Léon Morin, Priest (1961)

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This is my entry in The Vive la France Blogathon. Thanks to Lady Eve and Silver Screen Modes for having me!

I recently read some excerpts out of Soren Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” and the Danish philosopher makes the case “Even when you don’t live by a Christian reality you live in a Christianized world. You know when you offend the collective consciousness.”

Although this context is changing in the present day, it very much fits the world of this film from Jean-Pierre Melville. There is this sense of propriety and a propensity toward specific ways and lifestyles as dictated by the prevailing cultural forces. In this case, the church. Though some choose to kick against the goads and challenge the status quo. That’s where our story commences.

The substantial backdrop of World War II also ties Leon Morin to Silence de la Mer (1949) and then Army of Shadows (1969), which came well after. Because, of course, before his days as the idol of the New Wave and a craftsman of pulp gangster classics, Melville actually worked as a member of a French Resistance himself. You cannot take part in something like that without it totally impacting how you perceive the world.

But there is still an important distinction to be made. This is hardly a war movie. Instead, the war serves as a background for the human experience — a human relationship between a man and a woman. Their relationship starts early in the occupation and stretches beyond the boundaries of V-E Day.

However, the terms seem very suggestive and in an unrefined exploration of the material this would be the case. Still, by some marvel, Melville manages to conduct an astute yet still spellbinding examination of spirituality. The woman: a militant communist. The man: a humble priest of a French parish.

It is two years after Hiroshima Mon Amour. Alain Resnais’s film is one of the most poetic meditations you will ever see on the likes of love, war, and memory. Leon Morin, Priest is certainly different. It is a different kind of cadence and rhythm developing its own sense of a world and the related themes to go with it. But it is supernally evocative in its own right.

Emmanuelle Riva is Emmanuelle Riva, immaculately beautiful with eyes so bright they speak a language unto themselves. The moroseness is evident and yet they flit even momentarily between the cheery and the slightly provocative.

If Riva had her ascension on Hiroshima Mon Amour, Jean-Paul Belmondo was her equal as a nascent shooting star coming off of Godard’s Breathless. In this context, what a curious crossroads to descend upon Leon Morin, Priest. Such a quiet, tranquil picture seemingly more inclined toward the past than any manner of forward thinking. Neither is there a flashy, jazzy lifeblood to it.

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However, in another sense, it could not be more fitting. Melville, as alluded to before, was the Godfather of many of the Nouvelle Vague talents — certainly Godard — and even if it’s only in particular instances, he still has a flair unto his own.

We might note a stripped-down peer like Robert Bresson as reference, but there are abrupt dashes of pizzazz here that feel like the youth of the New Wave, whether in an implied slap to the face or a jarring jump in continuity. The persistent use of fade-outs allows the passage of time to be conceived at a leisurely pace.

The city is such an extraordinary space brimming with character imbued by the sheer amount of years being lived in its midst. At first, the shroud of war is almost a comical distraction. In its early days, solemnity has not set in. Then, the feathered garb of the Italians gives way to the no-nonsense domed blitzkrieg of the Germans.

Families have their children baptized to conveniently hide their Jewish lineage from any prying eyes within the incumbent authorities. Because soon enough, they start deporting undesirables en force. Paranoia and anti-semitism set in, even within our heroine Barny’s own workplace. Fugitives seeking asylum call on her charity in need of ration stamps and a place to gather themselves on their road to freedom.

Then, one afternoon she resolves to give a local priest a piece of her mind during confessions. She settles on the name Leon Morin as he seems like he might be the most receptive party given the peasantry pedigree of his moniker. If we were to label this decision we might label it as nothing short of Providence.

On first impression, Jean-Paul Belmondo feels like an unconventional casting for a member of the cloth. I often allude to his coming out of the tradition of Bogart but could Bogey have played a priest? Hardly. Still, Belmondo pulls it off with a candor, still blunt and true in its implementation. Because he cares deeply for others nevertheless, aided by his plain features and pragmatic perspective which both suit him well.

His dour space with only a desk, a window, and a shelf of books prove a very inviting place. Because he is such a person. At first an unassuming but ultimately charismatic spiritual leader. His lending library is open to Bardy and she begins to visit him and read his books. Somehow battling her urges to doubt due to curiosity and her own desire to gravitate toward him.

She is adamant about scientific proof for God and we begin an interim period that feels like it might be a precursor to Rohmer’s dialogues from My Night at Maud’s. In subsequent days, all the girls start coming to call on the young priest. Whether it’s merely physical attraction or some other ethereal quality about him is never stated outright. This cynical viewer is reminded of the glib aphorism, “flirt to convert.” And yet with each visitor, he comes ready to share the hope that is within him.

Bardy’s assured coworker Marion is one caller and then another very attractive girl who plans to seduce him; it seems she’s in the business of it with a laundry list of conquests going before her. And yet the perplexing aspect of the priest is how impregnable he is even as he welcomes each woman in, cultivates their spiritual well-being, and deals with them in such a frank manner.

Likewise, from the pulpit, he does not spare his words for the congregation sitting before him any given holy day. Recalling much of what Kierkegaard criticized he warns them not be merely “Sunday Christians.” “Not living out a Christian life drives away the undecided” and this is nothing new.

Hypocrisy or closer still being little different from everyone else is often one of the greatest faults of people who are deemed “Christian.” He further extolls them, “They should each be an apostle in their own setting.” It is a fallacy that only a priest can do the work of God. So while he speaks with consternation, he wraps it up with a note of hope. Because according to him,  there’s is “A God whose grace is given to the heretics and believers alike, loved equally in his sight.”

We see even momentarily his guiding force. Why he pursued Barny and did his best to shepherd her. He’s no elitist. His time and services are extended to all people. He lives it out in the day-to-day of life together with others.

When Barny and Morin must finally say goodbye there is so much in the air, gratefulness, sadness, wistfulness — even as she has fallen in love for his righteous guidance and he remains resolved in his mission to tend after the souls of those in his stead.

To merely say this is a conversion story is too simplistic. To claim it’s suggesting the sensuality of forbidden love is off the mark. We already confirmed it is not a war picture. The brilliance of Melville is painting around these conventional lines with the utmost nuance. Of course, the performances are superb. The two cinematic saints in Riva and Belmondo make it possible. The fact we are fallen humans, ripe with warring desires and doubts, make it necessary. Dealing with spirituality in such a perceptive manner is nothing short of a modern miracle.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Bogart actually did portray a priest in The Left Hand of God toward the end of his career. Thanks for those who pointed it out to me. Much appreciated!

Review: Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

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Like you I know what it is to forget and yet still be endowed with memory. These are only a couple fragments from this film stitched together but in many ways, they encapsulate the essence of its core themes.

I suppose such words ring true for all of us and Alain Resnais’ film is composed of a plethora of equally perplexing paradoxes that though never quite coming into full clarity nevertheless prove Hiroshima Mon Amour to be one of the most bewitching cinematic expressions born out of the French cinema. Without question, it is an undisputed touchstone of the forthcoming Nouvelle Vague that blew up the conventions of the 1960s.

The first time I ever saw Resnais’ romantic meditation there was something so arresting about it such that I will never forget the likes of Nevers and Hiroshima — the two entities that make up this film as not simply places of past tragedy but crucial to the very identities of the characters who come within the frame.

We never need to know the true names of this French actress (Emanuelle Riva in a riveting performance of immense grace) and the equally candid Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) who fall into the throes of a passionate affair together. They are represented well enough by these monikers — symbolic torchbearers of these names — emblematic of the age they ascribed to.

Like L’Eclisse (1961) or Dr. Strangelove (1964), this film too is in the wake of the atomic bomb and any subsequent discussion thereof cinematically speaking must at least acknowledge such films. Part of the necessity in this specific case is how the film takes a particular event and then extends it and intertwines it with so much more in such a way that it not only a monument to Hiroshima but a testament to human history.

We are people so quick to forget. We lose sight of the past. We bury our hurts deep inside. We are doomed to repeat many of our past mistakes. But still, more so we are capable of passions, emotions, and love that carry us through times of tribulation, pain, and suffering. It’s something to be immensely thankful for.

Resnais film is one of the great visual marvels of the 20th century with its graceful fade-outs and flashbacks — delicate camera zooms connecting memories and realities. Stylistically there’s a continuous poetic cadence of image and dialogue, repetitions with recollections. A solemnity exists in its very purposeful pacing that ties everything together with the utmost elegance which, far from being a muddled hodgepodge, forms a perplexing experience never to be fully elucidated.

It has very few equals and remains so as an achievement that can hardly be defined as a typical love story or any such blase categorization. It’s what we might conceive when we think of Film as art worthy of any sphere of discussion.

There’s hardly a meter to begin measuring how it makes us feel or the emotions it elicits.  Somehow connected to fate — two lovers crossing paths — these two individuals seemingly meant to be together and tied together not only by their romantic passion but their own histories. The striking flashback structure subsequently creates tiny microcosms of emotional resonance that flood with abandon.

Recollections of past scars unearthed over the course of the love affair. Both historical and personal. We have the depiction of the devastation in the aftermath of the bomb with images that are all but scorched into our mind’s eye with an unfettered pointedness. We are meant to see these images and take into account how they came into being.

But there’s also the personal trauma brought to the fore and exhumed with a kind of transfixing equanimity that’s hard to fully comprehend but nevertheless leaves us with something to ruminate over. Equally telling is the passage of time as memories begin to fade and minds begin to slowly forget. Again, that is the curse of our beings that we must fight to remember what has come before.

It’s no small coincidence that the cafe that our two lovers rendezvous at is none other than the Casablanca. The yearning and the melancholy are right there in the lyric of “As Time Goes By.” If you’ve never consciously thought about their meaning before then Resnais film might make you hear them anew and be moved.  Love, memory, and heartbreak are often so closely tied together. This is a film that dwells on each and finds some amount of catharsis.

The diversity of the crew is another glimmering bright spot of this joint partnership between nations with an abundance of involvement from both French and Japanese staff taking the shoot on-location to both countries. It’s a lovely marriage and a bond is formed by the picture just as the romance signals a tight-knit cross-cultural relationship on screen.

For some, individuals somewhat attuned to diverse backgrounds, Hiroshima Mon Amour is utterly groundbreaking in this realm. Though its cast is small, it’s a mighty statement having a French woman playing opposite a Japanese man. 50 years on it remains as an image that we do not see all that often, despite the changing of the tides.

Their closeness is palpable. Hands clasping tenderly. Eyes gazing with the deepest longing. The intimacy that they share speaks volumes. Even as it’s undercut by the morose strains of infidelity and wistfulness; this is a love story like few others.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

 

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

72bd9-hiroshima_mon_amour_1959This film is not only a seemingly early form of the French New Wave, it also has many qualities of a documentary, and it is certainly an international film. The film opens with a one night stand between a French actress and a Japanese architect who rendezvous one night in Hiroshima. In the short time they spend together, she reflects on her memories of the city that was not too long ago devastated by the atomic bomb. He often rejects her recollections but nevertheless, he cannot bear for her to leave and he continues to pursue her. Eventually in the course of their time together she relates her days back in the town of Nevers in France. During the occupation, she had a beau who was German and was eventually killed. The events and aftermath haunted her even many years later. They spend some of their time together walking the streets of Hiroshima and with their time running out they vow to remember each other by Hiroshima and Nevers respectively because their real names are never mentioned. This film begins very much like a documentary on Hiroshima but very quickly it turns into a character study focusing on ideas of love, memory, and personal identity. This film is more about art and expression and it uses quick flashbacks to replicate the past with voice-overs bringing the audience back to the present. That being said it should be treated as such because it truly is a masterpiece from Alain Resnais.

4.5/5 Stars