Léon Morin, Priest [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Kino Lorber
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (15th July 2019).
The Film

BAFTA Film Award (Best Foreign Actor): Jean-Paul Belmondo (nominated) - BAFTA Awards, 1963
Award of the City of Venice: Jean-Pierre Melville (won) - Venice Film Festival, 1961

In a small village in the French Alps, most of the village men are part of the La Résistance while the women and children go about their lives in between clandestine meetings. Things seem relatively normal, however, with the Italian occupation but change drastically when they leave and the Germans take over. As mothers of children born to Jewish commnists, Barny (Hiroshima Mon Amour's Emmanuelle Riva), Lucienne (OSS 117 Is Unleashed's Gisèle Grimm), and Jenny (Five Miles to Midnight's Nina Grégoire) rush their children off to late night baptisms performed by the local priest. When atheist Barny, who works in the office of a correspondence college grading papers, goes to the church to look into schooling for her daughter, she gives confession to curate Léon Morin (Pierrot Le Fou's Jean-Paul Belmondo), antagonizing him about the decadence of the Catholic religion only to discover that he himself as something of a radical streak. She takes his offer of evening religious counseling as a challenge and finds herself drawn to him by his reasoned arguments about the existence of God and his reactions to the sins she confesses including her attraction to her cool-headed colleague Sabine (Nicole Mirel); however, she appears not to realize, or to admit, her own attraction to Morin until she discovers that other women she know in the village also receive counseling form him and they are specifically drawn to him by his good looks; and the admission to herself of a sexual attraction to the priest is more devastating than the possibility of his reaction.

Based on the novel "The Passionate Heart" by Béatrix Beck – more recently adapted as The Confession, Jean-Pierre Melville's Léon Morin, Priest was the second of his war trilogy (following Le Silence de la Mer and preceding Army of Shadows) and, in spite of the synopsis, no precursor to The Thorn Birds. It is the story of a woman's experience during wartime, tugged between sticking to her convictions and her fear of German reprisal – the former sees her standing up to co-worker Christine ('s ) who sees collaboration as a patriotic virtue while the latter finds her seeking advice and absolution from Morin when she hesitates warning a fellow village woman Christine has told her will be picked up and executed by the Germans – neglecting and displacing her very need for intimacy onto those who seem to offer nothing in return. Morin himself is another of Belmondo's ambiguous characterizations, seeming to be a man of conviction motivated solely by putting others on the right path (conversion seeming almost incidental). He may be a blank slate onto which people project an idealized image as Barny witnesses the change of heart on Christine's behalf after visiting him and that of Arlette (Le Doulos's Monique Hennessy), who has a husband who wants a divorce and more than one German suitor but sets out to seduce Morin only to then leave town (although she does it "with a new protector" she may have through her encounter with Morin not so much thrown over the others as shed them as spiritual baggage), while they read into his gestures the inkling of returned affection (not unlike a moment of seemingly casual contact between Sabine and Barny). On the other hand, he may indeed be using his looks as a lure, and his relationship with Barny not so one-sided in a non-sexual manner (he seems almost disappointed when she tells him she wants to convert because he has "worn her down" while his reaction to her sexual proposition may less righteous indignation than frustration and disappointment of something so mundane from her). There is only one way that such a relationship can be resolved in Melville's universe ("Until we meet again? That's just a figure of speech").

Video

Melville's original cut of the film reportedly ran three hours, and it was Melville not his producers that cut the film down to just over two hours – the 128 minute version is considered the director's cut but a 117 minute version has been the standard on home video until recently – with the first hour providing documentary detail of the day-to-day existence of Barny and her friends under occupation, with Morin not introduced until over an hour into the film. While heavy narration is usually seen in American films as a means of smoothing over cuts to a film – perhaps the most bewildering mystery being the extent of the participation of prominently-billed Howard Vernon (A Virgin Among the Living Dead) who gets an "and with" credit but has only one scene and a single line of dialogue (although he may also have been the film's still photographer, a role which he performed on other films in which he appeared using his real name "Mario Lippert") – they are just as suited here to a film in which the events are told almost solely from Barny's perspective (even a few scenes in which she is not present may be the way she imagined them). The 117 minute version was released in English-speaking territories under the bewildering title "The Forgiven Sinner" and did not come to VHS in the U.S. until 2001 from Kino on Video as part of their Interama library acquisition and 2003 from BFI in the U.K. (both PAL conversions running 114 minutes). It was the 117 minute version that appeared on DVD in the U.S. from Criterion and BFI in the U.K. (this cut was also the standard in France until recently), with a Criterion Blu-ray appearing before Studio Canal yanked back their licenses from the company. Studio Canal debuted in a 4K restoration of the 128 minute director's cut in the U.K. in the seven-disc Melville boxed set, the twelve-disc Anthologie Melville in France, and the nine-disc Jean-Pierre Melville - 100th Anniversary Edition in Germany. Kino Lorber's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.66:1 widescreen Blu-ray utilizes the same master and the first difference noticeable from the Criterion after the running time is overall brightness. The Criterion transfer is darker, with grayer highlights while the Kino is more "black and white" to the point of possibly losing some minute detail in the brighter areas. The Kino transfer reveals slivers more information on all four sides of the frame but the difference in that respect is negligible. It may be down to personal preference, but a fan will want both versions for both cuts of the film.

Audio

The sole audio option for the feature is a French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that is clean-sounding with the film's emphasis on dialogue with some depth to the pointed instances of scoring and some offscreen gunfire and bombing. Optional English subtitles are included.

Extras

While the BFI DVD and Criterion DVD and Blu-ray had selected scene commentary film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, Kino Lorber's Blu-ray features a new audio commentary by film historian Mike Siegel, better known for his biographical writing and documentary work on Sam Peckinpah. Here, he discusses the origins of the project not only in the source novel but also Melville's own experience in the French Resistance (of which he kept quiet during his lifetime but much of which was later confirmed as true), the different cuts of the film (there is apparently one that runs as short as ninety-nine minutes), as well as details of the original opening of the three hour cut. The discussion also includes Melville's friendship with actor Vernon (Siegel informed enough to mention Vernon's association with Jess Franco), sexuality in the films of Melville, the mix of locations throughout France used to create the alpine village, the depiction of German and American soldiers in the film, as well as aspects of Melville's biography during his filmmaking period in which he owned and lived in his own studio with his wife and mother (who appeared to exist in an entirely separate part of his life outside of filmmaking and his self-styled image). The disc also includes "The Demon Within Him" (29:53), an interview with assistant director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) also included on the Kino Blu-ray of Le Doulos (see that review), as well as the Master Class with Philippe Labro & Rémy Grumbach (61:06) carried over from the Studio Canal sets which is not so much a "master class" as a discussion between the French journalist and the director's nephew (the filmmaker's real name being Jean-Pierre Grumbach) that encompasses his biography and films, as well as Melville's 1946 short film 24 Heures de la Vie d'un Clown (18:47), the film's theatrical trailer (3:15), and trailers for other Kino Lorber releases.

Overall

 


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