I went to a screening of Jean Pierre Melvilles Leon Morin, Prêtre ( Leon Morin, Priest) last night at LACMA-the Los Angeles County Museum of Art . Rialto, the distributer that released Melville’s Army Of Shadows a few years ago is also releasing this film and Bravo to them for so doing. Made in 1961 and starring Jean Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva it is a very strange film. This was Belmondo’s next film after Breathless in which Melville also appeared ( in a cameo as a philosopher interviewed at the airport by Jean Seberg) and Belmondo is excellent in this film so is Emmanuel Riva, an incredible performance. Leon Morin takes place during the occupation of France by the Nazis and is narrated by Barny (Emmanuel Riva), there are no young men around due to the war and Barny fids herself attracted to a beautiful Amazon, her boss. She’s obsessed by her staring into her eyes and constantly talking about her, finally her friend blurts out ” You want to sleep with her?” and she reacts with horror. Emmanuel’s husband is dead ( he was Jewish) so she and a few friends conspire to get their children baptized to protect them from the Nazis. Emmanuel is revolted by the opulence of the catholic church and one day she goes into a confessional to tell the priest off. Here she meets her match in Jean Paul Belmondo.
She picks his confessional because she likes his name, Leon Morin, “a peasant” she thinks. They begin a fascinating verbal sparring match that continues for the rest of the film. She goes to see him certain nights at the rectory where he gives her books about dogma, the life of Christ and other religious subjects. She also sees other women going to see the priest, including at one point a infamous floozy, who boasts of 5 lovers and is being divorced. This wanton woman vows to seduce the priest but is unsuccessful. This has the effect on Barny of making her aware how handsome Leon Morin is and she thanks God in her prayers for making him so. At one point her daughter returns to her, she was living in the country, and she can no longer go to the priest’s room so he begins to come see her at home. She tries to seduce him and he runs out. She goes to confession embarrassed and ashamed. He acts like it was no big deal and tells her he wants to go on seeing her. The scenes of Belmondo in her home, playing with her daughter, putting her to bed, talking to Barny at the kitchen table, are very much like a husband and wife, the only element missing is sex. Later Barny asks the priest flat out, if he were not a priest would he marry her? And once again he storms off. He is willing to discuss anything else, even when Barny tries to insult or provoke him, “There is no God” etc. but he can’t discuss this. Melville said he saw Leon as a Don Juan, wanting to make all the women fall in love with him but never sleeping with them. He got pleasure from this. When Barny wants to convert to Catholicism, ostensibly the point behind their conversations Morin tries to talk her out of it! And we as audience members want a physical relationship to occur between our two protagonists, Melville is playing with film convention, where the two lovers that can’t see they love each other finally fall into each others arms at the end. This is what we have been conditioned to expect in movies, they kiss at the end, fade out. It doesn’t happen here. This film has a mysterious ambiguity that stays with you long after you’ve seen it. It is very thought provoking and discussion inducing. I wonder why Melville made it! Because of his obsession with the Occupation? An examination of a Don Juan character? He loved the novel and wanted to make it into a film right away. The philosopher Melville before becoming the Master of Noir.It doesn’t try to explain anything, just presents portraits of these characters under this specific set of historical conditions. It makes you think! Incroyable! Another thing that struck me is Barny’s daughter played by a young girl, Patricia Gozzi. She is an amazing actress. There is a scene where German soldiers practice maneuvers next to the country house she’s staying in. She goes out and meets a German soldier after they’re done practicing, he hugs and kisses her, gives her candy, she sings a song to him, all innocent, later she tells her mother she loves Gunther. The girl is about 9 or 10. One year later this same brilliant actress starred in the wonderful Les dimanches de Ville d’Avray (Sundays and Cybele) where a traumatized Vietnam veteran falls in love with this beautiful 12 year old. An incredible film! Winner of the Academy Award for best Foreign film of 1962. And here is a miniature version of that film, one year earlier in Leon Morin! Patricia Gozzi only did a few more films and then stopped acting, what a pity. She was incredible.
The Wonderful Patricia Gozzi
They’re showing Leon Morin again tonight ( Saturday August 15, 2009) at LACMA, check it out. By the way as you all know they announced the end of the film series at LACMA causing an uproar among Cineasts, Martin Scorsese wrote an editorial about it in the LA times, I hope it can be saved, last night the screening was packed!