Academic journal article CineAction

Same Tune Again! Repetition and Framing in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Academic journal article CineAction

Same Tune Again! Repetition and Framing in Letter from an Unknown Woman

Article excerpt

Towards the end of The Reckless Moment (Max Ophuls, 1949), at a point when it seems the heroine's problems have been resolved, there is a scene in a bar. The camera foregrounds an attractive young woman, dissolute-looking and most likely drunk, as she leans across a juke-box to berate the mechanism: "No, no, no, no! Just play the same tune again. Same tune again!" This is in the course of a rapid movement tracing Martin Donelly's (James Mason) agitated quest, so the woman is held in the frame only for a moment as he pauses. But the sound-track retains her words beyond the passing of her image. "Same tune again?" marks a stage where what seemed settled is about to be cast back into jeopardy, and Donnelly is about to be given a reason to renew his efforts to be of service to the heroine, along with the opportunity to resume their strange, unacknowledged courtship.

An equivalent moment in Letter from an Unknown Woman comes at the opera, with the repeated calls of "Second act. Curtain going up" just when Stefan is about to reenter Lisa's life.(1) In each case the device marks the shape of the story, marks the story as being shaped and not just unwinding with the course of events or the process, of memory. Both devices articulate a relationship between the pattern of the story and the pattern of the film. They do this, in part, through their stress on things not starting but starting again. They incorporate processes independent of the protagonists' aims and actions--the mechanism of the juke-box, the conventions of operatic performance--so as to invoke the routine quality of the world's repetitions and the possibility of being habituated or inured to its ways of going on going round.

These emphases are in permanent tension with another possibility, that of the decisive, the crucial, where every moment may be the one to be measured, and every step may count. Each of the characters experiences time differently because for each of them any given moment has its own, and their own, blend between the mundane and the special. Emblematic here is the film's use of the idea of the birthday as on the one hand an occasion that comes round year on year, advancing us stealthily from cradle to grave, and on the other as marking a beginning, or a new beginning. The film is at pains to specify whether a repetition is acknowledged or ignored or vaguely apprehended, and to discriminate between repetition lived as boredom or servitude or disappointment and repetition embraced or desired as renewal and affirmation.

Such shadings are not easy to achieve. They require both boldness and delicacy. As a ground the film builds a careful discrimination between its own processes and those in the lives and world of its characters, insisting on its own ability both to observe and to produce patterns of repetition and variation. Crucially the marked returns to Stefan at various stages in his reading of Lisa's letter pronounce the film's paragraphing of her story by making a formal repetition out of what could be mere continuation, more of the same. Once the film has established its devices--Joan Fontaine's narrating voice as representing the words of Lisa's letter, the moves out of and into focus as transitions from the reading present to the recounted past--it uses them with freedom and refuses to be governed by any simple understanding that would dictate a strict system of equivalences. So the focus-blur that most often marks a move between past and present, and is most often bridged by a resumption of narration, can function also to make the ellipse that covers the birth of young Stefan without any return to the moment of reading.

The challenge to the film is to arrive at order and comprehensibility without falling into an impoverishing neatness. It is vital to its effect that it should not solicit a literal reading of its devices, and that it should arrive at a persuasive form while blocking any coherent understanding of the relations between the words of the letter, the speaking voice and the movie's images. …

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