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 to 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 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: Le Samourai (1967)

le samourai 1There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…

It would be easy for some to call Le Samourai flat and pedestrian due to its visual style and even the workings of its plot. All very straightforward with cool tones and characters who barely crack a smile. Emotions are even less common. But that’s disregarding how exquisitely confident it is in its execution. Jean-Pierre Melville is a director who evolved into one of the great forgers of crime films for the very reasons mentioned above.

His hero played so iconically by Alain Delon is one of those great film characters who does not need to fill every moment of silence with a witty comeback. In fact, Jef Costello is not one to spitfire witty repartee at all. Instead, he’s calculating, steely-eyed and ridiculously phlegmatic. He fits the corridors of this film like a glove, perfectly suited for the cold exteriors and drab interiors.

We meet him not in some moment of dramatic action, but while he reclines silently on his bed, veiled in shadow, cigarette smoke clouding over him and the chirps of his caged canary piercing through the traffic sounds murmuring outside his window. Although we linger there for a time as the credits roll, it takes a moment to acclimate. If you’re not paying attention, the contours of his body are almost lost to us — an extraordinarily ordinary man. But that’s precisely what he wants you to think.

Meanwhile, he highjacks cars, puts an airtight alibi in place, takes on a hit at a local nightclub with ease and disposes of all evidence without even a hiccup. Veins of ice and nerves of steel give him the perfect physique for a hitman. Top it off with his uniform — a trenchcoat, fedora, and cigarette, bolstered by Delon’s imperious stare and it’s difficult not to be mesmerized by his every movement.

It’s the kind of self-assuredness that allows another character to ask him, What kind of man are you? and no answer is needed — at least not with words — because with every action, every look, he tells us precisely what he is. An aloof assassin of the highest order. Yes, if you want to make the comparison, a samurai.

le samourai 2And though he does call on his lovely girlfriend (Nathalie Delon), who is absolutely devoted to him, as well as making eyes at the nightclub pianist who is the main eyewitness to his hit, Jef for all intent and purposes, is alone. It’s a kind of forced solitude, a self-made exile created by his trade. After he goes through with the hit, he must shut himself off more and more. That is his job.

So he goes to the police station to be questioned. Goes through the lineup. Stairs down the witnesses and goes home. Not to his girl but the dismal flat with his mournful canary. His contractors are out to get him, the cops are looking to catch him in his fabricated alibi and still, Costello maintains his composure as is his habit. He’s unphased by bugs or tails and when he has a gun to his face he never blubbers, only proceeds with beating up his assailant when the opportunity arises.

And although there is never much of overt romance in Le Samourai — Jef never shows any kind of passion — there are still glimpses that he cares about people. Perhaps he holds onto chivalry as part of his moral code. Even after staying away from his girlfriend for many days he comes back to her not expectant of anything but asking her if she’s alright. Pragmatic but concerned. Distant but still invested.

The same can be said for the film’s tremendous finale. Le Samourai is not a film of gratuitous killing but pointed moments of violence that are careful acts of deliberation. Costello kills two people and the film ends with his third and final hit. But it is in these tense moments that we gain yet another insight into the moral makeup of a world-class hitman.

Melville was obviously an admirer of American gangster films but what makes his vision of the genre so fantastic is the demeanor of his characters. Again, some might say boring, but that is probably a predilection of those raised on Hollywood action. There is no aura left. No shred of intrigue or tension left to be examined. Le Samourai is a crime thriller that performs differently, its pacing is entrancing and far from being tepid, it elevates the hitman to enduringly riveting heights to the last bullet fired. It doesn’t hurt that Jef Costello just might be the coolest action hero of all time.

5/5 Stars

Review: Breathless (1960)

breathless2Breathless is such a fresh, smooth piece of cinema that feels as cool now as it was back then. The transcontinental French vibe paired with the revolutionary production is strangely still appealing. It does so many things with such style that is always unique but never quite off-putting. Not to mention the score which is playful in an elegant sort of way. The film has an array of quick cuts, it’s discontinuous, abrupt, and it literally jumps between images. Actions, like shooting a cop or sitting in a room with a girl, become more interesting than we could ever give them credit for.

Godard is known for saying that all you need for a film is a girl and a gun and that’s basically all Breathless is. Michel (Jean-Pierre Belmondo) is a low down, no good hood who also happens to be quite funny at times. He shoots a cop for no good reason and after that, the police are after him on the streets of Paris.

breathless5He’s also broke and all his buddies are either unavailable or in some trouble of their own. He swipes money from one girl and rendezvous with his latest fling, the aspiring American journalist Patricia (Jean Seberg). They do very little except drive around the city or lounge around her room. In one memorable shot, jump cuts piece together scenes of the back of Patricia’s head as she sits in the passenger seat observing the world around her pass by.

Michel, on his part, seems only to want sex and yet he says he’s never loved a girl before. He’s continually drawn to Patricia, and he never can quite pull himself away.

She, meanwhile, has another man with an eye on her, and she hopes to propel her fledgling journalism career. Her one assignment happens to be interviewing the highly philosophical and somewhat pompous Mr. Parvulesco (Jean-Pierre Melville).

breathless10The billboards around town even foreshadow the impending doom of Michel. Patricia later learns from the police that her lover is wanted for murder, and she must decide what to do about it. In a memorable scene, Patricia is shown pacing around the room in a wide circle. In the end, she does turn in the hood to prove to herself that she doesn’t truly love him.

Michel looks utterly pitiful, like a wounded deer after he gets winged by the police and collapses in the middle of a quiet avenue. Patricia stares straight at the camera giving the queerest of looks as Michel breathes his last. If you wanted narrative clarity you’re definitely looking in the wrong place.

breathless9In some ways, Jean Seberg’s iconic look reminds me a young Audrey Hepburn another gamine glamour girl. The photography of Seberg is iconic from the reflection in her sunglasses to her donning Michel’s hat. Breathless proves film is not just entertainment, but it can also be lastingly stylish. There’s nothing wrong with that, and it still seems to work after over 50 years. Honestly, when I was starting out, Breathless helped open up all of European cinema to me and for that, I am indebted to Godard and The French New Wave.

4.5/5 Stars

Le Silence de la mer (1949)

f9677-lesilence1Out of the many titans of French film, I found a personal favorite in Jean-Pierre Melville. Aside from changing his name in honor of the American author who wrote about the great white whale, Melville was also a member of the French Resistance during WWII. Thus, he seems to be the perfect man to helm a film based on a novel that was secretly published during the Nazi occupation. You would think that it would be brimming with political agenda and underhanded controversy.

Instead, Melville gifts us a nuanced and sympathetic film about a German Lieutenant who is quartered in the home of a French gentleman and his young niece. In many ways, much of the story plays out as an extended monologue rattled off by Werner von Ebrennac, and it becomes the perfect narrative device for an intimate character study. He is met by silence and passive aggression from his hosts, who hate his guts and the situation they have been placed in. He represents everything they despise, and his mere presence also reminds them of the shameful fact that France has fallen.

And yet he is far from the stereotype, and Melville never allows this German Lieutenant to succumb to our preconceptions. This has to be one of the most sympathetic depictions of a German soldier ever seen captured on film. It turns out that Ebrennac is a perfect gentleman, cultured in literature (Moliere, Rascine, Cervantes, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe), and a seasoned musician. His head is full of romantic ideals about the reviving of France as it is taken under the wing of its new conqueror.

His words are always met with a quiet contempt as uncle and niece continually sit reading and knitting. It never seems to change or stop. There is never a change in temperate or a word spoken. Just the words of Ebrennac every evening after he gets back and the voice-over of the older gentlemen constantly illuminates us about the unspoken workings of his mind.

Soon, however, the Lieutenant learns the reality of the war from Treblinka to the Nazi ideology pervading the psyche of all the German military. Friends have been brainwashed, and his view of the German war is completely dashed. There is nothing left to do but apply for a transfer and resign himself to the hell that has been created. Uncle and niece reluctantly bid farewell to a man who was the exception.

This was Jean-Pierre Melville’s first feature, but I really enjoyed it as simple as it is. He seems to understand the ambiguities of war. It often is difficult to decipher who is in the right or the wrong. Germany was the odious villain and France the obvious victim. However, in this domestic drama the tables are seemingly switched in stark contrast.

4/5 Stars

Breathless (1960)

5cad1-c380_bout_de_souffle_movie_posterThe debut of Jean-Luc Godard and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo with Jean Seberg, this film was influential in helping to jump start the French New Wave. The story begins with a small-time thief named Michel stealing a car and then killing a policeman  Quickly, he becomes a fugitive in need of money. This brings him in contact with an American journalism student he had met before. They spend time together with Michel professing his love and Patricia still feeling unsure whether or not she truly loves him back. In a final act of reassurance Patricia betrays Michel and he is chased down by the authorities. He is a far cry from the American movie stars and crime films he idolizes. With its jazzy score, bilingual dialogue, jump cuts, and Parisian scenery, this film is chic and cool. It paid homage to Hollywood but it also paved the way for a new era of films starting in the 60s. The film is perhaps not as impressive to today’s audiences but it certainly has a look that you have to appreciate. Godard was ahead of his time because he went against all conventions that had been set up for cinema and he thereby revolutionized the film world.

4.5/5 Stars

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

LecerclerougeDirected by Jean-Pierre Melville and starring a cast including Alain Delon and Yves Montand, this crime film hearkens back to heist films such as The Asphalt Jungle, back in the 1950s.

In a cold open, two storylines are introduced. One man, Vogel, is in custody and is handcuffed to a policeman as they board a train. At the same time, a man named Corey is let out of prison, on good behavior, and he is tipped off on a possible heist job. In both cases, we have little background information to go on. Then, Corey pops in unexpectedly on an old mob boss and forcibly “borrows” some money from the man, who has also stolen his girl. He buys a new car and throws off a couple of thugs who were sent after him. As the morning dawns, the captive on the train makes a daring escape and flees into the nearby forest. Soon roadblocks are set and the manhunt begins. He desperately gets into an open car trunk to hide, ironically it is the same car of the man, who was recently released.

However, he was noticed and Corey tells him to get out of his hiding place.  Vogel is tense but his cool and collected acquaintance helps him sneak through a checkpoint noting that Paris is his best chance of escape. Corey is chased down once again by Rico’s henchmen, but Vogel sneaks out and comes to his aid. They head to Paris and find a sharpshooter to case the jewelry store and help them with their plan. The police detective is still searching for his quarry, and he tries to enlist the help of a crooked club owner. Meanwhile, the plans are made, and the heist is pulled off with great precision and efficiency. They get away with the jewels smoothly enough. However, the marksman settles to take no part of the plunder, and their initial buyer falls through. Relatively quickly there is a new person interested, so Corey takes the goods to him. Only too late Vogel comes to warn him, and just like that, they must flee the premises with police all around.

Much like Le Samourai, this film gives off an extremely cool vibe, and it makes it all the more enjoyable to watch. Alain Delon is such a smooth operator, and whether it is the way he dresses, talks, smokes, or pulls off the heist, it cannot be easily dismissed. However, the other main players give serious and nuanced performances of their own, which cannot be overlooked. Melville makes all of his scenes so interesting, through the setup and the fashion in which his characters go through the world of the film. His characters act in the mode of behavior that they believe is correct and most are rather taciturn and guarded. I cannot decide if I like Le Samourai or Le Cercle Rouge better, but it must be said they are in a special class of crime films.

4.5/5 Stars

Le Samourai (1967)

2858d-lesamouraiStarring Alain Delon as the title character and with direction by Jean-Pierre Melville, this film pulls from the French New Wave as well as Hollywood Noir and Crime films making something entirely distinct in its own right. Jef Costello is Le Samourai, an expressionless and cold professional hit man who can be seen in his trench coat and hat with a cigarette. He executes a hit on a nightclub owner and he is seen leaving by the female piano player. His girlfriend gives him an alibi and the eyewitness accounts do not line up but the investigator still suspects Costello. The hit man is let off and goes to pick up his payment only to be shot instead. He gets away and fixes himself up only to return to the night club later. He returns to his room knowing something is up because the canary is agitated and he finds a bug. The police keep on his girlfriend as well but she will not retract her statement. Costello is confronted by his assailant from before only to be offered a new contract, but they struggle and Costello gets the name of the boss behind it all. Jef is on the move again and he says a goodbye to his girlfriend before going to Rey’s home to knock him off. One last time he returns to the night club piano player and in view of everyone he walks up to her a pulls out a gun. With all eyes on him he explains his new target is her, but before he can do it, Le Samourai is gunned down. The police are relieved to have got there in time, but then they realize Jef never meant to kill her. 

Delon plays such a delightfully deadly killer with a moral code. In a sense he is a tragic hero we ultimately respect because he lives a life full of solitude and honor as is the code of the samurai. I must admit that I cannot wait to see more Melville or Delon for that matter.
5/5 Stars