Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jul 03, 2020 3:28 pm 
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A rarely seen Melville film that's worth pondering

Melville disavowed this film, his third, made after filming, memorably, Vercors' Le Silence de la Mer (1949) and Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles (1950). He told Rui Nogueira in a published interview that Letter was "a very conventional, very sensible film…which could just as well have been made by any French director of the period." Yes, it was made within the commercial industry in order to raise money for his own independent studio. Melville didn't write it nor is it from a literary source. But it is beautiful, and its unusual combination of noir and melodrama make it relevant to his other work. Luckily "virtual theater" makes a handsome 2018 Rialto edition of it currently available for a small fee online in the name of Film Forum, who generously sent me a copy.

When You Read This Letter is a a repellent story and not certainly a Melville classic like Le Doulos or Le Samourai. Its style and beauty nonetheless appear right away in the constrasty black and white images of Cannes, in a diagonal panning shot that moves from the glittering resort to a church overlooking and nuns descending a staircase.

This film is primarily a portrait of the rise and fall of a brutal lowlife Don Juan, Max Trivet (prolific, trashy charmer Philippe Lemaire), a young boxer and car mechanic. Max makes love to every attractive woman he's in a room with. We meet the saintly, severe Thérèse Voise (played by singer and mythical beauty Juliette Greco) in a convent, which she immediately leaves without taking her vows when both parents die in a car accident, to take care of her underage sister Denise (Irène Galter) and assume ownership of the family stationary shop and run it with her.

These three characters will be the movie's triangle. But first, Max gets his hands on Irène Faugeret (Yvonne Sanson), a wealthy woman staying alone at the ritzy Carlton Hotel - who happens to be driving one of those big American cars Melville loved. It's truly a beauty, a dark, shiny 1953 Cadillac convertible (with those long, gracefully sweeping back fins) that, photographed by dp Henri Alekan, who shot Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast, seems stunningly elegant and hot. At this time American cars were more exotic and special in France than you can possibly imagine. Max pumps gas at the garage for Madame Faugeret as the old boss and his sidekick, who let him go out to do it, watch salaciously. They know Max will come on heavy, and he does. In these days of pumping your own gas, you may not imagine how a gas jockey might make love to a woman by wiping the inside of her windshield. They do things differently in France. Madame seems to reject his invitation to come watch him box at a club in a couple of days, but she does, only sweeping out when she finds herself too conspicuous.

Before long Max has not only made it with Madame in her room at the Carlton but been engaged by her to be her uniformed chauffeur. She plans to bring him along when she rejoins her unpleasant husband in Belgium. But then Max meets Denise, and later Yvonne. They all seem interested. The only trouble is that he's after the next pretty woman he sees, every time.

Yvonne is a tough, manipulative woman, her repressiveness so intense it seems almost life-affirming. When Denise survives her attempt to drown herself after Max rapes her in Madame Faugeret's hotel room where she goes to deliver some statinary, Yvonne blackmails Max to marry her younger sister. He is unenthusiastic, but looks as good in a double-breasted suit as he does in a chauffeur's uniform: late in the film, he acknowledges he's just trying on roles. Marriage to Denise will bring him close to Yvonne, whom he tells is the one he really loves.

There is a gangsterish subplot involving the Carleton chasseur (bellhop) Biquet (Daniel Cauchy), Max's pal who makes it all happen by spying on Madame for him. They have plans - but they're in flux - involving Denise's dowry provided by the sisters' friendly country grandparents, or perhaps a reunion later, in Morocco. This is an undercurrent that reveals Letter to be more Melvillilan than it might appear at first. None of this would happen if Yvonne had chosen to have Denise sent to live with them in the country and remained at the convent.

Perhaps her character doesn't quite make sense, but Yvonne is as mysteriously severe and controlling as Max is bold and libidinous. Watching these two unpredictable characters - and admiring the artful cinematography and swift editing - are the chief pleasures of When You Read This Letter (which, incidentally, has more than one letter beginning that way, starting with Denise's intended suicide note). But this is the kind of film it's more fun to think about afterwards than to watch. My happiest memories are visual ones - the opening sequences, with their diagonal shots alternating directions as neatly as in a classic Eisenstein film; Max's flashy outfits; the sublime Cadillac; and the face of Juliette Greco looming in the shadows. Her beauty comes to seem more and more iconic as the film progresses. (Max's emotions may appear suspect, but Lemaire did wind up actually married to Juliette Greco for several years.) If the interest in sisters in a convent seems un-Melvillian, we may be forgetting how convincing he made Jean-Paul Belmondo as a priest in Léon Morin, prêtre. For Melville, everything is a religion. But here, Melville alternates between the film noir and mélo genres without ever deciding which this is.

Ii's also interesting to think about the various genres Melville played with in his illustrious but not always easy career. He struggled to remain independent. When his private studio burned to the ground, was it an accident - or did some enemy cause it to happen? Even between the great Le Doulos and Le Deuxième Souffle, he made he quite unsatisfying Magnet of Doom (though it has Belmondo in it). Mixed with brilliant success, there was failure, or vice versa. That is why we should look carefully at When You Read This Letter.

When You Read THis Letter/Quand tu liras cette lettre, 104 mins., debuted in France Jul. 26, 1953. This restored print debuted in NYC in Sept. 2018. It's now available in the Rialto reissue online. Find it on Film Forum virtual theater here, or here.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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