[Spoiler warning heads up thing: this contains pretty specific descriptions of the endings of both the film Letter From an Unknown Woman and the book I Love Dick.]
Letter From an Unknown Woman is more or less I Love Dick in 1900 Vienna.
Okay, it’s a movie made in 1948, so it doesn’t have the whole fiction/memoir/conceptual art slippage that makes I Love Dick so important. But they are both about one woman’s radical want – and they both force you to watch (and sympathize with) a woman making a series of really bad love decisions.
It’s a story about a woman so consumed by her love (from afar) of a famous pianist that she keeps walking out on her conventional obligations. He lives in her building when she’s a young girl, and when her mom decides to move she actually runs away from the train station to go see him. Once she grows up and can make her own schedule she basically spends every night hanging out outside his apartment waiting for him to walk by. Until one day he notices her, they spend the night together (he buys her a white rose and they talk about travel), and then he has to leave on tour with his orchestra. He promises to see her when he gets back, she knows he’s lying. She still names their son after him. They meet again years later (after she’s married someone else), and he approaches her. She shows up to his apartment with a bouquet of white roses, and they speak intimately at first. Then, he asks coldly “So you travel a great deal?”
That moment is the Xeroxed letter at the end of I Love Dick. She realizes that not only does he not share her feelings, he doesn’t even remember who she is. The conversation at the centre of her emotional life was just his line.
The movie’s structured as a series of flashbacks, narrated with the text of the letter our heroine has sent to said pianist. She’s loved him since she was a girl living in the apartment next door, listening to him practice and watching him bring home a parade of different women. Eventually he gets to the end of the letter and realizes not only who she is, but that she’s died and it’s partially his fault. The film ends with him walking into a duel that will probably mean his death.
She devotes her time to “preparing herself” for him: keeping her clothes neater, researching the lives of the great musicians, even pickpocketing (and then returning) a program to his concert from a man on the tram. Her mother moves her away from Vienna and introduces her to a nice young man, but when he starts to propose she stammers that she’s secretly engaged to someone else – and then goes back to Vienna on her own. It’s painful to watch the same I Love Dick is painful to read – you cringe for her because you know the intensity of her love won’t ever be returned – but you also have to admire its clarity of purpose.
There is a shift once she returns to Vienna, from girl Lisa to woman Lisa, that is marked by the look. Girl Lisa is constantly gazing, almost invisible. She she’s peeking in windows and hiding in staircases, and the camera really follows her eye. Her perspective is overwhelming. But woman Lisa is constantly, aggressively visible. She actually works as a model in a dress shop; it’s during this time when Stefan finally looks back. But of course he doesn’t really see her. He just sees a pretty girl who’s making it easy for him.
Just like Chris in I Love Dick, the affair is so powerful because it’s so one-sided. At one point she writes to Dick:
You’re shrunk and bottled in a glass jar, you’re a portable saint. Knowing you’s like knowing Jesus. There are billions of us and only one of you so I don’t expect much from you personally. There are no answers to my life. But I’m touched by you and fulfilled just by believing.
I think Lisa, too, is fulfilled just by believing in Stefan.
I’ve been reading Window Shopping by Ann Friedberg, and part of it’s about the development of the mobile female gaze through shopping, particularly within the institution of the department store, which was a respectable way for women to be out in public alone, in the 19th century (as a precursor to cinema). Letter From an Unknown Woman is set in this point of transition, and this is important.
Lisa sees Stefan’s things before she sees Stefan. The beginning of her enchantment is when she sees the movers bringing up his beautiful furniture.
Their one date sees them talking about travel as they sit in a “virtual train” at a fairgrounds. It’s a railroad car with a moving painted backdrop outside its window. This kind of protocinematic “attraction” was really popular in the 19th century and is generally understood as being a symptom of and/or helping to create a visual culture primed for the cinematic. A lot of early films were travelogues, too: it was another way to allow people to pay for an experience without having to actually leave.
The first real movie ever made is of a train.
Lisa’s fate is sealed by trains twice: once when Stefan leaves her, promising to return, though she knows he won’t; once when she contracts typhus from a contaminated rail car, the rail car she is sending her son away in, so he won’t be damaged by her decision to run away with a dissolute, aging musician.
I’m not quite sure how, but I’m convinced this somehow means that Lisa’s extraordinary devotion beyond all reason or logic (she knows how terrible he is, from the beginning, even) is somehow related to the consumer desires that modernity created for women. The way the course of her life is set forever once she sees him through a window. I think that one interpretation could be to frame it as a kind of paternalistic cautionary tale about the dangers of female commercial/erotic desire. You know, women just can’t handle the gaze. This makes sense when you consider that it came out just after WWII – which certainly was a time when there was a lot of anxiety about women being outside the home.
But that reading ignores a pretty crucial thing: she has absolutely no regrets. She knows exactly how the choice is bad for her but she does it anyway because her heart won’t let her do anything else. It’s not like the “good” choices that she has are all that good. She can marry some boring military prig or other. She can, it’s implied, become a prostitute like the other “models” she works with. She can either be the commodity or she can be the one who desires and consumes.