Thoughts On: Letter From An Unknown Woman - Anima Possession


Letter From An Unknown Woman - Anima Possession

Thoughts On: Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948)

A young girl falls hopelessly for a talented pianist who does not know a thing about her.

Letter From An Unknown Woman is, stylistically, a truly beautiful classical Hollywood film. The black and white cinematography, the sweeping camera movement, the intimate mise en scène - all wonderfully executed. Fontaine has a particularly striking screen presence in this picture. Her body language is so often subdued and meek, yet, her voice rings with a true, untrembling strength. So, though she becomes, in essence, a flower that is stepped on, it is made sure that we do not perceive her as merely weak and pathetic. Such leaves Letter From An Unknown Woman, arguably, a solid example of how to allow tragedy to flow through a story, instead of pressing it upon characters and moulding them around it. Feeling the hands of the makers within this genre is a signifier of incompetence. Call it fate, destiny or something else, but it is this that should fuel the tragedy. When a character is to blame, we have a hero/villain narrative. When there is no one we can easily point to, we have a tragedy. When we can point to the writer and say it is they who caused the tragedy, we have a deeply faulted film.

Whilst I think Letter From An Unknown Woman does overcome this hurdle in formulating a tragedy, it is difficult to commit to an opinion due to one crucial sequence. The dramatic hinge of this narrative is our main character finding the love of his life, spending a night with her, and then forgetting all about her in a tidy of sum of fourteen days - or less. And he does not just spend a night with her, he spends a night with her, meaning, CUT TO: 9 Months Later.

This is a rather ridiculously melodramatic plot point to centre an entire narrative on. You can see it approaching, and you assume that tragedy may intervene. If not, maybe mere circumstance would intervene as it does in between Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. The two lovers who meet and spend a night with one another in these films know that they only have one night and that's all. At the last minute, however, they make an agreement to never call one another, to never send a letter, instead, just meet up a few months later. As we find out in the sequel, this meeting never happens. Though each person assumes the other just forgot about them, it turns out that one person's grandmother died and the other actually did show up. This sounds like a convenient writer's device, but, the way in which this information is integrated into the narrative is smooth and believable. Letter From An Unknown Woman shares a similar plot point, but, there is no explanation, no circumstance, no tragedy, no verisimilitude, no smoothness.

This major beat has you question the entirety of the narrative as, without reason, it becomes clear that the man who just forgets the potential love of his life is a pure dickhead. We have been made to believe the complete opposite, however, and so has the girl. But, the forgetful pianist who erased the girl from his memory is never presented as the asshole he clearly is, not before, and not after this event. Not really. Not convincingly. Why? Do the writer's agree with what he did? Can they overlook it so easily? Does it not matter?

These questions make one thing clear, yet leave two pathways open to the viewer. The one thing that becomes clear is that this film is attached to the idea of 'anima possession'. The two pathways that this concept opens up are tied to the audience viewing the featuring of anima possession as conscious or inadvertent.

Anima possession is a concept of Carl Jung's that was expanded upon and rethought by many after him, one prominent figure being Marie Louise von Franz. The anima is, in the simplest terms, the female element within every single man. The concept reaches further than this, however, to suggest that the anima is the female archetype in the male psyche. This archetype is, from one perspective, inherent to the self. From another perspective, the anima is created and moulded by the self; it is a man's conception of the ideal female. This ideal female can be informed by a man's mother, a distinctly Freudian touch of Jung's theory, and so, just like Freud's conception of the mother-son relationship, it can have some seriously negative outcomes.

To combine both Freudian and Jungian terminology, anima possession is the idealisation of the archetypal Oedipal mother. To separate Jung from Freud, however, anima possession doesn't have to be a psychosexual phenomena. Instead, anima possession can be temperamental; it can turn a man into a wimp.

Anima possession weakening a man does not suggest - at least, not entirely - that a man embracing his femininity makes him a frail princess. Anima possession isn't a concept meant to degrade femininity and women. It is the corruption and the building of a false female archetype that weakens a man. It is thus his inability to individuate (grow up) and see a woman as a woman, a human being, that reduces him to a spineless mouse. This mouse projects his animus onto the world, seeing all women through Eros, the Greek god of sexual attraction that Jung uses to encapsulate the essence of femininity as a great binder and loosener. With all painted by Eros, the man becomes deeply and more profoundly anal retentive** than Freud's language and conception would suggest. He wants the whole world around himself to be in balance and in (his) control, all ends attracted and met. The world is plugged in to the matrix of his pathetic ego.

**This is where Freud's language becomes polarising and, admittedly, quite strange. Anal retentive describes the outcomes of a child between 18 months and 3-years-old becoming fixated by their anus as the primary erogenous zone of their body. If they then enjoy holding in their poop or pee, they're going to be obsessively clean and respectful of authority. And the blame, of course, lands on the parents.

Without delving much deeper into this subject matter, if we turn back to the concept of tragedy, we can begin exploring our two paths. If we interpret the major plot point of Letter from An Unknown Woman as bad writing that signifies that the writers are pressing tragedy onto characters, then we can argue that they, themselves, are, to some degree, anima possessed. As said, anima possession is often characterised by temperament: a man being indecisive, but also impulsive, brutish, but also childish, and all at the worst of times. However, we can consider the concept manifesting in terms of just projection: a man thinking of and representing females, and their own persona, through the corrupt scope of anima possesion. We may imagine such a phenomena looking like Letter From A Unknown Woman.

Herein, a young woman is shown to be obsessed with a man - unbeknownst to him. She adores him for who he is, for the music he makes and with no real reason to point to beyond the idea of true love. She is also quiet, sacrificial, kind and so likeable that she is almost infallible to criticism. Meanwhile, he is conservative and somewhat quiet - he lets his piano do the talking. However, once the music has made its calls, he has no qualms about accepting the other young girls that come his way and no qualms about talking them into his piano room. We can suppose that he's just got magnetism in that way.

This man one day finds the muse he's always been looking for, and she is swept away upon a cloud of dreams. She is getting what she has so long yearned for, and what we, the audience, thinks she deserves. However, whilst she turns out to have truly been in love, he turns out to have just wanted her for a night. Years pass, and she does not stop being sacrificial. As much as she tells herself she is happy, her sacrificial nature eats away at her. And eating away at the man, too, is the muse shaped hole in his heart. His piano no longer does the talking, though, the search for a new muse continues.

We can stop the narrative here and very clearly see that the writers seem to be telling a tale of a perfect woman and an imperfect man; a woman that remains perfect and a man who remains a knob. In the end, she dies, and hearing of her tragic life, he decides to confront death, too. We're then sure that he dies--if he dies at all--a great man when he is called into a duel. The tale of Judas and Juliette with a slight twist in the end and some hope for Judas.

Some would suggest that this satisfies the male gaze - which, as the story is presented, certainly does. However, it is also a projection of animus possession; the writers being uncontrollably obsessed with the perfect female that they desire and the broken man they can't stop being, yet still finding a way towards self-gratification and, whilst they're at it, taking a fatal dig at women.

There's a part of me that doesn't like this story, and this is the reason why. It feels simultaneously weak and brutish, unenlightened and obnoxious. There is another part of me, however, that is willing to accommodate this film and its story. Before we go on to to explore this second avenue, however, let it be noted that the fact that I am unsure certainly decreases the quality of this narrative. Nonetheless, let us continue.

If anima possession is a feature of the male character of this film, and not the writers, and if this is a genuine tragedy, we can suggest that the pianist is certainly to be seen as the villain of this story--a tragic villain. Having been given talent and magnetism, never having learnt how to properly control his impulses, never having asked for fame and fortune, and never having asked for a young girl to fall in love with him, we can see the young pianist as in over his head. So, though he is anima possessed and in constant search of a muse, it seems that this is a cross he has just got to carry.

It may be because of this cross, the fact that he was swept away to work, put under stress, constantly approached by other women and some other (admittedly weak) excuses, that he may have forgotten about the girl. After all, whilst she had a wonderful night, he got to know nothing of the girl despite all his questions; he was only allowed to, quite literally, stare at her. How was he to remember her by anything other than sight? And maybe her memories of their night together - those which we are shown - do not match reality. We cannot know, but this would certainly paint a different picture of him.

So, though his neglect makes for a foolish and rather pig-headed mistake, he is young and she never tries to reach out to him. Is this her sacrificial nature and hesitance taking the better of her; has she not learnt to strengthen herself and take up arms? We certainly can't blame her entirely, but, maybe the fault lies somewhere between them?

The man didn't ask for his predicament, nor did she. Both are faulted individuals, and fate seems to have torn them apart. In being torn apart, their faults intensify; she becomes more sacrificial and he more of an exploitative fool. However, in meeting again, they each find a chance for redemption. She finds a chance to stop sacrificing her own will towards fulfilment. She decides to try and confront, to take, the man who she - for reasons out of her control - has loved her whole life. Memory fails the man, however. Though he tries, he cannot remember her, and thus he is not given the jump start towards redemption. Their clocks of fate are out of sync. This demoralises the woman, leaving her to the arms of tragic chaos. She dies. Upon realising who she was and what his mistake was too late, he comes upon his chance for redemption; to confront his mistakes and the one man who was actually good to the girl despite not being the man of her dreams. He drops his anima possession, his muse has died a human, and he shall confront death as the weak and terrible man that he is. Will he even bother to fend off his doom?

Seen as such, Letter From n Unknown Woman is a tragedy about anima possession. However, there remains doubt in my mind. I lean more towards seeing this film in a favourable light (my bias towards wanting to see and appreciate the best in cinema), but I certainly see much potential for criticism. I'll then leave things open. Have you seen Letter From An Unknown Woman? Is this a good or a bad film, and why?

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