The two most profound films about love ever made
Letter from an Unknown Woman, an American production from 1948, is actually the most profound depiction of love I’ve ever seen on screen, or at least the one that moved me in the deepest way — along with The Housemaid, a South Korean film from 1960. I felt tempted to compare them, there are some interesting parallels in these stories, and I feel one complements the other.
The first, by Max Ophüls, portrays the most beautiful type of love there is: the one that demands nothing, and gives everything. The former, by Kim Ki-Young is about the complete opposite: the love that demands it all — and destroys everything on its path to get what it wants.
The common thread between these fascinating stories: the inexplicable relentless passion in face of an impossible relationship, which therefore tortures the audience with frustration. At the same time, they also move us profoundly with the intensity of such affection. Both films depict a person victimized by love and selfishness. In Letter from an Unknown Woman the victim is the lover — a woman who suffers from loving unconditionally, and suffers from the man’s selfishness. In the The Housemaid we experience the reverse: the victim is now the loved one — a family man and honorable teacher, target of a student’s obsessed and selfish attraction. The core of these two stories is the men — and the audience along with them— waking up to realize the absurd scope of the love they received yet could never correspond to. For these women love was never an option, it was fate.
Perhaps both stories suggest that often only the woman is capable of the most pure and unstoppable love, while the man is usually distracted between multiple endeavors and passions. This brings to mind another quite intriguing parallel: in both stories the man plays the piano, and the piano is the enchanting element that attracts the woman. I wonder if it was recreated on purpose by Kim Ki-Young.
In spite of the common theme and aforementioned similarities, the two films provide quite distinct experiences. Letter from an Unknown Woman has most of its narrative in describing how the woman came to fall in love with the man and a brief romance they had. Whilst The Housemaid focus primarily on the tensions between the man, his family and the obsessed woman - a student of his who gets hired as a maid. With such selfish love she drags the entire household to hell. It has a constant presence of suspense, with a narrative cleverly tied around food and poison: a continuous interchange between feeding and killing, love and hate, trust and betrayal.
These films are stunning masterpieces, and certainly deserve a place in the 100 best films ever made. If you haven’t watched them, I suggest watching both consecutively, it will be an interesting experience.