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Jean-Paul Belmondo

Review: Le Magnifique

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

Who needs a spoof of Bondian spy flicks in 1976? (For that matter, who needed one in 1973 when this film was made?) For a reel or so, that’s all that Le Magnifique seems to be up to. The reel isn’t hard to endure: Le Magnifique—or rather, one-man fighting machine Bob St. Clare—is personified by Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose wit, egocentricity, and slaloming physicality are not only entertaining but also as endearing as ever. And Philippe de Broca is officially in charge, and hitting his marks frequently enough that we recall how often and how deftly he took our breath away in L’Homme de Rio and other, only slightly lesser Sixties comedies which mixed action and/or enchantment with their slapstick and drollery. In one magical instance, a backward-zooming camera pans a troupe of white-jacketed porters bearing a dozen articles of white luggage at full trot across a Mexican tarmac, to scarlet spy lady Jacqueline Bisset sitting in a sportscar and Belmondo, in dashing tropical spy haberdashery, describing a slowmotion vault into the shot and into the passenger seat of the car—the shot proceeding fluidly and funnily out of the foregoing action, accreting elements and building from chuckle to belly laugh, and then winking away before it can flatten out into complacent savoring of a comic coup. But too many comic moments aren’t magical, and seem embarrassingly anachronistic. Again, who needs a spy spoof now? As de Broca piles joke atop joke on the theme of how callously and carelessly his hero deals out death (during a passionate kiss his hollow tooth containing his emergency cyanide capsule is sucked out by the heroine and spat into a hotel swimming pool instantly awash with the corpses of other guests), it begins to look as if Le Magnifique might be yet another well-meaning but dreary protest about the decreasing value of human life in the contemporary, CIA-pervaded world.

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DVD/Blu-ray: Léon Morin, Priest

Léon Morin, Priest (Criterion)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s reputation rests predominantly on his amazing string of crime dramas but the director (who during World War II was active in the Resistance) also made three films about the life during the Nazi occupation. Léon Morin, Priest (1961), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo (fresh from Breathless) as an unconventional, at times radical young priest and Emmanuelle Riva (of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour) as an atheist attracted to his intelligence and his charms, is his second and most unusual. The film opens with occupation and ends with liberation but focuses on the hothouse atmosphere of intimacy and separation, of desire and denial, in the private meetings of Léon (Belmondo), the unconventional, at times radical and undeniably handsome young priest, and Barny (Riva), a young widow (her communist husband was killed in the war) with a half-Jewish daughter and a strong attraction to Léon.

It’s quite the chamber drama, a war movie set in intimate spaces and played out in theological debates and guarded discussions. Melville plays on the power of Belmondo, a handsome, young, newly-minted movie star of French cinema in 1961, as a strong, striking, confident priest in a town of women without men. Behind the guarded figure in a black cassock and a serene, sly smile is a virile yet celibate man surrounded by desirable women and he wields that power to draw them into the faith and, chastely, flirt with them. It’s a cagey manipulation where he both seduces and judges their weakness as he gets them to confess the sins of their attraction, and you wonder if his ability to frustrate their desire is in some way his substitute for sexual pleasure. Belmondo never presents Léon as anything but dedicated, but his confidence and sexual presence makes him a magnet. All eyes are drawn to him when he’s on screen, a fact of which he’s very aware. There’s more behind his enigmatic smile than simply an object lesson.

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