Clark Douglas, Judge.
Jean-Paul Belmondo will make you breathless for the Catholic church!
"If you were a protestant pastor, would you marry me?"
Facts of the Case
Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, Hiroshima Mon Amour) is a widowed mother living in Nazi-occupied France. She is a communist, an atheist and generally has a great deal of disdain for religion. One day, she decides to march into her local Catholic church, enter the confessional booth and gives young priest Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo, Breathless) a piece of her mind. However, Morin's surprisingly calm, agreeable, level-headed response catches her off guard. She apologizes for her behavior and agrees to continue seeing Morin for the sake of engaging in an in-depth dialogue on Christianity. As time passes, the relationship between the widow and the priest continues to evolve in a variety of unexpected ways.
At a glance, Léon Morin, Priest may look more like an Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer film than the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. Melville's supposed to be the guy making tightly wound films about the French resistance and carefully plotted gangster flicks; repressed sexual desire and religious torment definitely aren't his usual department. And yet, upon closer examination one can see Melville's unmistakable cinematic voice at work: not only his distinctive technique but also his thematic obsessions, as the director uses the resistance as a springboard for the many ideas he employs in the film.
The early moments of Léon Morin, Priest seem like a well-directed, well-acted prologue to a pornographic movie: Barny is secretly experiencing a newfound sense of intense sexual desire for her beautiful female co-worker. In one scene, the co-worker innocently brushes her breasts against Barny's back, giving Barny a rush of unacknowledged pleasure. When Barny begins visiting the priest, it becomes clear that she inwardly desires more than just spiritual advice from him. Are we on our way to a live-action version of that aching puppet drama John Cusack's character stages in Being John Malkovich?
Thankfully, Melville has more than cheap melodrama up his sleeve. He transforms our expectations, and then does it again, and again, and again until we finally learn to stop jumping ahead of the movie in our minds. In Barny, we see a human being attempting to bring some measure of deep passion to life in a world shrouded in death. War rages around her, and she admits to feeling a thrill whenever she hears explosions. Perhaps the fact that she continues to survive provides some kind of primal jolt. She searches for anything that she can truly pour her heart into, whether it's her beautiful female co-worker or her young, handsome priest or an all-powerful deity. She does not begin gravitating towards religion out of fear for her soul, but out of a desire to really feel something. It does not matter whether her atheistic point-of-view is correct or incorrect; it simply isn't sustaining her during this period of personal crisis. Melville, an avowed atheist himself, adopts a sympathetic attitude towards religion that would later be employed to much different effect in Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying: it may be a fantasy, but what's wrong with a fantasy if it brings balance and peace to a person's life?
Belmondo may initially seem a very unusual choice for the role (his rebellious, sensual demeanor hardly suggests a man who would choose a life of celibacy and institutionalized servanthood), but the contradiction between his profession and his demeanor is intentional. Melville puts it bluntly in an interview included with this set: "The main idea was to show this amorous priest who likes to excite girls but doesn't sleep with them." Morin backs away in frustration every time a woman makes an advance on him (such a thing happens on more than one occasion), but otherwise seems content to cross numerous boundaries and involve himself in the personal lives of women. Morin would never actually use his position to seduce a woman, but one suspects that he would love to become his female parishioners' primary masturbation fantasy (though he's quietly alarmed when he hears that Barny uses a piece of wood for such purposes).
Melville's craftsmanship is strong throughout, but perhaps less prominent than in many of his films. Few of his shots distract from the characters, but he creates a compelling mood of uncertainty and manages to ever-so-subtly keep reminding us of the global chaos surrounding this intimate drama. His characters are well-drawn and credibly unpredictable; even the somewhat childishly detached Morin delivers moments of sincere religious conviction and genuine wisdom.
Léon Morin, Priest arrives on Blu-ray sporting a handsome 1080p/1.66:1 transfer. While it doesn't look quite as sharp as Criterion's other hi-def Melville efforts (Le Cercle Rouge and Army of Shadows, both made a few years after this one), it gets the job done quite nicely. Detail is sharp throughout, blacks are deep and inky and there are very few scratches or flecks. A couple of moments seem rather smudged, but it's likely that these were unsolvable source material problems. Audio is also sturdy, even if the melancholic score sounds a little wobbly from time to time. Dialogue comes through with clarity at all times. Extras include scene-specific commentary from the insightful Ginette Vincendeau, an archival interview with Melville and Belmondo from 1961, some deleted scenes, a trailer and a booklet featuring an interview with Melville and an essay from critic Gary Indiana.
Léon Morin, Priest will certainly serve as a striking change of pace for Melville fans, but it's yet another fine effort from a director who is worth rediscovering. Criterion's Blu-ray release is stellar.
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