Academic journal article CineAction

Love Me Three Times: Time and Narrative in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Academic journal article CineAction

Love Me Three Times: Time and Narrative in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Article excerpt

"Vienna about 1900." A dark and rainy night. A horse-drawn carriage stops on a wet cobblestone street, and out steps a dashing fellow in top hat and coat. He shrugs off the concern of the two men inside, who tell him they'll be back in three hours at 5 am to pick him up. The man smiles: "I don't mind so much being killed ... but you know how hard it is for me to get up in the morning. Goodnight." He walks away.


A typical Hollywood film might take ten to fifteen minutes to establish the characters and setting. Max Ophuls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is particularly accelerated. Cut to a two-shot of the men inside the carriage. They speak the fellow's given name: "Stefan". They ponder whether Stefan really intends to fight a duel that means certain death. Cut to the outside of the apartment building as Stefan goes in. Offscreen the concierge asks who is at the door. Stefan answers with his surname: "Brandt". Stefan Brandt is met at the door by his manservant, John. Stefan tells John to have a cab ready for his escape in an hour. He has no intention of fighting the duel (clearly the reason for his earlier wit). "Honor is a luxury only gentlemen can afford," he says. (Stefan is thus at best a coward and at worst a scoundrel, the viewer concludes.) A letter arrived in the night. He is struck by its first words: "By the time you read this letter, I may be dead ..." He sits to read. He learns that the author once lived across the hall from him. That later she became his lover, and that she has been in love with Stefan her entire adult life. And Stefan has no idea who is she. The film dissolves to her story. Lisa Berndle's letter appears entirely unrelated to Stefan's predicament, but by the end of the film Lisa's story justifies Stefan's about-face and he goes to the duel.

Following V.F Perkins, critics have noted three distinct timelines in Letter. Alan Williams categorises those timelines as:

1) the 10-12 year span of Lisa's story

2) the three hours of Lisa's narration

3) the film's 85 minutes running time (47).

The three hours of Lisa's narration is also the time between when Stefan comes home at 2 am and when the carriages arrive to take him to the duel at 5 am. Extrapolating from Perkins and Williams, Letter's three timelines reflect three distinct narratives:

1) Lisa's love of Stefan (A story)

2) Stefan and the duel (B story)

3) the narrative of the film (plot)

It should be clear that Stefan's point of view is not the same as Lisa's, or there would be no need for her letter and everything between them would have ended happily ever after in "Vienna about 1890". But Stefan's point of view is not Ophuls', nor is it the spectator's. The framing device of the "B Story" is not the "plot". Unlike Stefan, the viewer knows that Lisa Berndle is the unknown woman, knows that she is the same person whom Stefan continually forgets. Conversely, Stefan knows more than the viewer. Lisa, writing to Stefan of her marriage, says, "You know who my husband is". But the viewer does not yet know at this point in the plot, and likely has not yet figured out Johann Stauffer's role in the tale. The plot is not merely the intermingling of Lisa and Stefan's points of view.


Consider how time reflects the differing points of view. When Stefan comes home, he asks John for a coffee and cognac, and tells him to have a cab downstairs in an hour for his escape. John gives him the letter, and Stefan sits in his study and begins to read. About an hour of screen time later, Stefan finishes the letter and a carriage rumbles outside his window. But it is not the cab. It is his seconds to take him to the duel. Three hours of story have elapsed. The ringing from an off-screen clock tower confirms it is indeed the appointed hour of 5 am. It is remarkably disorienting for a spectator. It might be the cinematic equivalent of lying down for a little catnap and awaking after a long slumber. …

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