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.
Melville adapts the semi-autobiographical novel by Béatrix Beck (which he once praised as the most accurate picture of life under the occupation) and the defies the expectations of an occupation drama by leaving most of the defining details—the German soldiers on the streets, the black market, the activities of Resistance and the deportations of Jewish citizens—in the margins of the frame or completely off screen. Battles and killings are noted only by the echoes of gunshots or far away bomb blasts and the deportations are seen in the reflection of a shop window. Even the narration reflects this with matter-of-fact observations: “Our city had been occupied by Italian troops,” observes Barny in the opening scenes, while a little later, “The deportations began,” and “Then one morning, the city awoke free.” Her voice is almost a monotone, as if steeled for anything. The fabric of life has become so alien that almost anything can be accepted as normal.
Melville’s original cut of the film ran over three hours and according to the director had much more of the Resistance fighters, Nazi officers and Jews in hiding (as in the novel), but he chose to pare those away to focus on Barny and her immediate experience. While on one way it’s frustrating to see only slivers of those elements, it creates a very different kind of atmosphere and sensibility of life under occupation. Barny is no Resistance fighter but neither is she a collaborator. Like those around her, she keeps her head down and eyes averted, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t see what’s happening around her. Which is not to deny the threat that hangs over the occupation. One of the most fascinating things about Léon Morin, Priest is how quickly the characters adjust to life under occupation, and how abruptly that atmosphere can turn volatile and dangerous, whether in war or in the smoldering space between New Wave icons Belmondo and Riva.
After years of making films on the margins of the industry on low budgets—he created his own studio to maintain his independence—he made Léon Morin, Priest for producer Carlo Ponti and made the most of his resources. His sets and settings are richly detailed, from the bustle of her office (with windows looking out to the nervous life on the street) to the ascetic poverty of Léon’s apartment to the noir-ish atmosphere of the village at night, and he uses cranes and dollies for restrained but elegant camerawork. His direction is a curious melding of classic studio elegance and sudden (if fleeting) bursts of New Wave flourish (even he wasn’t immune to the energy in air; he had, after all, acted in Godard’s Breathless). It’s a real change from the free-wheeling immediacy of Bob le Flambeur, handsome but removed, and a calculated commercial move that paid off: Léon Morin, Priest became his first major hit and the beginning of a three-film collaboration with Belmondo.
The film debuts on American DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion in new high-definition digital restoration, accurately presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The clean, crisp transfer presents Henri Decaë’s black-and-white photography with great clarity and a rich gray scale.
The disc presents scene-specific commentary by film professor and Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau, who talks over three extended sequences from film in what is more audio essay than commentary, offering an overview of the film in the context of Melville’s career and discussing the major themes and stylistic qualities of the film as a whole. Most of the material is reworked from her book on Melville and was recorded in 2004 for the BFI. Also include two brief deleted scenes—one with the occupying Nazi soldiers, another concerning her friendship with a young woman she discovers is a collaborator—and an archival TV interview with Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo from 1961.