With his trademark ability to blend austerity with emotion, especially in underworld films such as "Le Doulos" and "Le Samourai," the late French director Jean-Pierre Melville has become a cinephile favorite. Now, 1961's "Leon Morin, Priest," a film that's at once similar to his classics and significantly different from them, is getting an American release.
Playing tonight and Saturday night only at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater, "Leon Morin" is set, like several Melville films (most notably "Army of Shadows"), during Germany's World War II occupation of France. And, as usual, it features a man who lives by a code. This time, however, the code is God's and the man, as the title indicates, is a priest.
Not just any priest, however. As played by the dreamy Jean-Paul Belmondo, the hottest actor in France after 1960's "Breathless," Leon Morin is drop-dead handsome, with the confidence and charisma to go with his magnetic looks. Is it any wonder that Barny ("Hiroshima Mon Amour's" Emmanuelle Riva), the film's narrator, can't get him out of her mind?
Based on the Prix Goncourt-winning novel by Beatrix Beck, "Leon Morin" was originally envisioned -- and shot -- by Melville as a section of a larger tapestry, part of, in the director's words, "a great fresco of the Occupation." But, Melville said in an interview, "suddenly, the only aspect that continued to interest me was this story of an unfulfilled love affair between Morin and Barny," and he cut an hour out of the film and focused what was left on that.
As a result, "Leon Morin" becomes a fascinating meditation on questions of faith and an unexpected exploration of the psychosexual nature of religious experience, an examination of how completely intertwined the great passions of romance and religion can end up becoming.
After a leisurely opening that shows how the narrator and her friends cope with varying facets of the Occupation, Barny decides to give the local priest, whom she's never met, a hard time. But unable to shake his imperturbable self-confidence, she ends up intoxicated both with him and, eventually, the religion he represents.
Much of "Leon Morin" is taken up with what can only be described as a religious flirtation, with priest and parishioner engaging in theological discussions that always have an undercurrent of sexual tension about them. The film shows Barny to be so involved with the priest that she fixates on his cassock, noticing its buttons and where it's been darned.
Melville, of course, knew exactly what was going on. "The main idea," he said in a 1970 interview with critic Rui Nogueira, "was to show this amorous priest who likes to excite girls but doesn't sleep with them. Morin is Don Juan: He has the women all crazy about him." That makes for a fascinating, unexpected movie that fans of French film in general, and Melville in particular, will not want to miss.
'Leon Morin, Priest'
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: At the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater. Today and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:40 p.m. For more information, lacma.org/film