis, p. 106.
6. Ibid., p. 121.
7. Freud, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, trans. A. A. Brill, New York: New American Library (1960), p. 79.
8. Michael Walker, “Ophuls in Hollywood,” Movie, nos. 29-30 (Summer 1982). The section on Letter is on pp. 43-48.
9. Letter is set in Vienna in about 1900. Pianist Stefan Brand returns to his apartment in the early hours of the morning, having been challenged to a duel; he intends to flee from that engagement. His servant hands him a letter, which he begins to read. It is from Lisa Berndle, a woman who has loved him since her childhood, whom he can barely remember. In flashbacks, narrated by Lisa’s voice-over monologue, the events of the past are recalled for Stefan: the day he moved into the apartment house where the adolescent Lisa lived, her crush on him, her refusal to marry a young officer because of her desire for Stefan. In addition to informing Stefan of events in which he did not participate, Lisa’s letter reminds him of their encounters. After Lisa’s parents move to Linz, she returns to Vienna, working as a model and stalking the streets on which Stefan lives. One night he notices her, and they share a romantic evening. He dates her once again, then informs her that he must leave on tour; he promises to return in two weeks but never does. We learn that Lisa has become pregnant by Stefan and bears his child without ever contacting him. She later marries Johan Stauffer, a wealthy officer, and settles into a comfortable bourgeois existence with him and Stefan’s son. One night (some ten years later) at the opera, she recognizes Stefan in the audience, and he senses they have met before. The next day, Lisa sends her son back to boarding school without realizing that he is seated in a train car contaminated by typhus. Hoping that Brand will finally recognize her devotion, Lisa goes to his apartment but finds that he does not recall their romantic history—that he treats her like one more casual conquest. Lisa’s husband learns that she has seen Stefan and challenges him to a duel. Upon reading the final lines of Lisa’s letter (which reveals that she has contracted typhus and is dying), Stefan goes downstairs to fight Stauffer. As he walks out the door where he first met Lisa, he finally has an accurate vision of her.
10. Shulamith Firestone, in Sheila Ruth, ed., Issues in Feminism: A First Course in Women’s Studies, Boston: Houghton Miffin (1980), p. 271.
11. De Beauvoir, p. 712.
12. Ibid., p. 713.
13. Ibid., p. 714.
14. Ibid., p. 718.
15. Ibid., p. 725.
16. Ibid., pp. 713-14.
17. Ibid., p. 714.
18. Ibid., p. 720.
19. Ibid., p. 727.
20. Ibid., p. 736.
21. Ibid., pp. 722, 732.
22. Ibid., p. 728.
23. Ibid., p. 735.
24. Ibid., p. 739.
25. Freud in “Hysterical Phantasies . . .” in Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff, New York: Collier (1963), p. 146.
26. De Beauvoir, p. 713.
27. Robin Norwood, Women Who Love Too Much, New York: Pocket Books, (1986), p. xv.
28. Carol Cassell, Swept Away: Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality, New York: Simon & Schuster (1981), pp. 490, 51.
29. Ibid., p. 25.
30. Ibid., pp. 26-27.
31. V. F. Perkins, “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” Movie, nos. 29-30 (Summer 1982): 71.
32. Firestone, p. 271.
33. Tania Modleski, “Time and Desire in the Woman’s Film,” Cinema Journal 23, no. 3 (Spring 1984): 26.
34. Ibid.; Mary Ann Doane, The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press (1987), p. 116.
35. See Northrop Frye, “The Mythos of Spring: Comedy,” in The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1957), pp. 163-86.
36. Raymond Bellour, quoted in Janet Bergstrom, “Alternation, Segmentation, Hypnosis: Interview with Raymond Bellour,” Camera Obscura, no. 3-4 (Summer 1979): 90.
37. De Lauretis, p. 133.
38. Robin Wood, “Ewig hin der Liebe Gluck,” Personal Views: Explorations in Film, London: Gordon Fraser (1976), pp. 131-32; V. F. Perkins, “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” Movie, nos. 29-30 (Summer 1982): 72.
39. De Lauretis, pp. 136-37.
40. Modleski, pp. 25-26; Doane, p. 118.
41. Roland Barthes, quoted in Doane, p. 109. The original citation is from A Lover’s Discourse, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang (1978), p. 41.
42. Doane, p. 169.
43. Ibid., pp. 23, 24.
44. Norwood, p. xiii.
45. Doane, p. 118.
46. See Geoffry Nowell-Smith, “Minnelli and Melodrama,” Screen 18 (Summer 1977): 117.
47. Modleski, p. 20.
48. Ibid., p. 23.
49. Ibid., p. 24.
50. William Morris, ed., American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (1978), p. 43.
51. Freud, Psychopathology, p. 68.
52. Ibid., p. 74.
53. Ibid., p. 78.
54. Wood, p. 130.
55. Hélène Cixous, “Castration or Decapitation?” trans. Annette Kuhn, Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 47.
56. Anthony Pietropinto and Jacqueline Simenauer, Beyond the Male Myth, New York: New York Times Book (1977), p. 295.
59. Modleski, p. 19.
60. Nancy Friday, quoted in Cassell, pp. 150-51.
61. Freud, Psychopathology, p. 75.
62. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1981), p. 146.
63. De Lauretis, p. 67.
64. Modleski, p. 20.
65. Ibid., p. 24.
66. Sigmund Freud, quoted in Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press (1985), p. 64. From “New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,” in Strachey, 22:117-18.
67. Wood, p. 124.
68. Walker, p. 43.
69. Perkins, p. 71.
70. Wood, pp. 129-30.
71. Ibid., p. 127.
72. Barthes, S/Z, p. 11.
73. Irigaray, quoted in Heath, p. 161; and Irigaray, This Sex, pp. 25-26.
74. Irigaray, in Heath, p. 161.
75. Nowell-Smith, p. 116.