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At the cinematheque: “Léon Morin, Priest” (Melville, 1961)

Above: Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Pierre Melville's Léon Morin, Priest.  Image courtesy Rialto Pictures.
Father the French New Wave and how do you proceed?  By casting the star of the most famous nouvelle vague film as a small town priest in Occupied France and the woman in the most formally audacious film of 1959 as the woman crushing on him?  That seems to be Jean-Pierre Melville's answer, looking, in 1961, for a hit (his previous film, Two Men in Manhattan, didn't do so well), and already looking past the New Wave he momentarily inspired during the early to mid 1950s and towards the man who Melville claims to have inspired himself, Robert Bresson.
The film, since we should get around to it, is Léon Morin, Priest, and it is an accordion of a film, dragging on in a talkieness only totally respectful literally adaptations seems to have (or Rohmer films) and then moving at a briskness where dissolves to black seem to cut all interesting action short.  It's a film about the Occupation that forestalls the covert action of Army of Shadows for the ditzy crushes of a small town's fleet of beautiful girls for Jean-Paul Belmondo, a heart-throb priest tucked away seemingly for the women's pleasure.  The angle on the Occupation for the occupantees seems to be that with the men off to war (or dead, as our heroine is a widow), with the children safely moved away out of danger to the countryside, with days either too cold or too hot, food a rarity, and boredom more of a reigning order than Vichy, one's mind wanders to flights of fancy.
For Emmanuelle Riva, our heroine, those flights are decidedly romantic and dogmatic, in that order.  Combine the two in her interest in young-n-handsome Father Morin (Belmondo), and you get a decidedly spiritual quest; that is, a quest to find spirit; and that is, a quest to find the right kind of spirit (hint: sensual, erotic spirit is probably not the kind your priest will respect).  All of which leaves us with a decidedly Bressonian (or should we say Melvillian?) cinema of exterior stillness and fiery, loaded gestures, empty words and sneak-whispered narration, but what is left most impressing in all of Léon Morin, Priest is not the titular priest or Meville's move away from youthful spontaneity but Emmanuelle Riva.  Though Melville abhors close-ups and inserts, this is a film dedicated to Riva's eyes, so powerful that even in those distant medium and long-shots that leave characters sad and alone in the film space (and, this being Melville, a sad space coated in dilpadated wallpaper) this girl's eyes, all sweetness and warmth, kindled with the mockery of pride and boredom, say everything this character has to say, everything this Occupation setting has to say, everything this scenario—in fact, everything any film that uses those eyes could have to say.  Léon Morin, Priest, fleeing the roudiness of the New Wave like a plague, needs nothing more than the stately assurance, the fierce beauty of these eyes to capture the energy Meville started, spawned, and left to the youth.  With these wonderful eyes the movie has begun, achieves exaltation, and is over in a blink.
Léon Morin, Priest opens at the Film Forum on 19 April 2009.

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