Friday, June 30, 2017
WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER (QUAND TU LIRAS CETTE LETTRE) (1953)
This month The Gene Siskel Film Center, an adjunct of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has been hosting a retrospective of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville. It's been a thrilling line up of classics from the greatest director of French film noir: BOB LE FLAMBEUR, LE SAMOURAI, LE CERCLE ROUGE, LE DOULOS, UN FLIC, and more. (My only regret is that they didn't show the Simenon adaptation MAGNET OF DOOM.) I've been to most showings, and the highlight for me has been a film that was new to me, LEON MORIN, PRETRE (sometimes called LEON THE PRIEST). I will write about this movie soon, because it was something of a revelation to me. I love Melville's gangster films, but this intense and deeply human look at the relationship between a communist and a priest during World War II instantly became my favorite of his films. I want to see LEON again before I write about it, though. It demands my extended contemplation.
Last night at the retrospective, I had a strikingly unique experience because the Siskel showed a Melville rarity, WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER (QUAND TU LIRAS CETTE LETTRE). Before the show, the programmer came out to tell us that there is no existing print of the film with English subtitles. Instead, they showed the film in French while an interpreter used a computer program to seamlessly project subtitles onscreen. I have to say that this gave the showing an interesting twist. The interpreter got a well-deserved round of applause at the end.
Given the relative obscurity of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER in English, I thought that I should make some notes on it for Melville fans who have not yet seen it.
The film tells the story of a postulate nun named Therese Voise (Juliette Greco) who is about to take her vows when she learns that her parents have been killed in a car accident. She leaves the convent to return home to care for her sister Denise (Irene Galter) and run the family bookstore and paper shop. At the same time, Denise meets a handsome boxer named Max Trivet (Philippe Lemarie). At first, Max appears to be a roguish charmer. When Denise isn't around, he hatches a scheme with a buddy, Biquet, who works as a bellboy at a fancy hotel, to angle for the attention (and money) of rich Mme. Faugeret. Then Max sneaks into Mme. Faugeret's room at night and seduces her--and I use the word "seduces" advisedly here because although Mme. Faugeret seems to retain her agency, their confrontation is disturbingly close to a sexual assault. After this, Mme. Faugeret sort of adopts Max as a pet, but his character only seems increasingly sinister.
The turning point in the film comes when Denise unexpectedly runs into Max at the hotel and he rapes her in Mme. Faugeret's room. Distraught, the young woman attempts suicide. After she has recovered enough to tell Therese what has the happened, the older sister forces Max at gunpoint to marry Denise.
Every viewer's take on the film will probably depend a lot on how they view Therese's actions following her sister's assault. Melville was a poet of moral ambiguity. The plot of WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER might make it sound like a melodrama (and, indeed, in some ways it is), but the director rarely overplays things (one exception to this is a scene where Therese's dress catches on fire, a scene that clobbers us with its metaphors). For the most part, the tone set in the opening scenes in the convent predominates, even when the guns, sex, and twists of fate start coming into play. Max is the wild id of the film--violent, greedy, narcissistic. When he confesses his love for the tightly wound Therese, it seems like just another scheme. Therese, on on the other hand, is the film's ego (the film's superego is probably the Catholic church), and she is the one whose actions we're most interested in. She despises Max for what he's done, so her decision to force him to marry Denise is shocking. Does she do it out of some archaic sense of propriety? Does she do it because, despite everything, her sister claims to love Max? Melville and Jacques Deval let these questions hang in the air.
The cast is excellent. Galter is winsome as Denise without making her too doe-eyed, and as Max, Lemarie gives a demonically charismatic performance that manages to veer between brutality and a weird kind of innocence. When he confesses his love for Therese, it almost seems plausible that he could mean it, that she has a mysterious pull on him. What makes this work is that Max stays Max. It's not as if his attraction to Therese somehow redeems him or makes him a good guy. It's just another facet of his character. Is the film a noir? It wasn't billed as such, but I think that even if you didn't know that Melville was the director, the noir ethos of the thing comes through in Max's character and the amorality of Lemarie's performance.
As Therese, Juliette Greco is masterfully controlled. Greco is best known as an iconic singer in France, a former lover of Miles Davis and drinking buddy of people like Orson Welles and Jean-Paul Sarte. In this film, however, she was 26 and just starting out in her career. What she carried with her into the film was the weight of WWII, during which she'd been put in jail by Nazis and lost her mother, a member of the French Resistance. Greco would become famous for her intensity, and, indeed, the defining attribute of her performance here is the feeling of passions contained. She can convey the sense of sublimated emotion without giving the impression of a lack of emotion. All the characters in this film are tortured by passions they can't really comprehend, but Greco hints at great depths and intelligence. The way she tells Max, "May God punish you for the rest of your life and forgive you at the hour of your death" perfectly captures the Catholic restraint that dominates even her rage. Later, after Max has physically attacked her with a rock, only to instantly repent of his violence, she rubs her aching shoulder with a look of fascinating ambiguity on her face. The curse of Max for her isn't some hothouse sexuality or the misplaced idea that she can redeem him. It's that, in his horrible way, he makes her feel alive.
WHEN YOU GET THIS LETTER demands more viewings. Since it is such an obscurity, I can only hope that someone will bring it out on DVD or BluRay sometime soon. It's a haunting film.