Reviewer: Jeffrey M Anderson
Rating (out of five): ****
Thanks to a fan club that includes Quentin Tarantino and John Woo (as well making an appearance in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless), Jean-Pierre Melville is primarily known as a director of cool crime films. In 2006, there was a small revelation with the official U.S. release of Army of Shadows (1969), a cool crime film that took place during WWII and dealt with the French Resistance; it quickly became apparent that this subject was dear to Melville's heart. Now comes Léon Morin, Priest (1961), making its DVD debut via the Criterion Collection. It's a movie without any crime elements at all, and is almost entirely wrapped up in the Occupation and Resistance. And yet it hardly even touches on those things. The story is almost totally boiled down to the interactions between two characters. They talk almost entirely about religion. They barely talk about the war or its effects at all. But in these talks, everything becomes clear.
Two of the hottest actors of the French New Wave star: Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour) and Jean-Paul Belmondo (Breathless). Riva plays Barny, a widow with a little girl. She works for a correspondence school, which has been relocated from Paris to the French Alps. Various soldiers arrive in town and begin establishing various restrictions, but these things don't seem to affect Barny's life much. She's amused by the silly hats worn by the Italian soldiers, and she doesn't even notice when a familiar building is reduced to rubble.
What does preoccupy Barny is the idea of visiting the local church and pulling a practical joke. She chooses a priest based on his name, Léon Morin, and enters the confession booth. When the priest arrives, she announces that religion is the opium of the masses. To her surprise, the priest (Belmondo) more or less agrees with her and engages her in a discussion. He brings her into his office, gives her books to read and invites her to return for more discourse.
Barny is involved in the discussions, but she's probably more interested in Morin himself, with his shabby cassock, his handsome face, and his peculiar manner, both inviting and guarded. She begins to fantasize about sleeping with him, and she's not the only one. After all, it's wartime, and all the men are gone. Morin is the only one around, and he's fascinating to the local women.
Melville plays this little intellectual, erotic dance with great care, strategically staging the actors in the simple sets, but perhaps more importantly is the way that the whole movie descends upon and centers around these two. The war intrudes around the film's edges, but it's always a secondary concern (Melville apparently cut down a much longer, more detailed film to achieve this final result). Even more notable is the odd cutting, with fadeouts that seem to happen very abruptly, as if dreamlike.
Léon Morin, Priest is a peculiar combination of intellectual and instinctive, but it works beautifully. The protected dance between these two fascinating souls builds to a breaking point without ever giving anything away. All that talk, and never any kind of conclusion, which is as it should be.
Criterion's disc comes with a 1961 TV interview with Belmondo and Melville, a selected-scene commentary track by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, a trailer, and some deleted scenes.
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