Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: LEON MORIN, PRIEST

by: Joshua Brunsting
July 26th, 2011

LEON MORIN, PRIEST is not the first film that pops into one’s mind when discussing the life and career of iconic auteur Jean-Pierre Melville. Best known for films like LE CERCLE ROUGE, ARMY OF SHADOWS, and LE SAMOURAI, Melville is one of cinema’s most beloved directors, and also one of its most influential. Thirteen features to his name (as well as one short), Melville was quite prolific over his career which spanned from the 1946 release of his short, VINGT-QUATRE HEURES DE LA VIE D’UN CLOWN until 1972 with the release of UN FLIC. LEON MORIN, PRIEST is one film that has seemed to have been forgotten when having discussions of Melville’s career. However, thanks to The Criterion Collection, we now have a crisp and beautiful Blu-ray of this absolute masterpiece.

Set during WWII, LEON MORIN follows a young widow, Barny, who must deal with her new ound love for her gorgeous boss, Sabine. Just one of a handful of conflicts the atheist Barny must deal with, she begins to spark a relationship with an attractive young priest, Leon Morin, and begins to converse with both faith (she feels as though baptizing her daughter will save her) as well as God almighty himself.

Led by Jean-Paul Belmondo in a role seemingly birthed for him, the film may not be as strong or as iconic as Melville’s crime pictures, but it’s no less affecting, and no less intriguing.

With WWII as a setting, LEON MORIN is a beautiful film that also has this distinct sense of dread hanging over its gorgeous head. The effect of the war is played out within the narrative, as Sabine’s brother being sent off to a concentration camp playing as a catalyst for the narrative, and gives this film a dark tinge to it.

Inherently a discussion between a woman and the entity that is faith, the philosophizing within the interchanges between both Leon and Barny is both important, and also organic. The tension between the two sexually becomes palpable, only amping up the verbal sparring the two do within their continual discussions. Barny isn’t shy about her carnal addiction, and it becomes clear that while she may be getting some sort of intellectual stimulation out of their banter, it’s another stimulation that she really has her eyes on.

With the tension between the two main characters being the most important aspect to the film’s success, the film truly thrives when both Belmondo and the lead, Emmanuelle Riva, are on screen. Belmondo is known for his charming good looks and his even more appealing swagger, and it’s on full blast here. He’s a calm, cool, and collected priest, but with a sensual fire behind his eyes. Simple glances or stares leave the screen on fire here, and it is in these quiet moments, that the film truly inspires. It helps that he was also one of cinema’s most dashing rogues. Riva is equally fantastic here as Barny, a gorgeous woman who seems set in her ways, but becomes oddly attracted to this man, enough to continue the philosophical debates that the two have bonded over. The cast is relatively thin here, as for the most part, it’s very much a chamber piece between these two, but with the greatness of the film’s two leads, that’s truly all you need.

That all said, without Melville at the helm, this film may not be the classic that it truly is.

LEON MORIN, PRIEST is a masterpiece of atmosphere. With WWII playing the backdrop, the film is an odd blend of implied doom as well as carnal lust, and Melville plays these two notes off each other like a musician. Featuring stunning black and white photography from cinematographer Henri Decae, who had worked with Melville on films like BOB LE FLAMBEUR and LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (along with more) but may be best known for shooting Truffaut’s THE 400 BLOWS, the film is a master’s class in the ability to set mood and atmosphere with the use of a frame. With a really great and smart screenplay, LEON MORIN, PRIEST is a wonderful film, that really thrives when Melville shows off his stylish side.

However, it’s not without flaw. As far as the narrative goes, there is very little momentum pushing the film forward in any exciting way. The reason one continues to watch is for more interchanges between Barny and Leon, and while that works well here, it may leave some wanting more. The conclusion to the film is also admittedly uninteresting, as its far from the rewarding conclusion one would want from this type of neo-chamber piece. It’s an uninteresting conclusion to an otherwise thought provoking picture.

Overall, as far as the film aspect of this Blu-ray release goes, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more intriguing release this month. It’s not quite as enthralling or eye opening as THE MUSIC ROOM, but it is both an interesting feature as well as an intriguing release with regards to the overall canon of Melville. Featuring a pair of great performances, LEON MORIN, PRIEST is a character study that looks at the relationship between two characters with different agendas behind their continuing the relationship. Just a fantastic feature film.

But when it comes to supplemental material, this release is just a tad light. The audio and visual aspect of this release is revelatory. The audio is tonally perfect, and the black and white photography is mind numbingly striking here. There is an interview with Melville and Belmondo from French TV that does enlighten the viewer a bit, but it’s far too short.  The selected scene commentary opens the viewer’s eye to just how great Criterion’s restoration is more so than the film itself (the commentary uses a different print of the film for some reason), and the discussion during the commentary with Ginette Vincendeau is dryer than your hometown during this current heat wave. It’s informative, but it’s not an easy one to listen to, as it sounds truly scripted instead of something someone is truly passionate about. You lack that energy that is in something like the trio of commentaries on FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS. Toss in a trailer, and you have your release. The true king of supplements here has to be the excerpts from Melville on Melville that is included in the booklet. It’s an absolute must read.

Overall, this is a film every cinephile needs to sit down and bask in. It’s a wonderful drama from one of film’s most iconic names, and looks beautiful in HD thanks to Criterion. The supplements may be light, but with such a wonderful film behind this release, the rewatchability comes directly from the picture itself.

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