Esteemed as one of the most prominent French independent directors of the post-World War II era, Jean-Pierre Melville laid a proto-auteur framework for the French Nouvelle Vague directors that followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Melville’s early features Le silence de la mer (1949) and Bob le flambeur (1956) were influential with the filmmakers of this movement in being made outside the structure of the commercial film industry. Bob le flambeur in particular anticipated the seminal Nouvelle Vague films Le beau Serge (Claude Chabrol, 1958), À bout de soufflé (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), and Tirez sur le pianiste (François Truffaut, 1960) by reworking classical Hollywood genre tropes and styles in a French context.
The degree to which Melville’s artistic identity as an “independent auteur” persists helps explain why his third feature, Quand tu liras cette lettre (When You Read This Letter, 1953), possesses an unfavorable reputation with even his most ardent admirers. The film was not only, by the director’s own admission, an impersonal project that enabled him to fund his own studio in Paris, but was also produced within the often-disparaged commercial industry of the period: an international co-production between Jad Films and Société Générale de Cinématographie in Paris and Titanus-Dauria in Rome (1). In his book-length interview with Rui Nogueira in 1971, Melville dismisses his involvement with this Jacques Deval-scripted melodrama as an attempt to be taken seriously within France’s commercial industry, which viewed him suspiciously as an “amateur, even a dilettante”, with the artistic pretensions of an “intellectual.” For these reasons, he insisted to Nogueira that it was “a very conventional, very sensible film…which could just as well have been made by any French director of the period” (1). Considering the historical context of this interview, 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. Yet Quand tu liras cette lettre should not be read as “sensible” or entirely impersonal. The film, if anything, illustrates Melville’s early interest in existentialism and Hollywood genre tropes and styles with its fusion of film noir elements within the melodrama.
Quand tu liras cette lettre’s dark cinematic style is displayed vividly in the film’s opening sequence. The film begins with an extreme long shot of the port of Cannes along the French Riviera. The camera pans left 180 degrees, giving the viewer a panorama of the popular tourist destination, before resting on the Church of Notre Dame de L’Esperance. Perched on the hill of Le Suquet overlooking the city, the 18th-century Gothic cathedral is made further imposing by Melville cutting to an ominous low-angle shot of three nuns descending down the exterior staircase with the cathedral’s bell tower protruding from the background of the frame. The slow ringing of the bell invokes the dark atmosphere of a death knell, foreshadowing the tragic news awaiting novice Thérèse Voise (Juliette Gréco). She is summoned to see the mother superior (Colette Régis), which gives her an inexplicable sense of fear.
Thérèse’s fears are revealed to be prophetic when she is informed that her parents were killed when their car was broadsided by a tanker truck. While not wanting to put pressure on her to leave her vocation, Thérèse’s paternal grandfather (Marcel Delaître) hopes that she will serve as a guardian to her teenage sister Denise, who is too young to legally take over the family’s stationery business. Thérèse’s love for Denise compels her to return home, but she is unprepared for the teenager’s budding sexuality. While standing on a ladder in the store, Denise infuriates Thérèse by lifting her skirt and asking whether or not she has attractive legs. The sexual implications of this scene anticipates Denise’s encounter with the lecherous Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire), a boxer and automobile mechanic, who spends much of his time womanising and finding ways to freeload money from his sexual conquests, notably the wealthy Irène Faugeret (Yvonne Sanson, dubbed by Nathalie Nerval), who recently started employing him as her chauffeur.
After passing by Denise one day on a motorcycle, Max spends the afternoon flirting with her, and she soon develops a crush on the older man. The two meet again when she arrives at Irène’s suite at the Hotel Carlton to deliver an order of stationary. Max proceeds to rape Denise, who then unsuccessfully attempts to drown herself. Thérèse subsequently becomes determined to save Denise’s honor by blackmailing Max to marry her, but then develops a sexual attraction to Max herself. This sordid love triangle will not only test Thérèse’s religious faith and loyalty to Denise, but also set off a chain of events with fatal consequences.
Flashes of the detached and fatalistic male characters associated with Melville’s later crime films are seen in the characterization of Max by 1950s French matinee idol Philippe Lemaire, best remembered for his role as Philippe in the “Metzengerstein” segment of Histoires extraordinaires (Roger Vadim, 1968). In a gender reversal of the archetypal femme fatale, Max is played as a homme fatale by Lemaire, whose bravado gives the film its energy, but, at the same time, foregrounds what scholar Ginette Vincendeau has cited as the problematic nature of the film’s contradictory sexual politics. Max’s sexuality is displayed prominently in his first scene, where he flirts with Irène as she stops at the station to fuel her convertible. Melville recalled that this scene was among the few that he enjoyed. “I like the way Lemaire polishes the car, gradually getting closer until he brushes against Yvonne Sanson,” the director stated (2). Shown throughout the film with a cigarette dangling from his lips in the nonchalant manner of French pop singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and, in the car scene with Irène, bare arms protruding from his overalls, Max exhibits a brooding sensuality that invoked the style of the new dangerous and rebellious breed of American actors from the late 1940s and 1950s, typified by John Garfield in the film noirs The Postman Always Rings Twice (Tay Garnett, 1946) and Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947), and Marlon Brando in the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951).
Yet this sensuality is made uncomfortable, and at times alienating, given Max’s sexist attitudes and violence towards women. In a conversation with his boss (Fernand Sardou) and another old man at the garage, Max outlines his philosophy about how to be successful with women: “A woman who knows life and who watches her money, make her wait until you get her. A younger girl, it’s different, you have to fuck her quickly before she knows what’s going on.” The film’s ambiguous representation of Max as both repugnant and alluring, as well as what Vincendeau has described as its “simultaneous emphasis on female sexuality and its repression reflects contradictory impulses which cannot all be put down to misogyny” (3). Max’s views and violence against women are certainly problematic; yet, as seen in both his disgust with the two old men at the garage and his attempted murder of his best friend-turned-blackmailer Biquet (Daniel Cauchy), he exhibits a contempt for mankind as well. Other characters that surround him are little better. The film presents a panorama of postwar moral decay with abusive relationships, con artists, blackmailers, and, in one of the film’s most darkly amusing scenes, an elderly female neighbor (Suzy Willy) caught stealing from the kitchen of Thérèse and Denise’s still unburied parents. The film’s moral center comes from Thérèse’s religious faith and loyalty to her sister, yet both are revealed to be on unstable ground with the entrance of Max into their lives. The late film critic Tom Milne argued that the “impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself” were indicative of the existential landscape of Melville’s prominent films (4). This description also mirrors the dark world of Quand tu liras cette letter, indicating that the film aligns more closely with Melville’s other work than the director and many auteur critics originally believed.
- Rui Nogueira (ed.), Melville on Melville, trans. Tom Milne, New York: Viking Press, 1971, pp. 48-49; and Ginette Vincendeau, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, London: British Film Institute/Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 10-11.
- Nogueira, pp. 48-49.
- Vincendeau, pp. 45-46.
- Tom Milne, “Jean-Pierre Melville,” Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Filmmakers, ed. Richard Roud, New York: Viking Press, 1980, p. 686. Quoted in Adrian Danks’ “Great Directors” entry on Melville in Senses of Cinema, no. 22, October 2002: http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/great-directors/melville/.
Quand tu liras cette lettre (1953 France/Italy 104 minutes)
Prod Co: Daunia/Jad Films/Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France/Société Générale de Cinématographie/Titanus Prod: Jean-Pierre Melville, Paul Temps Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville Scr: Jacques Deval Ed: Marinette Cadix Phot: Henri Alekan Art Dir: Robert Gys Mus: Bernard Peiffer
Cast: Philippe Lemaire, Juliette Gréco, Yvonne Sanson, Irene Galter, Daniel Cauchy, Robert Dalban, Jacques Deval, Fernand Sardou