Review: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘When You Read This Letter’ may surprise even his most devoted fans

Film Critic

“When You Read This Letter …,” a French romantic melodrama of the old school, is precisely the kind of conventional commercial cinema that that country’s New Wave directors couldn’t stand.

Which is why it’s a surprise that the director of the 1953 film was Jean-Pierre Melville, a hero to the New Wave, known for his cameo appearance in Godard’s “Breathless” and for directing such revered films as “Army of Shadows” and “Le Samourai.”

Melville, apparently, didn’t particularly like “When You Read” that much himself, calling it “a film that could just as well have been made by any French director of the period” and a job he did just to prove to the local industry that he could function within the system if need be.

Still, there are traces of Melville’s later icy amorality to be found in this bleak, often unpleasant little movie -- a symphony of dysfunction, duplicity and mistrust where men treat women badly, and seduction, rape, betrayal and death are the inevitable results.

“When You Read” is also unusual in that its star was Juliette Greco, an old friend of Melville’s, who plays a character as far as you could get from her usual tres Francaise image as an iconic singer and dancer.

The setting is Cannes, but mostly not the Cannes of glamour and wealth. This is a more everyday version elevated in a new 4K restoration by the atmospheric camerawork of the great cinematographer Henri Alekan, responsible for classics such as Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck “Roman Holiday,” and his late career smash, Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire.”


Greco’s character, Therese, is introduced as a hard-working novice in a local convent, with her face so thin, angular and severe that Melville has said that his nickname for the actress during production was “the skate.”

Content as she is in religious service, Therese is not fated to remain there. As her grandfather explains to the mother superior, Therese’s parents have both died in a tragic automobile accident, leaving her responsible for the upbringing of her younger sister Denise (Irene Galter).

A dreamy, self-involved, naive teenager, Denise clearly needs a lot of looking after, so much so that Therese, unaccountably devoted to her sibling, abandons convent life to run the family stationery store and insure that Denise has a comfortable inheritance to look forward to.

Very much a steely character, Therese shows her take-charge nature when she stops Madame Gobert (Suzy Willy), a classically avaricious neighbor, from walking off with her late mother’s pots and pans on the grounds that they had been “borrowed” from her years ago.

Also well able to take care of himself is Max (Philippe Lemaire), a part-time auto mechanic, part-time boxer and full-time gigolo. A drifter who just blew into town from Paris, Max specializes in taking advantage of the bored, rich, unaccompanied wives who come to Cannes for the summer season.

Helped by his disreputable confederate Biquet (Daniel Cauchy), a bellhop at the luxe Carlton Hotel, Max puts the moves on the wealthy Irene (Yvonne Sanson) – a scene of him servicing her car at the local gas station is classic – with the confidence of a man who knows he is hard to resist.

Not one to be satisfied with a single conquest, Max sets his sights on the flighty Denise, but that leads to all kinds of unforeseen consequences, many of them involving Therese, whose interactions with Max do not go the way either of them anticipates.

To be fair to Melville, and the film, this was a Franco-Italian production and some of his actors were Italians without a working knowledge of French: Yvonne Sanson, for example, had to be dubbed by Nathalie Nerval once shooting concluded.

And “When You Read This Letter …” does have some sequences that prefigure Melville’s later work, including scenes in Max’s nightclub hangout that are reminiscent of the director’s later passion for nightlife settings. This may not be Melville at his best, but it has its moments.


‘When You Read This Letter ...’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica, Santa Monica