Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961) (aka The Forgiven Sinner)
Jean-Pierre Melville


The Forgiven SinnerOne of the two most unusual features by Jean-Pierre Melville (the other one being the incredible The Silence of the Sea (1949), also set during the German occupation of France), The Forgiven Sinner (1961), is also one of the director’s many fine films. Ingeniously mixing the flamboyance of the then nascent Nouvelle Vague, through its casting, (partial) location shoot and non-classical cutting, and the revered tradition of the European art cinema and the studio cinema of the United States, in its classical staging, expressionist lighting and production design, understated performances and non-modernist literalism, Melville, perhaps inadvertently, plays with the audience’s perception of his film. The Forgiven Sinner is set in a little town in France, towards the end of the Second World War, and tells the tale of pastor Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose New Wave image is cleverly subverted here), who indirectly participates in the French resistance by sheltering Jews, and a Communist woman Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) who seems to be attracted to him. What begins as a series of witty conversations between a reasonable theist and a staunch atheist gets complexly interwoven with the politics of France at large as the characters equate, in both metaphorical and concrete senses, conscious resistance to physical temptation with resistance to imperial occupation and the guilt of desire with the guilt of collaboration. Melville’s direction, however, remains non-judgmental and brilliantly keeps remarking, through a spectacular interplay of avant-garde editing and meticulous mise en scène, the ironies underlying the characters and their situations and how, in fact, Léon and Barny are both on the wrong sides.

À Bout De Souffle

Start of Breathless – End of Cinema. Infinity has been written about the film and any further writing on the film is just a formality – a formality that every film buff must perform. At a time when Alain Resnais had made the intense drama Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and when Truffaut was riding high on the success of The 400 Blows (1959), fellow Cahiers du Cinéma critic Jean-Luc Godard hit the filmmaking world with Breathless.

Breathless (1959)

Breathless (1959)

The story is as simple as it gets, which is perfect for Godard’s loosely but meticulously constructed style. A man on the run, a woman on the road, a kiss before death. It is near impossible to tell anything about the film without romanticizing it. Godard’s love for cinema shows in every moment of the film as he places charming cameos of fellow New Wave filmmakers here and there. Jean-Paul Belmondo is an instant hit with his Bogart-loving borderline-misogynistic attitude and it is no surprise that he went on to become one of the most famous French actors ever. And poor Coutard’s groundbreaking techniques are overloaded to the point of nausea nowadays. And Godard’s own contribution lies in his avoidance of being analyzed by traditional methods of film criticism as he reconstructs film grammar using the alphabets created by his own predecessors. No wonder he said retorted “Yes, A film must have a starting middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order”. He, in effect, disorients traditionally trained minds by speaking in a commonplace oral language, but in an entirely different cinematic one.

I wouldn’t hesitate to say that Breathless is the coolest thing that ever happened to cinema. And most wouldn’t deny. But that isn’t what it is all about. It revolutionized the way movies were made and more importantly, the way movies were watched. Things that we now take for granted in films – the outdoor shoot, the jump cuts (incidentally begot by a runtime crisis), the fluidity of narrative and the hand held camera work – show their roots in Breathless. No one makes movies like them any more and any close attempts seem like nothing more than cheeky use of camera and scissors. To plagiarize a quote on The Lord of the Rings book, “The movie-watching world is divided into two – ones that have seen Breathless and the ones yet to see them.”