Wednesday, July 27, 2011


The Criterion Collection has done me a favor by releasing their latest acquisition from the filmography of Jean-Pierre Melville during Barnes & Noble's semi-annual half-price sale on the elite line of DVDs. The film is going to be available as a Netflix stream, but a Criterion Melville is virtually a must-own for me. This latest release does not disappoint despite being quite different in content and tone from what I've seen previously from the French master of crime and suspense. Leon Morin adapts a prize-winning novel by Beatrix Beck set during the Axis occupation of France during the late war. Melville had been there already and would go there again, but on this occasion his subject is not the French Resistance, but the impact of war and a male depopulation on the women of a small town in the southern part of the country, where the Italians were actually first to arrive.

Our protagonist is Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), who corrects papers for a correspondence school that relocated its headquarters for the duration. Her husband is gone and she's sent her daughter to be taken care of in the country. With most of the young men gone and with the Italians more an object of curiosity than anything else, the atmosphere isn't exactly oppressive at first. In fact, it seems fraught with transgressive potential to the Barny, who struggles with an unanticipated infatuation with her supervisor Sabine, whom she describes as an amazon and a samurai (!!!). She wants her friends to know that she's attracted to Sabine to the extent that the tall, composed woman resembles a handsome young man -- and this caveat seems sincere, considering that she soon becomes infatuated with one of the few remaining handsome young men in town, our title character (Jean-Paul Belmondo).

The odd thing is, Barny is a self-professed Communist, and she makes contact with Leon Morin initially with the purpose of teasing a priest in his confession booth with the Marxism, "Religion is the opiate of the people." Our would be she-troll is surprised, however, when Morin proves a nimble-witted debater who doesn't take offense at cheap shots. He's soon inviting her to his quarters to borrow theology books so they can continue their debates at a more informed level. A kind of merry war goes on as the Germans arrive and the Resistance intensifies until Barny seems poised to capitulate, whether on the strength of Morin's polemics or on the strength of his good looks. For one reason or another, the spiritual-counselor business is booming for the young priest, and after a while, and especially as Barny edges toward conversion, Morin seems to grow increasingly uncomfortable with it. He grows more brusque with her as the fight goes out of her, but she sees his edgy behavior as sexual tension. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but he gets literally jumpy at any hint of romance, and his postwar transfer to an interior mission in the countryside is clearly a relief. And as you may have guessed, the war ends and the occupiers leave.

I'd call what Barny and Morin share a doomed relationship if I felt more certain that it was a relationship in any real sense. They may seem like the ultimate mismatched partners superficially, but they're really closer to two of a kind. The potentiality and liminality Barny experiences during the Occupation seems to be Morin's normal state. The war shakes Barny loose from complacency, but complacency seems utterly alien to Morin. That may be strange to say of a priest, but look at the evidence. He expresses frustration with the church hierarchy on many subjects and is most interested in Barny when she's most willing to contest his views. When she succumbs to his arguments, he almost seems to grow contemptuous toward her. The tension Barny perceives is as much Morin's disappointment in losing a worthy opponent as it is any anxiety about Barny's feelings toward him. For all his apologias for religion, Morin comes across as an alienated intellectual whose faith and vocation only enable his alienation rather than transcending it. For all Barny's alleged Communism, she's really after stability and security, while Morin seems happiest in an environment of struggle and argument -- an eternal debating society. The upheaval of Occupation gives him a moment to shine, but it only seems right that he hits the road when it's all over.

Father Morin prefers resisting temptation to resisting occupation for some reason.
Leon Morin, Pretre certainly has a different atmosphere from any Melville film I've seen to date. This tale of the Occupation has a perversely idyllic feel. Barny's community is a place where the girls gush over the Italians and their feathered hats, and where Barny's little girl France (where else can a child be named after her country?) befriends a gentle German soldier. Melville makes a point of never showing the Resistance in action, though they're often heard offscreen. We hardly see the bad guys do more than parade or drill; a German hassles Barny at a checkpoint once, but lets her go with little fuss. In fact, her greatest peril comes after the Americans liberate the town; a G.I. is persuaded only with great effort by his buddy not to rape our heroine. We're dealing with people out of the loop of history, who aren't part of the heroic national narrative of Resistance but aren't collaborators either -- for the most part. Life goes on, but not quite, and disruptions like Barny's successive crushes result.

Melville gives the film an erotic charge not just during Barny's dreams of Morin, but in Barny's workplace, where Sabine (Nicole Morel) appears to at least partially reciprocate Barny's crush. Sabine isn't the only amazon on the job; Barny also has to deal with the belligerent anti-semite Christine (Irene Tunc) in the nearest thing the film has to a fight scene.

Sexual harrassment or just plain harrassment? The office is Barny's battlefield in this war.

For his part, Morin has to fend off the formidable Marion (Monique Bertho), who's reputed to have five lovers and seems to be out for a sixth. Jean-Paul Belmondo, then red-hot off of Breathless, seems like ideal casting for Morin -- I know I can't imagine Alain Delon as a priest for a second. Belmondo isn't classically handsome by any stretch but has a sensual charisma that makes the women's craze for him plausible, as well as a certain narcissic smugness that limits his potential for real emotional intimacy with anyone. Against him Melville pits the star of Hiroshima Mon Amour in an early clash of New Wave titans, and Riva holds her own pretty well. It's her movie despite the title and the billing, and she never lets it slip from her hands.

Leon Morin is proof that Melville wasn't a creature of genre but had visual and narrative gifts to bring to any story material. He makes Barny's flirtation with Morin nearly as intriguing as any of his capers or chases in his classic crime stories. I'm not ready to rank this one above his later crime epics -- except perhaps for Un Flic -- but Morin is still an impressive achievement, and one that has me impatient for Criterion to haul in the rest of the Melvilles I haven't seen. How about this time next year?

For now, how about a trailer? This one, with English subtitles, was uploaded to YouTube by ClassicMovieTrailers.

1 comment:

Jonny said...

Samuel I love Melville and can't wait to see this Criterion release. I too am intrigued by Melville's delving into a different type of story, away from his usual neo-noir oeuvre. I love Belmondo's insousciant acting one can understand why Melville would slyly pick this actor for this role. Great stuff.