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Melville's Misplaced Melodrama: "When You Read This Letter"

Too often written off by both Melville himself as well as his critics, this 1953 film stands out from the career of the French auteur.
It’s a world of rigor and solemnity, a world of devotion, isolation, and self-control. Most often shown within the stylish realm of studied gangsterdom, the cinematic province of Jean-Pierre Melville, realized in just 13 features, was generally consistent in tone, subject matter, and formal order. But it’s because this vision was so thoroughly entrenched in one prominent genre, that a film like When You Read This Letter (Quand tu liras cette lettre), Melville’s third, is regarded as such a discernible outlier (even though other Melville titles weren’t concerned with the criminal underworld either, and this 1953 film does, in fact, have its fair share of unlawful content). In any event, Melville himself dismissed When You Read This Letter as a mere commercial exercise, a means to the end of funding his own studio. And auteurist critics, just before establishing Melville as one of their pioneering exemplars, were also quick to sweep aside this purportedly blasé work of creative compromise. Contemptuous evaluations are unfortunate, for while When You Read This Letter does stand out from the bulk of Melville’s oeuvre (and it is certainly not the only of his films to do so), there is much to admire in this disregarded early effort, and there’s much to distinguish it as a distinctive film from its own indifferent director.
Before delving into the Côte d’Azur underbelly, with its glamorous yet sordid hotels and cabarets, settings soon to be firm foundational backdrops for Melville’s more popular work, When You Read This Letter presents novice Thérèse Voise (Juliette Gréco) as she is contentedly sequestered in an austere Cannes convent, the Church of Our Lady of Esperance. In short order, Thérèse finds her harmonious existence upended when she is informed of a car accident that has taken the life of her mother and father, ostensibly leaving her teenage sister, Denise (Irène Galter), in her care. It doesn’t have to be that way, though; Denise could move to the county and live with relatives, but that would force the sale of her family’s stationary store. It’s Thérèse’s call. Like so many other Melville protagonists, she is given the opportunity to choose the life she wants to live, to test her resolve, to willingly change the essential nature of her character, to commit to a particular way of life from which there is likely no return.
There is little doubt she will attend to her sister, of course, and Melville makes it artfully apparent that her choice will not be without conflict. Juxtaposed with Thérèse’s predicament is the introduction of lascivious Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire), a mechanic, amateur boxer, part-time gigolo, and all-around dubious figure, with shady sights currently set on the wealthy and married stranger, Irène Faugeret (Yvonne Sanson, her voiced dubbed by Nathalie Nerval). Max’s temperament and the suggestiveness of his sexual aggression are in patent contrast to the dour existential dilemma suddenly thrust upon Thérèse, and that Melville establishes each scenario as he does, confirms an inevitable overlap; the editorial back and forth is a conspicuous, foreboding method of splitting and linking the wholesome good intentions of Thérèse (though her reticence is perceptible) and the unscrupulous, unashamed schemes of Max.
Hinging on this provocative young man, after Denise enters the picture as its most naïve and tragic component, Melville entangles a tense, three-way feminine dynamic (that much is surely unique in his filmography). In the process, Ginette Vincendeau argues, When You Read This Letter “abounds in female caricatures,” which is true enough, as each of these primary personalities assume largely timeworn positions: Thérèse, reserved and severe in demeanor and appearance; Denise, the gullible, lovelorn romantic; and Irène, a mature woman who is frivolous, desperate, and willing. Still, aside from avoiding anything necessarily objectionable in terms of insipid character development, this tolerance of conventional types isn’t so far removed from the generic gangland tropes so prevalent in Melville’s male-centric output.
Perhaps the reason these three appear so conservative is because Lemaire’s Max is such a thorny individual, so audacious, so repulsive and somehow charming. As he asserts his sway over each of the women, one by one by one in a brazen reverberation, he becomes an uneasy antagonist. A heedless and casual villain, not quite the sympathetically portrayed individual Vincendeau proclaims (it’s easy to hate him), Lemaire’s Max does evoke the “brooding sensuality” of a John Garfield or Marlon Brando anti-hero, as Christopher Weedman more persuasively observes. Occasionally accompanied by bellhop-turned-blackmailer Biquet (Daniel Cauchy), who at one point appears as something of a precursor to the similarly obnoxious Michel Poiccard, played by Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), Max is a dangerous homme fatale, enticing with his shameless bravado but utterly despicable in his illicit potential.
Mounting parallel tension, as he would frequently do so well, no matter the genre or the cultural context, Melville crosscuts the varying narratives of When You Read This Letter into a connective tale of sex and violence, but its initial anxiety scarcely points toward the film’s staggering, devastating, and near fatal turning point: the abrupt, almost offhand rape of Denise at the apathetic, callous hands of Max. Thérèse had her faith challenged before, when she was obliged to reconcile with her resolution at the nunnery, where religion was acknowledged but kept in its place (“God’s will made two orphans,” declares her grandfather, the bearer of the bad news). But now, far more than she could have ever anticipated, her capacity for sacrifice and charity takes on a new, secular significance. Into the cruel world, emblazoned by the warmth of a deceitful sunlight and the quiet, misty shroud of the seaside, Thérèse becomes an archetypal Melville lead, tested and committed and resigned to what must be done. While considerable fuss was made about trendy chanteuse Gréco playing this stern, indomitable force (a casting disparity Vincendeau compares to Belmondo in the title role of Melville’s 1961 Léon Morin, Priest), she gives a resounding performance. Her unyielding determination is as critically applied when confronting a thieving busybody neighbor as it is when she must contend with Max in light of the assault, in unavoidably ruthless fashion. Enacting her retribution, however, Thérèse’s conniving is forced and fragile, and it fails to account for her own reservations and transgressions.
Written by Jacques Deval, an international co-production between France’s Jad Films and Société Générale de Cinématographie and Italy’s Titanus-Dauria, When You Read This Letter was a mainstream box office success, much to the chagrin of certain high-minded critics, like a precocious François Truffaut, who wrote, “Melville is not an auteur, nor even a good maker of bad films.” And as noted, Melville considered the film beneath his true talents, calling the picture, “a very conventional, very sensible film; a film within the system and not outside it…which could just as well have been made by any French director of the period.” But as Weedman writes, “Melville’s misgivings read, in part, as an unnecessary justification to auteur critics for why he sold out his artistic integrity with a commercial endeavor.” This is particularly plausible when one considers how much of When You Read This Letter is worthy of praise.
There is, for example, the exquisite cinematography of Henri Alekan (Oscar-nominated for his work on Roman Holiday, also released in 1953), which illuminates the Riviera—its elegance and frivolity, its vivid life of leisure, luxury, and corruption—in invariably mesmerizing detail. Remarkable in retrospect, if not quite evident at the time, the nightclub milieu would also prove ideal for Melville’s commitment to swanky urban modernity and his gift for lengthy, revelatory camera maneuvers (an impressive hint of which is already in this picture). Furthermore, Melville always had a flair for the melodramatic anyway, for operatic moods and affected mannerisms, habitually working in tandem with calculated expressions, carefully crafted reactions, and deliberate, physical movements; like the most notable of his characters, Thérèse exhibits a restrained strength with emotions held—almost always—in check. Sure, traditional melodrama might get the best of Melville from time to time: Thérèse fainting when faced with her life-altering decision; the heightened, soap opera punctuations of Bernard Peiffer’s score; silhouetted characters in profile, their frames cast against crashing waves; the bafflingly sudden end of the picture. But as Weedman maintains, When You Read This Letter “should not be read as ‘sensible’ or entirely impersonal.” If anything, he adds, the film illustrates Melville’s early fascination with “existentialism and Hollywood genre tropes and styles with its fusion of film noir elements within the melodrama.” And besides, far worse movies have been made in the interest of securing artistic independence—all things considered, When You Read This Letter isn’t a bad way to get there.
Jean-Pierre Melville's When You Read This Letter is showing at New York's Film Forum from September 12 – 20, 2018.

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