Jean-Pierre Melville will be known by many as an "Auteur" filmmaker.
One of the few men who were a major influence on Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave), Melville was known for films that were tragic, minimalist film noir. From films such as "Les Enfants terribles" (1950), Bob Le Flambeur (1955), "Le Doulos" (1962), "Le Samorai" (1967) and "Le Circle Rouge" (1969), there was a time when he wanted to escape from it.
To no longer be known as an "Auteur maudit" and when given the opportunity to make a big-budget film, he went for it!
In 1961, he had his chance with "Léon Morin, Priest". The film is an adaptation of Beatrix Beck's 1952 novel and it would be the film that gave Melville the chance to have the money to film expensive shots and yet incorporating style from the New Wave. Attracting audiences were the inclusion of popular talents Jean-Paul Belondo ("Two Women", "Breathless", "A Woman is a Woman", "Le Doulos") and Emmanuelle Riva ("Hiroshima Mon Amour", "Kapo") but also to earn Melville a different type of recognition for his film that he had never had before.
The film would receive rave reviews from the right because of its Catholic/religious theme (note: Melville was an atheist) and receive rave reviews from religious to non-religious film critics. But it also helped that Beck's original novel was highly popular and you had a popular filmmaker such as Melville and his name attached to it.
"Léon Morin, Priest" is presented in black and white 1080p High Definition (1:66:1 aspect ratio). Previously, the film was only available via DVD through the BFI (British Film Institute). The biggest difference in HD is that there is more detail and clarity. Especially outdoors where Barny is walking around town. You can make out buildings in the distance much more clearly, especially the cobblestone road and overall environment much more.
The contrast of the film is actually quite magnificent with blacks levels which are nice and deep. White and grays that look very good but most of all, none of the blurry type of imaging that was seen on the BFI DVD. You can see the faces in the distance. You can see the strands of hair of the female employees at Barny's job, the picture quality definitely looks very good in HD and there is no doubt that this is the best looking version of "Léon Morin, Priest" by far!
Cinematography by Henri Decae ("The 400 Blows", "Elevator to the Gallows", "Le Samourai") is fantastic and because of the bigger budget, it allowed for more creativity from Melville and Decae for the various shots included in the film, especially the crane shot as we see Barny going up the stairs to visit the priest.
According to the Criterion Collection, this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS system and Pixel Farm's PFClean system, while Digital Vision's DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
"Léon Morin, Priest" is presented in lossless LPCM monaural. The dialogue is very clear coming through the center channel. I personally chose to watch the film with stereo on all channels set on my receiver for a more immersive soundscape but testing the monaural lossless soundtrack, dialogue is quite clear, especially the music by Martial Solal.
According to the Criterion Collection, "Léon Morin, Priest" was remastered at 24-bit from 35 mm optical track print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation.
"Léon Morin, Priest - The Criterion Collection #572' on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:
Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo - (4:45) A French television interview excerpt from JHT 19HI5, Sept. 1961 with director Jean-Pierre Melville and actor Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo talks about being cast as the priest and Belmondo talks about the film.
Selected-scene commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau - Ginette Vinecendeau talks about Melville's larger budget, how the film was quite risky at the time, how the Catholics loved the film and how the film did well during debut.
Deleted Scenes - Melville's original film was over 3 hours long but he ended up trimming quite a bit from the film. Of those deleted scenes, two are featured on this Blu-ray release.
Original theatrical trailer - (3:10) The original theatrical trailer for ""Léon Morin, Priest".
"Léon Morin, Priest - The Criterion Collection #572' comes with a 30-page booklet which includes the following essays "Life During Wartime" by Gary Indiana and "Melville on Leon Morin, Priest" (from Rui Nogueira's "Melville on Melville").
Poetic, risky and intelligent. "Léon Morin, Priest" is a film that Melville had wanted to create for nearly a decade. A film that would separate him from his other fellow filmmakers who were known as "auteur maudit".
And although not a noir film which many tend to associate with Jean-Pierre Melville, the film's efficacy is due to how Melville was able to bring his French New Wave style to a bigger budget picture but also bring in two popular talents, the priest Jean-Paul Belmondo and the main actress Emanuelle Rivera.
Belmondo who was the hot actor at the time, especially for the films "Breathless", "Two Women" and "A Woman is a Woman", was skeptical himself about playing the role of a priest. But through the direction of Melville, Belmondo transforms himself to the man of faith and showing that the actor can play more than bad boy roles.
With Rivera, playing the main role of Barny is quite intriguing because she looks so wholesome.
But once you start to hear the thoughts in her mind, her attraction to her boss Sabine and then her attraction to the priest, you can sense the sexual frustration through her performance.
In one scene, Léon Morin, who knows that Barny is trying to flirt with him, tells her to find a husband. Her response is why need a husband when she can do it with a stick. He responds to her by concern of how dangerous it is but she responds that she is not "fragile".
One thing that Melville made sure not to do is focus too much on the religion. We know through the conversations of Barny with the priest, that she has problems not only with the Catholicism but that there is a sense of pessimism within her. She wants to provoke the priest, to see him anger but he does not.
She goes to see him a good number of times but each time she goes to provoke him, he is prepared to answer her questions about religion, to show that even though he is a priest, he is not perfect. And its the fact that he is no honest to her but to everyone else and even if one wants to provoke him, he does not push them away. He is interested in talking with them, discussing whatever issue they may have and showing them that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
While some may feel the film is pro-Catholicism and its goal is to push people towards the religion, Melville is the first to say that this is not a religious film. And while the film is very much loved by Catholics at the time, the film is primarily about forbidden love and a good illustration of how faith can change a person's life.
Because of Melville's involvement, the film is presented ala Mis-en-scene. Shots are done in location and at a studio setting but the efficacy "Léon Morin, Priest" is its cinematography and editing combined with a storyline that is intellectual which lends to a poetic feel through its imagery.
As for the Blu-ray release, "Léon Morin, Priest" does not have a plethora of special features that Criterion Collection is known for but you do get a classic interview with Melville and Belmondo about the film. And for those who have a hard time of picturing Belmondo as a priest, Melville does answer the question of why he was cast. We also get a pretty good selected scene commentary by Ginette Vincendeau who does have a good amount of things to say about Melville and two deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer plus the booklet.
While its easy to recommend this to Melville viewers and those who enjoy films that are intellectual and enjoyable, those who are stuck with the thought of enjoying noir-ish Melville may find "Léon Morin, Priest" and its focus on conversations of faith and its theme of forbidden love to not be their cup of tea as it lacks any gunshots or any gangster-type characters. In other words, a very different Melville type of film and while it may appease theologists, cineaste who appreciate intellectual cinema, "Léon Morin, Priest" is not for everyone.
Personally, I love the fact that Melville wanted to distinguish himself from his fellow filmmakers and do something different. It's unfortunate that we may not see the full three hour and 13 minute cut of "Léon Morin, Priest"
that Melville had originally shot, because watching the two deleted scenes, we get to see more of the thought process of Barny, especially in regards of what was happening in her village during German occupation. Still, I'm grateful for the Criterion Collection for releasing a Melville film on Blu-ray and DVD.
Overall, "Léon Morin, Priest" will no doubt attract those who love films with intelligent conversation such as Eric Rohmer's "My Night at Maud's", not necessarily pedantic but clever and enjoyable.
The performances by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva are wonderful and the direction and cinematography were tastefully done, poetic and pleasing to watch.