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Jean-Pierre Melville Centennial (1917-2017)

Léon Morin, Priest

Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1961, 128 min., b&w, French w/ English subtitles

“Religion is the opiate of the people,” begins the confession of jaded Communist widow Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) in Melville’s adaptation of Béatrix Beck’s autobiographical novel. Relocated to a drab little village during the Occupation, her boredom has led to provoking the local clergy. But when her confessor dryly replies “Pas exactement,” Barny begins a seemingly inexorable turn towards God — or perhaps towards her handsome confessor. Fresh from the success of Breathless, Jean-Paul Belmondo was cast as the titular character despite his initial reluctance fearing it would undermine his newfound status as a sex symbol.

This restoration of Melville’s never-before-seen director’s cut puts back 11 minutes excised from the original release version.

About Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris in 1917. He would later adopt the name Melville in homage to the author of Moby Dick. Following World War II, Melville wrote, produced, directed, and edited Le Silence de la mer, an austere adaptation of the famous French Resistance novel. Melville also drew praise from Jean Cocteau, among many others in the film industry, who entrusted him with the film adaptation to his famous 1929 novel, Les Enfants terribles (1950). He then made Quand tu liras cette lettre (1953), a melodrama starring Juliette Greco, which he agreed to do to prove he was not a cinematic dilettante or art house intellectual. The success of Jules Dassin's Rififi allowed him to make Bob Le Flambeur. Melville himself acted in his next film, Deux Hommes Dans Manhattan (1958), a tale of two French journalists investigating the disappearance of a diplomat in New York. His next film, Léon Morin, Priest (1961), starred New Wave sensation Jean-Paul Belmondo as an enlightened young Catholic priest. Le Doulos (1962) was the first of his highly stylized appropriations of film noir conventions and stereotypes, which again cast Belmondo. That same year Melville filmed his adaptation of Georges Simenon’s novel L’Ainé des Ferchaux (1962), which co-starred Belmondo and character actor Charles Vanel. The gangster epic Le Deuxième Souffle (Second Breath, 1966), with Lino Ventura as one of the great Melvillian heroes, came next. He followed that a year later with Le Samourai (1967), a hieratic thriller about a betrayed contract killer, played with icy, impenetrable grace by Alain Delon. Melville then paid a moving homage to the heroism and sacrifice of the French Resistance in Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres, 1969), starring Lino Ventura, Simone Signoret, and Paul Meurisse. Melville’s next film proved to be the greatest hit of his career: Le Cercle Rouge (1970), a fatalistic caper drama with Delon, Yves Montand, and Gian-Maria Volonté as three outlaws and beloved funnyman André Bourvil in one of his few straight dramatic roles as the pursuing cop. Melville’s last film was another thriller with Delon, Un Flic (1972), which co-starred Catherine Deneuve. Melville was at work on the script of his 14th feature when he died suddenly of a stroke on August 2, 1973. He was 55. Melville’s maverick status within the French film industry and his then unorthodox methods of independent production (which even included his own facility, Jenner Studios, in southern Paris, where he shot the interiors for most of his films) served as a model and inspiration for many of the New Wave directors.

This series is supported by the Department of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Pennsylvania