Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre]

(France / Italy 1961)

When young widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) bursts into a confessional and tells the priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo), that “religion is the opiate of the masses,” it’s pretty clear that director Jean-Pierre Melville isn’t going easy on us. For awhile, it’s not clear where he’s going at all with Léon Morin, Priest [Léon Morin, prêtre], a moody work that percolates with repressed sexuality while it dives into religion, philosophy, and politics.

The story, based on Béatrix Beck’s novel and set in a tiny town somewhere in the French Alps during the Italian occupation right before the Nazis took over, centers on Barny as her relationship with Fr. Morin develops and intensifies. She reveals that she’s a communist militant, possibly a lesbian, and Jewish by injection (i.e., her dead husband was a Jew). She tries to provoke him with her jabs at the Catholic Church, but Fr. Morin’s responses are measured and considered. She’s seduced.

It looks like something sexual is going to happen between them: he’s young and handsome, and she’s been without a man for so long that she’s lusting after a female coworker (Nicole Mirel). Once the two are alone behind the closed door of Fr. Morin’s office in a church tower, it happens: they engage in…discourse, discussing the tenets of Catholicism.

Léon Morin, Priest is low on action and heavy on dialogue, and as a result it often feels lethargic. All of the “important” discussions — the ones that advance the plot, anyway — occur in one room, which does nothing to accelerate the pace. The discussions involve dry topics like theology and philosophy and religious dogma.

However, Melville keeps it interesting with what’s going on in the background: he’s brutally frank about the casual and pervasive anti-Semitism, the lackadaisical Italian soldiers, and the callous efficiency of the Nazis. Riva and Belmondo smoulder, though the former’s performance is far more compelling. Amid the hasty baptisms of children and the desperate hiding of neighbors is the curiously amusing subplot about Fr. Morin having all the women of the village spellbound. It’s a light touch in an otherwise heavy film.

With Irène Tunc, Gisèle Grimm, Marco Behar, Monique Bertho, Marc Heyraud, Nina Grégoire, Monique Hennessy, Edith Loria, Micheline Schererre, Renée Liques, Simone Vannier, Lucienne Marchand

Production: Georges de Beauregard, Concordia Compagnia Cinematografica, Carlo Ponti

Distribution: Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France, Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Cineriz (Italy), Eurooppalainen Filmi (Finland), Rialto Pictures (USA)

130 minutes (restored version)
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre-cents coups]

(France 1959)

Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.

Antoine cuts class one day with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine, but it’s too late.

The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.

Some New Wave films are hard to follow or quite simply just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and this is because of quite a few factors.

The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:

400 Blows paddywagon.jpg

The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, which doesn’t come off as scripted at all, is probably the biggest boon for this; the acting style is totally naturalistic. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. That’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.

Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be one, though. The sad part is that he believes it. He clearly sees that there’s more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s not better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.

As for the nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.

Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. There’s a reason it’s considered a landmark film. It’s hard to believe this is Truffaut’s first film.

With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor

Production: Les Films du Carrosse

Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

Breathless [Á bout de souffle]

(France 1960)

“After all, I’m an asshole.”

—Michel Poiccard

The third time is a charm: after seeing Jean Luc-Godard’s first full length feature film, Breathless, I now understand the love-meh relationship I have with his work.

On one hand, he’s got a remarkable grasp of human behavior and what motivates it. He’s got a snarky sense of humor. He’s stylish. His technique is gutsy for a lot of reasons. His characters are flawed. His subject matter is cool. He knows how to make a film look pretty, and most of them might as well be deemed official historical documents of the places where they were shot. Seeing a Godard film is like traveling back in time, an incidental bonus he probably never considered. I love all of this.

For all his strengths, on the other hand, a Godard film can be so damned…boring. Merde!

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case with Breathless, which I actually enjoyed. Godard and François Truffaut developed the story—I won’t call it a script or a screenplay because they made up much of it as they went along. Plot is always a loose construct with Godard, but there’s enough of one here to follow along fairly easily. Ugly cute guy (or is he a cute ugly guy?) Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo), a drifter car thief who fancies himself a French Humphrey Bogart, steals a car and drives it through the countryside. He shots and kills a policeman who pursues him.

With nowhere else to go, he heads straight to his American girl, Patricia (Jean Seberg), an expat student who sells a newspaper, the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, on the Champs-Élysées—that’s kind of weird—and writes articles here and there. She brings Michel to her apartment, where he hides out. He doesn’t mention anything to her about what happened. They get it on, or at least it’s implied that they do. She’s tells him she’s pregnant. One extended scene involves them lying around, talking.

Michel becomes a marked man, which he discovers soon enough after he leaves the apartment with Patricia and sees a newspaper with a headline about him. I won’t ruin the ending, but it doesn’t bode well for him—especially after Godard himself sees Michel.

Breathless is a psuedo noir thriller that’s low on action but loaded with morally vacant characters who lack any redeeming qualities. There’s a nihilistic sexiness to it. The narrative moves along in a jazzy free-form way, and the imagery here is every bit a part of the story as the characters. The ending is not a happy one. If nothing else, Breathless is a visual stunner—black and white cinematic candy. The restored digital version I saw literally glowed.

I can handle more films like this one.

With Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Van Doude, Liliane David, Michel Fabre, Jean-Pierre Melville, Claude Mansard, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Balducci, Jacques Rivette

Production: Les Films Impéria, Les Productions Georges de Beauregard, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC)

Distribution: Films Georges de Beauregard, Les Films Impéria, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC), Euro International Film (EIA) (Italy), Pallas Filmverleih (West Germany), British Lion Film Corporation (UK), Cinematográfica Azteca (Mexico), Ciné Vog Films (Belgium), Wivefilm (Sweden), Films Around the World (USA), Rialto Pictures (USA), Criterion Collection (USA)

90 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.jean-lucgodard.com/films.html

https://www.criterion.com/films/268-breathless