Love Letters February 27, 2023
Amy Holden Jones
Jamie Lee Curtis
1 Hr., 28 Mins.
nna (Jamie Lee Curtis), a 22-year-old DJ living in Los Angeles, loses her mother, Maggie (Bonnie Bartlett), at the beginning of Love Letters (1984) following a long illness. Anna and Maggie were close, but with her death comes a discovery that changes everything Anna thought she knew about her mother — that recasts her, a little, as a stranger. Thanks to some stashed-away love letters neatly organized and tied in
faded pink ribbons, Anna finds out that Maggie had been carrying on an affair with a married man for about 15 years, beginning around 1966. The letters give a new clarity to why Anna’s household growing up was so unhappy outside the volatile temper of her alcoholic father, Chuck (Matt Clark). Although the man in the letters was the true love of Maggie’s life, his marriage, coupled with Maggie and Chuck’s morally “correct” union (Chuck got Maggie pregnant with Anna while they were still dating), kept them apart, leading, inevitably, to twinned lifetimes of unhappiness.
The discovery corresponds with an unconscious mirroring. Anna meets, and is taken with, a 40-year-old (and married-with-kids) photographer named Oliver (James Keach). A part of Anna seems hopeful about uncovering the kind of illicit passion her mother had experienced in early adulthood. But as the affair develops, it hews closer to the emotionally distant relationship Anna has with her father. Anna, whether she realizes it or not, was looking more for love than the mature fling she at first thinks she wants; Oliver, though claiming to have feelings for his fresh-out-of-college other woman, would prefer the affair stay transactional, a separation from his wife and kids never on the table.
Love Letters was Amy Holden Jones’ second movie; it couldn’t be more of a departure from her first. That was the 1982, Roger Corman-produced slasher classic The Slumber Party Massacre, a pretty perfect distillation of the mean, cheap thrills expected from horror’s arguably cruelest subgenre. But though the films are in most ways poles apart, there’s a throughline in Jones’ empathetic treatment of her women characters. The Slumber Party Massacre’s majority-women cast were written as people before they were victims; the film’s violence came across as a nightmarish exploration of the physical and sexual cruelty women especially are susceptible to in society rather than the obligatory, luridly sexualized catharses of violence movies within the typically male-directed subgenre harbor.
Anna never really explicitly states what she wants in Love Letters, which Corman also produced. But the movie sensitively, evocatively captures that uncomfortable period in your early 20s where you don’t quite feel like a child anymore but also don’t feel like an adult. Anna’s affair with Oliver initially gives her the feeling of adulthood she’s been unconsciously looking for, but she hasn’t yet had the kind of life experience to make clear to her how high the stakes are when striking up the type of relationship whose discovery potentially could destroy lives. She’s seduced by the idea of what she’s doing; the attendant complications aren’t obvious to her until it’s too late.
Love Letters is shattering in other ways without harping on them too much. It ponders the fickleness of love, and how it cannot be guaranteed to happen for everyone in the way they would like; how living up to what’s expected of us, rather than what is wanted, can turn into lifetimes of unhappiness; how our relationships sometimes can mimic the patterns experienced and mistakes made by our parents, however much we try to distance ourselves from them. The movie is like a yellow-paged romance potboiler with the emotional dishonesty taken out; Jones’ even-keeled approach helps give this story the heartbreaking quality it ought to have. And Curtis’ performance — an appropriate mixture of the false confidence and figuring-it-out bemusement of someone in their early 20s — is a sturdy anchor. A-