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-

Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan]

(France 1959)

In his cool noir mystery Two Men in Manhattan [Deux hommes dans Manhattan], director Jean-Pierre Melville in his only starring role is Moreau, a cheerless and jaded reporter with Agence France-Presse. As he’s leaving work one night, his boss (Jean Lara) asks him to investigate the whereabouts of one Mssr. Fèvre-Berthier, the French United Nations delegate, who curiously has gone M.I.A.

Moreau heads straight to the flat of a frequent collaborator, hardened alcoholic photographer Pierre Delmas (Pierre Grasset), and yanks him out of bed—never mind the girl there with him. Delmas is the archetype paparazzo: cold-blooded and motivated by money. He knows his way around Manhattan.

The two men trail Fèvre-Berthier through a number of female associates: his secretary (Colette Fleury), a two-bit actress (Ginger Hall), a jazz singer (Glenda Leigh), a burlesque stripper (Michèle Bailly), and a high dollar whore in a high class brothel (Monique Hennessy). They find out what happened to him, but the story is scandalous.

Moreau doesn’t want to print it, but Delmas insists otherwise. A strange car following them around may persuade them to do the right thing—whatever that is.

With enough trench coats and fedora hats to clothe a newsroom, Two Men in Manhattan reflects Melville’s characteristic minimalist neo gangster movie style. The personal ethics here are all grey, which fits nicely with the night scenes, especially the exteriors shot on Times Square by cinematographer Nicolas Hayer. Aside from the exteriors, Manhattan never looked more fabulously fake: most of the interiors—the subway, a bar, a club, a theater, a hospital, a diner—were shot in a studio.

Part detective flick and part morality play, the tone shifts quite a bit between drama and waggishness, leading me to conclude that Melville didn’t take Two Men in Manhattan very seriously. It’s a minor work that comes off tongue in cheek, which makes it fun to watch—it compensates for Melville’s rather thin script. Plus, the whole thing sure is pretty.

With Christiane Eudes, Paula Dehelly, Nancy Delorme, Carole Sands, Gloria Kayser, Barbara Hall, Monica Ford, Billy Beck, Deya Kent, Carl Studer, Billy Kearns , Hyman Yanovitz, Ro. Tetelman, Art Simmons, Jerry Mengo

Production: Belfort Films, Alter Films

Distribution: Columbia Films (France), Mercurfin Italiana (Italy), Cable Hogue Co. (Japan), Cohen Media Group (USA)

85 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown]

(France 1946)

But where are the clowns? Send in the clowns. Okay, don’t bother, two of them are in this short by the great French director Jean-Pierre Melville. 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown [Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown] is just that: a day in the life of Beby, a clown who lives in Montmarte. A multitude of fedoras costar.

In between performances at Circus Medrano, Beby walks the streets of Paris, sleeps with his little dog (but not his wife), reads fan mail, drinks at a café, and puts on makeup with his friend and fellow clown Maïss. Interestingly enough, this is not the only short to feature Maïss, who later appeared in Rodolphe Marcilly’s Centaures et pastiche in 1953.

Who knew clowns pray?

24 Hours in the Life of a Clown holds historical and artistic significance as Melville’s first film. It highlights his style, albeit in its infancy, playing with light and dark. His approach is tongue in cheek, and his “narration” (this is not a “talkie”) strongly suggests Melville knew well that his hoary little film is silly.

Still, it’s interesting if only for the scenery, all 1940s drab and threadbare, and the documentary feel of it. Beby’s apartment reminds me of the one in Eraserhead.

Production: Les Films du Panthéon

18 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) C

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