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Review: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘When You Read This Letter’ Is a Vexing Noir

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Thérèse Voise is a novice in a rural French convent, about to take her final vows when her parents are killed in a car accident. She returns home to Cannes to run the family stationery shop and keep an eye on her younger sister, Denise. Meanwhile, Max, a volatile mechanic whose pastimes are prizefighting and tomcatting, seduces a wealthy married woman who lives in a suite at the Carlton Hotel. When he crosses paths with the Voise sisters, the aftermath includes rape, robbery, a suicide attempt and homicide. The usual noir business, in shadowy black and white under the Mediterranean sun.

“When You Read This Letter,” the 1953 film in which all of this takes place, was directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, which is a major reason it has been restored and rereleased. Another is that Thérèse — a woman whose moral intensity seems to evolve before our eyes into potentially self-destructive passion — is played by Juliette Gréco. Both she and Melville would go on to greater things, and there is undeniable fascination in this early, imperfect commingling of their talents.

Ms. Gréco, now 91, was on her way to becoming one of the most beloved French singers of the ’50s and ’60s, while Melville, who died in 1973, left behind a canon of tough, electrifying, philosophically tinged thrillers. He came to disdain “When You Read This Letter,” which preceded his breakthrough fourth feature, “Bob le Flambeur,” by a few years and which lacks the narrative density and ethical nuance of later masterpieces like “Le Samourai” and “Le Cercle Rouge.”

Still, the earlier film, which never had an American commercial release, has some potent scenes and a gamy, cynical perspective on the zone where middle-class respectability intersects with underworld opportunism. Max is a thoroughly amoral character, predatory and dishonest, and one of the movie’s flaws is that Philippe Lemaire, the actor who plays him (and who was briefly married to Ms. Gréco), can’t quite summon the necessary charm. He is a thug and a rapist, but for the story to work he needs to have enough soul for Thérèse to think he might be worth saving, or even loving.

In any case, the moral ambiguities that animate the film’s last act are less intriguing than the world it depicts on the way to an overwrought climax. Melville’s great gift was to emphasize both the radical isolation of individuals and the sticky webs of social obligation in which they nonetheless exist. Amid the hard-boiled banalities and mechanical improbabilities of Jacques Deval’s screenplay, there are moments of jagged comedy and haunting strangeness.

And there is, above all, Ms. Gréco’s face, with its sharp angles and geometric enigmas. You might spot a resemblance to Alain Delon, and Thérèse, quietly tormented in spite of her outward stoicism, foreshadows some of the characters Mr. Delon would play in Melville’s major films. Her charisma is indelible and also, within the parameters of the story, a bit superfluous. She makes the movie feel bigger, grander and more alive than it really is — like a premonition of things to come.

When You Read This Letter
Not rated. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.


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