… this wholeness of perspective does not mean that everything we want to know or judge is knowable and open to judgment.
This is from the chapter ‘Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman‘ in Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View by George M. Wilson (1986):
… Inevitably, Lisa’s last interview with Brand collapses into disaster. At this meeting, as before, he is oppressed by a dim sense of having seen or met her on some earlier occasion. But this, aside from his appreciative predatory interest, is all. He does not remember who she is or what their relationship had been. Moreover, his manner has never seemed so coldly mechanical, so suffused with a glazed charm. While he chatters on, more and more trampling the past as he does, he calls out cheerfully, “You know you are a strange woman, Lisa.” To this she has only the power to respond helplessly with the words “Am I?” Although he does not really understand the real force of his remark, Lisa is, of course, a very strange woman. It is the depth of this strangeness — the completeness of illusion and the strength of unacknowledged determination — that the film has so carefully laid out. However, the appalling strangeness of their whole relationship is most clearly revealed by the new fashion in which Brand has come to serve as a reflection of Lisa’s sensibility. For in this scene, and earlier at the opera house, he enunciates, in his own style, many of the ingredients of her conception of the meaning of her devotion. He tells her, “I followed you upstairs and watched you in your box, but I couldn’t place you. And I had to speak with you. I know how this sounds. I assure you that in this case, it’s true. You believe that, don’t you?”
[line break added to make this easier to read online] Or again, “I have a feeling — please don’t think I’m mad — I know it sounds strange and I can’t explain it — but I feel that you understand what I cannot even say and that you can help … Tonight when I first saw you and later when I watched you in the darkness, it was as though I had found that one face among all others.” In his apartment, he continues in the same vein. “I knew last night, didn’t you?” He asks her, and echoing thoughts of hers about the unreality of time for them, “You’re here, and, as far as I”m concerned, all the clocks in the world have stopped.” Finally, from him to her, the most absurd line of all, “I know you won’t believe it, but I couldn’t get you out of my mind all day.” In the first of the two scenes, we are not quite certain how his words are to be taken. But in the second, our doubts are answered. In his mouth at this time, her notions have become the hollow discourse of the practiced and sophisticated seducer. The convictions that have guided and then shattered her life are played by him like cards to which the infatuated woman should, he supposes, appropriately respond. Two faces of romantic love are captured here. There is the emotion that backs a world transcending commitment, and there is the decorated strategy of a game of sex. The power and emotional complexity of Letter depends upon our lively sense of the dialectic between these facets of the claims of love.
… it can seem, if the characters are substantially unchanged at the end, that there is an unidentifiable force, a determinative agency in operation, that binds them repeatedly to the only paths that they are able to perceive, paths that cross for a moment but, on the whole, diverge. This possibility is thus offered by the ending, but is also left as a troubling ambiguity.
That these matters are not closed off and specified assigns a limit to what this film’s narration will claim to answer. Since Letter is throughout concerned with limits of perception, expression,, and representation this should come as no surprise. In this respect, the narrational strategies of the film are deployed with dexterity and precision. At several points in this chapter, we have seen why the narration cannot be read as a mere visual rendering of the contents of Lisa’s letter. The interrelationship of sequences and the design of shots and mise en scène are used too persistently as a means of commenting upon Lisa and her experience for that. For instance, we noted how the camera is authorized to step out of Lisa’s field of knowledge and interest for a moment and how the repeated element of theatricality defines the unconscious self-dramatization that she and others perform. It is impossible to escape the impression of an intelligent and sometimes ironic observer, the implied filmmaker as it were, who is continuously observing with special insight into the wider patterns that Lisa ostensibly describes. In this light, the letter only fixes the more superficial aspects of narrative sequence and remains subordinate to the visual sensibility that relates it all for us. Indeed, what is essential to the letter, within the framework of the film, is the way that it expresses Lisa’s cast of mind and the way it elicits Brand’s vision of her while he reads it.
… I have urged that this film refuses to resolve some of the chief issues that it poses. This renunciation of judgment and ultimate explanation is fully consonant with what I take the aims of the visual narration to be. There is an affirmation here that film can bring us to see the whole of a complicated pattern with acuity and insight. It is possible to resist the temptations of an engaging but false picturing of the relevant events, to resist simple expression of a sensibility too involved with or too analytically removed from the action. The goal is that these people and their circumstances are to be seen from a variety of angles and thereby with a sort of critical empathy. But this wholeness of perspective does not mean that everything we want to know or judge is knowable and open to judgment. In these lovers’ lives, there are truths that they cannot at all discern, which the film reveals to the properly responsive viewer. Nevertheless, there are also mysteries about their lives which this and, probably, any narration will not dispel. It is a part of the affirmation of the possibility of seeing things more openly, broadly, and clearly to acknowledge as well the limits to what we can expect to see in such a case.
My most recent previous post from Wilson’s book is here.