Reviews

The Seductive Jean-Paul Belmondo Gives Life to 'León Morin, Priest'

Jean-Pierre Melville directs a faith-based tale that reminds us that he only worshiped in the church of cinema.


León Morin, Priest

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Jean Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: NR
Release date: 2011-07-26

Like many other filmmakers of his generation, Jean-Pierre Melville was the kind of man so committed to his profession that he would go as far as to change his name to pay tribute to one of his icons. When he changed his surname from Grumbach to Melville, in honor of his favorite author (Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame), the iconoclast auteur did one of the many things that would inspire younger directors in his country to take film more seriously as an art, by bending the rules of how it’s made.

In his native France, Melville became one of the first directors to use documentary techniques to shoot fiction films and this -- along with his constant homaging to classic Hollywood -- were some of the bases for what then would become known as the nouvelle vague: the French new Wave. While Melville has become more known for his stylish noirs and gangster films, his career extends all the way back to the mid-'40s, when he made different movies: tales that dealt with the Occupation and were often filtered through the eyes of children.

Jean Cocteau commissioned him to direct a film version of his Les enfants terribles and at the beginning of the '60s he was asked to direct a film version of Béatrix Beck’s 1952 novel The Passionate Heart which dealt with some of the themes the director had more than made his own.

Set in a small French village during the Occupation, Léon Morin, Priest stars Emanuelle Riva as Barny, a young widow trying to cope with survival during the war. She is a Communist militant and mother to a half-Jewish little girl, meaning that she has it much harder than the rest of the women she works with. Stricken by her misfortune and her sudden realization that she might have sexual desires for another woman, she enters a Catholic church in search of answers. She goes straight to the confession booth where she is met by the young priest, the eponymous Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo).

The confession doesn’t go well, as Barny pokes fun at the idea of the ritual and devotes the entire confession to talking about how she knew the very idea of confessing was ridiculous. While she questions faith and Catholicism, the priest just listens and remains completely nonconfrontational. Angered by this reaction Barny decides to leave, not before Morin invites her to come over to his house later. He promises to lend her a book that will answer some of her questions.

Perhaps intrigued by the repressed sexual desires that might erupt out of this handsome, enigmatic man, she goes to his house, where lo and behold, he lends her a book and sends her home. In awe at the man’s lack of sexual interest, Barny decides to come back for more and they soon develop a friendship. Léon gives Barny books and they meet every week to discuss them.

Despite its seemingly predictable plot, Léon Morin, Priest is not the kind of movie you’d expect it to be. There are never scenes of sudden enlightenment, none of the main characters seem to carry a proselytizing agenda and the mood overall deftly combines sensuality with political and spiritual themes.

Part of the film’s success is owed to its ace casting. Belmondo, who was on the verge of becoming the poster child for the New Wave, makes the most out of his movie star looks to deliver a strangely appealing performance. In an interview included in this Criterion DVD, Belmondo and his director discuss the casting. Melville affirms that few actors could be as masculine and sensitive as Belmondo, comparing him to Humphrey Bogart.

When the young actor was hired for this movie, he was just coming off his international success as the lead antihero in Godard’s Breathless and his career was merely beginning. So was Riva’s who a few years before had starred in the sensuous and groundbreaking Hiroshima mon amour. You could say then that by casting two figures who were revolutionising the idea of making movies and putting them in more “regular” settings, Melville was once more playing with people’s expectations.

Riva and Belmondo being two of the most popular movie stars of their time, sharing screen time for the first time, and not being involved in a physical romantic affair must’ve seemed ludicrous for audiences. There is always a feeling of muted sexual desire in Léon Morin, Priest, most of which comes surprisingly from Barny, who looks at Léon with ferocity and need. Could the film then work as a feminist essay of unrequited love? The truth is that Léon Morin, Priest does its job quite well on several levels and might send you off wondering about the notion of good and evil in times of war, the advantages of using movie stars in smaller roles and even if the teachings of Christ are valid.

Melville, always the faithful lover of cinema, does his most symbolic move in an almost unnoticeable way: he places Léon’s presbytery across from the modern cinema. Movies were the only church Melville worshiped at.

7

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
9

If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Related Articles Around the Web

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image