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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: Classic. Leon Morin, Priest; The Double Life of Veronique

Leon Morin, Priest (Leon Morin, Pretre) (Four Stars)
France; Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961 (Criterion)
      Jean-Pierre Melville is mostly known these days as a French master of film noir, neo-noir and World War 2 Resistance dramas. But Leon Morin, Priest, which won a Venice Grand Prize in 1961, shows another side of Melville: the highly polished and skilled William Wyleresque adaptor of French literary classics, like Vercors’ “La Silence de la Mer,” Cocteau’s “Les Enfants Terribles” — and here, Beatrice Beck’s “Leon Morin, Pretre.”

      This movie, a thoroughly intelligent and brilliantly made picture in Melville’s best style and tradition, belongs to the last categories, and it’s not what we now expect from him. It’s about a handsome young priest, Leon, (played in his first big flush of fame, by Jean-Paul Belmondo) whose spiritual counseling becomes all the rage among the pretty young ladies of the town, who are coping with the perils of Vichy France and the Occupation. Especially taken is Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, of Hiroshima, Mon Amour), the initially unbelieving single mother. (Her daughter France is partly played by Patricia Gozzi, who became a screen art house star the next year as the little girl of Sundays and Cybele.)  As Barny becomes more immersed in the priest‘s home sessions and left-wing theology, she also becomes more openly enamored of the man himself, and she veers toward spiritual/romantic crisis and poignant resolution.
        Melville once heard one of his films described as Bressonian; he countered by insisting that his own 1949 Silence de la Mer came first, and that Bresson’s 1951 masterpiece Diary of a Country Priest was actually Melvillean. Certainly though, Leon Morin, Priest has to be called Melville’s “Country Priest.” And it’s different from Bresson’s, though both films share an austere black and white photographic beauty — in “Leon,” thanks to the great cinematographer Henri Decae.
      If you admire Melville’s great noir thrillers Le Samourai, Bob Le Flambeur, Deuxieme Souffle, and Le Cercle Rouge, (and you should), and especially if you love his WW2 Resistance classic Army of Shadows (and you also should) you should definitely see “Leon” — very dissimilar, yet a crucial link to Melville’s psyche and his feelings about the great pivotal events of his pre-movie life, in the war and the Resistance. Also, Belmondo and Riva, paradoxically, give two of their all-time sexiest performances here, which shows just how erotic repression can often be. (In French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Commentary by Ginette Vincendeau; Deleted scenes; 1961 French TV interview with Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean-Paul Belmondo; Trailer; Booklet with essay by critic/novelist Gary Indiana and excerpt from Rui Nogueira’s interview book, “Melville on Melville.”

The Double Life of Veronique (Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

France-Poland; Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1991 (Criterion)

The radiant French actress Irene Jacob plays two Veroniques, one a French music student, one (Weronika) a Polish soprano, two girls whose lives run on parallel tracks, and whose paths briefly cross, in what becomes a tragic recognition. Polish master Krzysztof Kieslowski made his first big American splash with this film, and, even if it’s not on a level with his 1988 masterpiece in ten episodes, The Decalogue — one of the greatest films ever made — Veronique is still a powerful, moving, visually striking work. I still like it, though I didn’t agree with the then-prevalent opinion that Kieslowski was the new Ingmar Bergman (nor with the backlash against him afterwards).

The fascinating thing about Kieslowski’s late French work — to some extent the art of a man in self-imposed exile — is that he directed major French art films without being able to speak the language, more proof that film is largely a visual art. The script was co-written by Kieslowski’s usual collaborator Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and, as usual, the music is by Zbigniew Preisner, and the cinematography by Slawomir Idziak. The cast includes Wladyslaw Kowalski (as Weronika‘s father) and Claude Duneton (as Veronique’s). (In Polish and French, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Three short documentaries by Kieslowski: Factory (1970), Hospital (1976) and Railway Station (1980) (All Three Stars); Commentary by critic/historian Annette InsdorfThe Musicians (Kazimierz Karabasz, 1958) Three Stars,  a short film by KK’s teacher;   Documentaries; Video interviews with Jacob, Preisner and Idziak; Booklet with a Jonathan Romney essay and an excerpt from the book “Kieslowski on Kieslowki.”  

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon