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“When You Read This Letter” observes the lurid collision of bourgeois propriety and criminal abandon

Jean-Pierre Melville’s oft-overlooked melodrama from 1953 screens in a new DCP restoration at UW Cinematheque on December 2.
Nightclub dancer Lola (Claude Borelli) stands ready to remove her clothes in front of the rakish Max (Philippe Lemaire), who regards her with smug indifference.
Nightclub dancer Lola (Claude Borelli) stands ready to remove her clothes in front of the rakish Max (Philippe Lemaire), who regards her with smug indifference.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s oft-overlooked melodrama from 1953 screens in a new DCP restoration at UW Cinematheque on December 2.

Previously unreleased in the United States until 2018, Jean-Pierre Melville’s third feature, When You Read This Letter, stands out as an anomaly in the Parisian auteur’s oeuvre. Made in 1953, before he was totally in control of his own productions, the film was long dismissed as a purely commercial endeavor. By the director’s own admission, it was an attempt to be taken seriously by France’s film industry and an impersonal project that enabled Melville to fund his own studio in Paris. At the time, he was considered an amateur in the insular world of French cinema and often criticized for making so-called “intellectual films.”

In an interview from Rui Nogueira’s book Melville On Melville (1971), the director explains his reasons for making When You Read This Letter:

“They must be made to see once and for all that I was a showman, full stop. So I had to make a very conventional, very sensible film; a film within the system and not outside it. And that is why […] I made a film which could just as well have been made by any French director of the period.”

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Perhaps any of Melville’s contemporaries could have made the film, but certainly no one would have made it like him. Melville’s overlooked existential noir melodrama presents a counterpoint to his more popular crime films and period pieces—such as the underworld comedy of manners, Bob Le Flambeur (1956), the elegant character study of an impossibly cool contract killer, Le Samouraï (1967), and the gripping thriller about the French Resistance, Army Of Shadows (1969). 

When You Read This Letter reveals furtive touches of character and a certain je ne sais quoi that hints at the refined sensibilities of these later efforts. Although it may be flawed and far from his most representative work, the film at least offers valuable insight into the evolution of his cinema. Moreover, it proves that, even at this early stage in his career, Melville was no amateur. 

Fans of Melville, melodrama, noir, and vintage French cinema have a unique opportunity to see this forgotten and fascinating film on the big screen this Friday, December 2, at 7 p.m., when the UW Cinematheque will screen a recent DCP restoration

When You Read This Letter is set in Cannes, where Melville casts his eye at the dark underbelly of the glamorous seaside resort town. Working from an eclectic screenplay by Jacques Deval, Melville plunges viewers into a sordid post-war world of social alienation, crass materialism, moral decay, and spiritual emptiness, while nevertheless making it all look exquisitely beautiful.

After the untimely death of her parents, Thérèse (Juliette Gréco), a stoic, dedicated novice in a rural French convent, faces the difficult decision between taking her final vows or renouncing her vocation to support her younger sister, Denise (Irène Galter). She reluctantly returns home to run the family stationery shop and ensure that Denise will receive an adequate inheritance. 

Meanwhile, Max Trivet (Philippe Lemaire), a sleazy, lascivious, and amoral young automobile mechanic and part-time prizefighter, seduces a wealthy married older woman, Irène (Yvonne Sanson), and becomes her chauffeur. Max and his dubious accomplice Biquet (Daniel Cauchy), a bellhop at the luxurious hotel where Irène temporarily resides, plan to rob the ill-fated socialite. 

Max crosses paths with the naive Denise when he playfully snatches her scarf after passing by on his motorcycle. As the film’s parallel narrative threads intertwine, Melville meticulously observes the intersection of bourgeois propriety and underworld lawlessness. The collision of worlds sets the stage for a contrived, florid, overwrought psychosexual drama that unfolds with the rhythmic fluidity of a bad dream.

Taken at face value, When You Read This Letter may appear to lack the cool precision, calculated restraint, and mood of contemplative ennui that define Melville’s subsequent output. However, the film’s atmospheric cinematography, stylistic complexity, and haunting ambiguities bring When You Read This Letter into alignment with the director’s most sophisticated creations.

Filmed largely on location in Cannes with ravishing black-and-white photography by Henri Alekan, it holds up as a vivid panorama of a bygone time and place. The implausible, somewhat bizarre plot of the film—which involves con artists, blackmail, a sadomasochistic novitiate, sexual violence, tragic car accidents, an unsuccessful suicide attempt, grand larceny, and a tangled love triangle—feels surprisingly lurid for what was supposed to be a very “conventional” and “sensible” picture. With its many twists, turns, and abrupt tonal shifts, the narrative sometimes veers toward the surreal.

When you watch this film, read between the lines to find evidence of the fashionable cult auteur who would go on to become recognized as the unparalleled master of existential crime cinema.

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