Saturday, April 5, 2014

RIP Joan Fontaine

The Stanford Theater had a four film tribute to the late Joan Fontaine (22 October 1917 – 15 December 2013) in January.  I was out of town the first week of the series so I missed Rebecca & Suspicion (both of which I had seen before).  I caught a double feature on January 10.

The Constant Nymph starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine & Alexis Smith; directed by Edmund Goulding; (1943)
Letter from an Unknown Woman starring Joan Fontaine & Louis Jourdan; directed by Max Ophüls; (1948)

The Constant Nymph was enjoyable.  Letter from an Unknown Woman was more significant and resonates within me three months after viewing it.


Joan Fontaine was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Constant Nymph.  She cited it as one of her favorite performances.

The Constant Nymph revolves around the Sanger daughters.  The patriarch is Albert Sanger; kind of an older, white haired Tevye the Milkman type.  He has four rambunctious daughters of which Joan Fontaine plays the youngest, Tessa.  Fontaine was 25 years old when the film was made but plays a 14 year old girl.  Wearing pigtails, pinafore and schoolgirl frocks, Fontaine almost pulls of the transformation but I could never lose sight of the fact that Fontaine was older than her character.

The famed musical composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) comes to visit Sanger, his mentor, and Sanger's daughters, his muses.  Sanger soon dies and the sisters are split apart.  One of the older sisters goes off with Peter Lorre!   Tessa and the next youngest sister are sent to live with a wealthy uncle in London.  Their cousin, Florence (Alexis Smith), arrives to accompany the girls to England.  Dodd & Florence fall in love; much to the consternation of Tessa who is not-so-secretly in love with Dodd.

It beggars belief that Dodd is largely unaware of the girl's true feelings toward him.  Indeed, as the film progresses, it becomes impossible for him to ignore the girl.  Florence is fully aware of her cousin's true feelings and is incapable of convincing Dodd.  Whatever misgivings she (and Dodd) have about their relationship, they get married.   Florence & her wealthy father are at the center of London's social scene - an environment foreign to Dodd and nonconducive to musical composition.  Florence has managed the Tessa problem by shipping her off to boarding school but her holiday return sets off a flurry of creativity within Dodd.

At some level Dodd must be cognizant of the girl's feelings but between her age and his marital status he represses that awareness as well as his own feelings.  Instead, he focuses on the creative burst of energy given to him by Tessa and the entire Sanger family.  The girl, who keenly feels Dodd's composition, reciprocates and they collaborate on his most important piece.

The Constant Nymph is treading some dangerous water.  At its heart is the more-than-platonic, less-than-sexual relationship between a grown man and 14 or 15 year old girl.  1930s and 1940s Hollywood treated this issue with less gravity than today - The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is one that comes to mind.

What saves The Constant Nymph is that Joan Fontaine doesn't look like a fourteen year old girl.  The dynamics would have been much different if Fontaine played her age.  In the conflict between Tessa and Florence (great performance by Alexis Smith), Tessa has the upper hand due to her age.  She can claim innocence with Tessa that a 25 year old woman couldn't get away with.

The Constant Nymph has some laughs and Joan Fontaine literally gets to act like a teenager.  Smith is admirable in a difficult role.  There is a confrontation scene between the two cousins which is memorable.


Procrastination can be a good thing.  I was luke warm about Letter from an Unknown Woman immediately after seeing it.  However, the tragedy of Fontaine's character has lingered in my mind for several months.  If a film can impart such a memory, there must something to it.

Fontaine plays Lisa, a teenager when the film begins.  Concert pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) moves into the Lisa's apartment building.  Lisa is immediately obsessed with Brand - stalking him, entering his apartment when he is gone, staying up late to listen to him play piano.  Brand, thankfully, pays the girl no attention.

Lisa's father has passed away.  Her mother remarries and they have to move away.  Most of the film takes place in Vienna.  Lisa impulsively runs away at the train station to...I'm not sure what she was going to do.  She ends up waiting outside Brand's apartment all night until she sees him and a young woman arrive together.  Heartbroken, she reluctantly agrees to join her mother & stepfather.

Her stepfather arranges an introduction between Lisa and a young military officer.  He eventually proposes to Lisa but she lies and says she is in love with someone in Vienna which the truth but deceives everyone (including herself) by suggesting the relationship is more mutual.

Falling out with her parents, Lisa returns to Vienna to work as a dress model.  She returns to stalking Brand by waiting outside his apartment every night, seeing a procession of women accompanying him.  Eventually, he notices her but not the fact that she used to live in the building.  They have a whirlwind courtship ending in their consummating the relationship.  Brand departs for a concert in Milan; Lisa discovers she's pregnant.  Brand never contacts Lisa and vice versa.

A decade later, Lisa has married a wealthy older man who has accepted her son, named Stefan after his father.  One evening, at the opera, Lisa runs into Stefan.  Again, he doesn't recall meeting Lisa although he feels an immediate attraction.  Despite her husband's objection, Lisa pursues Stefan again; showing up at his apartment (the guy never moves?).  During his encounter, Lisa realizes that Stefan never loved her.  I would think the lack of contact and failure to recall their acquaintance would have tipped her off earlier but better late than never...except in Max Ophüls film.

After the death of her son from typhus, Lisa falls ill herself (although her illness is not specified).  She composes a deathbed letter to Stefan detailing her strange and self-destructive obsession with him.  Still unable to remember the previous encounters, Stefan confirms her account by asking his longtime valet if he recalls her.  When he confirms the account, Stefan's sense of guilt and shame are resolute.  He agrees to a duel with Lisa's husband with the implication that he will be killed by not engaging in the duel.

No explanation is ever given as to why Lisa is so attracted to Stefan.  That adds to the mystery and tragedy and in fact, any explanation would likely seem implausible.  The premise is ridiculous to my sensibilities but Fontaine's performance & Ophüls' direction give Lisa's misguided persistence a tragic futility; Letter from an Unknown Woman is operatic.

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