Ranking: #71/111

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville (France)

Genre: Film Noir Drama

This is European Film Noir at its best. Quand Tu Liras Cette Lettre is a dark social drama shot in stark black-and-white tones, with its on-location scenes filmed on the southern coast of France, where the story is set.

Jean-Pierre Melville was a gifted and fiercely independent French filmmaker who inspired the directors who later created the French New Wave, such as Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.  One of his early feature films, Quand Tu Liras Cette Lettre is very dramatic and rich in themes.  In particular, the movie exemplifies a range of types of love: erotic, spiritual, sisterly and romantic.

The plot itself is complex. Following the death of her parents in a road accident, a strongly moral novice nun named Thérèse Voise leaves her convent to take over the family stationery shop and look after her younger sister Denise. The love between these sisters runs deep and this will contrast sharply with the shallow form of love from the film’s main villain, self-centred Max, to whom both sisters are, eventually, attracted. Max is an amoral young man who is a garage mechanic and amateur boxer, as well as a drifter and philanderer. Thérèse becomes concerned when her sister befriends Max. He pursues sexual relationships with a number of women, including Irène Faugeret, an upper-class married woman. He becomes her chauffeur and lover.

Then things go from bad to worse when Max rapes Denise in a hotel room when she is making a delivery from the shop to Madame Faugeret. The young woman experiences the rape as a deep violation which shatters her. She tries to commit suicide by drowning after penning a suicide note (“When you read this letter….).

One of the themes which is very well evoked in the movie is that lust is a destructive force. Jean-Pierre Melville was ahead of his time in treating the rape of Denise subjectively, showing that women are not objects of men’s desires but have their own autonomy, integrity, character and rights. It was feminism before feminism became mainstream. The aftermath of the sexual assault is overpowering in its controlled intensity of emotion. Max is presented as a sexual predator and monster.

There is some ambiguity about whether Thérèse had fallen in love with the degenerate man and he, of course, tries unsuccessfully to seduce her. The purpose of this sequence in the movie is to highlight the vulnerability of some women to seduction by predators like Max, finally showing that Thérèse is strong enough to break his hold over her. After he is accidentally killed while trying to board a train, hoping she will elope with him, she decides to return to the convent to pursue her chosen path of becoming a nun. She has seen enough of the treachery and fragility of people to last her a lifetime.

Melville has taken a powerful and thought-provoking script and turned it into the epitome of highly credible, intriguing cinematic drama. The superb cast of characters doesn’t fail him as he systematically turns his vision into pure cinema. The plot is complicated but it is the discipline of the director which holds it back at every point from degenerating into a melodrama.

The success of Quand Tu Liras Cette Lettre gave impetus to Meville’s career, establishing him as an independent new voice. His work became highly influential, encouraging more directors to be independent of the big studios, forming a bridge from the classic Film Noir films of the 40s and 50s to the French New Wave.