#4 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
This seems to be one of the forgotten Melville films. As far as I can tell it has never had an American home video release, and it’s unavailable on any streaming platform in the United States. I had to purchase a copy from France to get my hands on it. It’s unfortunate, too, because this feels like the first Melville film. He’d made two films beforehand, but those were the works of almost any talented young French filmmaker from the era, not the work of the man who made Le Cercle Rouge or Le Samourai. Many of the motifs and visual markers of a Melville film are here in some of their earliest forms (the club set is straight out of Le Cercle Rouge). It’s also Melville’s first film that feels open and unconfined, unconstrained by a tiny budget, and is his most complex narrative to date. This is an accomplished work that more fans of the filmmaker should see.
A novitiate at a convent, Therese (Juliette Greco), is given the news of her parents’ death in a car accident. She had entered the convent primarily as a way to secure her younger sister’s dowry of the stationary shop her parents ran in Cannes, ensuring that it all went to her so that she could marry well. With their parents dead, Therese decides to leave the convent and manage the shop for her sister, Denise (Irene Galter), who is still a minor. At the same time, a young mechanic and boxer, Max (Philippe Lemaire), is a wayward soul who picks up women through his job and displaying his anatomy while boxing. Into his net comes Irene (Yvonne Sanson), a woman married to a wealthy madman (as she puts it), alone in Cannes and obviously attracted to the young boxer.
The two narratives coexist without much interaction for a while. Therese manages the shop and Denise, treating her more like her own child than sister. Max steadily seduces Irene until she seems to reject him, leading him to work with Biquet (Daniel Cauchy), a bellhop in the hotel, to sneak into her room to steal her jewels. When she wakes up during the robbery, Max dominates her and they enter a sexual relationship where she keeps him as her chauffeur. At the same time, Max runs into the pretty Denise on the street, rather aggressively hitting on her but coming up unsuccessful.
Things turn when Therese sends Denise on a series of errands, one of which is to go to Irene’s hotel room and collect payment for some stationary they had sold her. Irene is not there, but Max is there, alone. The interaction goes from playful to violent, ending with Max raping Denise, leading Denise to write a letter to her sister with only vague references to what has happened (the opening line being source of the film’s title) and a suicide attempt. Therese figures out what happened, and the second half of the film is a battle of wills between Therese and Max.
When Denise finally tells Therese what actually happened, she brings Max to the house and forces him to propose to her. This hard woman, almost a nun who seemed so sheltered from the world in her convent, completely dominates Max, forcing him into right action, but Max isn’t a big fan of right action. He begins with what may be a fiction of professing his love to Therese in order to get under his skin, but the more time goes on, the more he seems convinced of the idea that he does love her. When the girls’ grandparents give the engaged couple one hundred gold sols, Max swipes it but waits for Therese to follow, which she does.
The confrontation between the two on the beaches of Cannes is two things happening at once, and it’s fascinating to watch. Being outside of the characters’ heads (the first time in a Melville film that there is no voiceover), we watch these two speak but can’t be sure if either of them are telling the truth. Max could have just run off with the money to join Biquet, who has run off to Morocco, but he did wait for Therese, stealing her passport in the process to, as he says, ensure that she won’t accidentally forget it because he is convinced that she loves him too. She, locked in his arms like a lover, speaks plainly about how he cannot love and that she wishes years of torment upon him before God forgives him and brings Max into His grace. The finale is Max waiting at a nothing little station between Cannes and Marseilles for Therese after Therese sends Denise to their grandparents, shutting down the store, and getting on the train to Marseilles. Tension mounts as we are unsure of what happens, but Therese remains true to herself.
I’ve really enjoyed Melville’s first two films, but this is something special. The host of characters, all going in their own directions for the first half of the film, never feels out of control. He’s tightly in control of the narrative and the characters’ movements within it. When things come together, it never feels arbitrary or artificial, the ground having been laid so strongly beforehand. On top of that, I feel like this is Melville’s most accomplished film visually up to this point. La Silence de la Mer was mostly filmed adeptly in a small room, never flashy but also limited by the small space in which everything was set. Les Enfants Terribles expanded the visual scope a fair bit, especially in the mansion. However, in Quand tu liras cette letter, there’s a visual confidence in terms of shot composition that feels like Melville becoming far more confident of his abilities, intentionally placing characters at specific points in the frame for subtextual and aesthetic reasons. It’s a good looking picture, is what I’m saying.
Jean-Pierre Melville was steadily coming into his own artistically as he made his first few films, and this was the film that gave him enough financial success to be able to start his own small studio in Paris. That it’s been all but forgotten in his filmography is a bit of a shame. I blame Gaumont for not really providing any American home video distribution. Surely someone like Kino would love to put this thing on disc. Not that I care, I have the French release and it’s pretty.