Jena Cocteau and Jean-Pierre Melville are two of the most important French filmmakers of the 20th century, and worked together on the film Les Enfants Terrible, with a script from Cocteau and direction from Melville. And though Cocteau has been lauded as one of the great artists of the 20th century, Melville is has only recently been discovered. It was a repertory release of Le Samourai in the 1990’s that led to many of his works being championed and released by the Criterion Collection. Cocteau’s greatest film, Beauty and the Beast, and Melville’s kinky film about attraction to the unattainable Leon Morin, Priest are now on Blu-ray thanks to the Criterion Collection. Our reviews of both follow after the jump.
When Jean Cocteau came to direct La Belle et La Bette (The Beauty and the Beast) in 1946, he was coming to it as the war was ending. He had directed the short The Blood of a Poet, but as the commentator Arthur Knight notes, the audacity of that project was overwhelmed by the presence of L’Age d’or, Luis Bunuel’s scandalous short. Then the war kept Cocteau from the camera for years, until he returned with this effort.
The film starts with the director apologizing for his flights of fancy. Cocteau, a “serious artist” felt the need to address that he was making a simple fairy tale (even though there’s a lot going on under the surface). It would be hilarious to see someone like Michael Bay attempt the same thing. Josette Day is Belle, the young girl who acts as a maid to her two terrible sisters, but is obviously daddy’s favorite. The family has lost their fortune, which makes the elder sisters that much more terrible. Dad (Marcel André) goes for a ride, stumbles across the beast’s lair and steals a rose. This thievery is a hanging offense. The Beast (Jean Marias) makes a deal with the father: he will spare the father’s life if he sends Belle to live with him (and possibly die for him). Belle stays with the Beast, and eventually…
As commentator Sir Christopher Frayling notes, the Disney version is unimaginable without this film. But Cocteau – as a filmmaker – has always loved magic, and so his use of reverse photography, simple trickery and human choreography makes this an absolute joy. There are candles held by arms in the fall, tears turn to diamonds, and all sorts of sleight of hand to enhance the other worldliness. But Cocteau is about creating a tone of escapism, likely reinforced by having survived the war. This is about the desire of finding true love and problems being mysteriously solved, and in that the film is fun to fall into. It’s gorgeous, a little erotic, and the definition of a visual treat. On a storytelling level, I prefer what Cocteau does with myths and his visual tapestry in Orpheus, but to prefer one to the other is splitting hairs. Highly recommended.
The Criterion edition comes in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) with the soundtrack in an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Also included is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio recording of the Phillip Glass Opera that was done to match the movie. There are also two commentaries, the first from the laserdisc release by Arthur Knight in 1991, and a Sir Christopher Frayling commentary from 2001. Both are well worth sitting through.
“Screening at the Majestic” (27 min.) is a making of from 1997 with interviews with Mila Parely, Jean Marias, and DP Henry Alekan. It’s followed by an interview with Alekan (9 min.) made for the film’s 1995 re-release. The make-up of the film gets the focus in “Secrets Professionnels: Tete-A-Tete” (9 min.) from 1964, and there’s also the film original and restoration trailer, a look at the film’s restoration (4 min.) and a still gallery.
Leon Morin, Priest begins in a completely different place. Cocteau was a homosexual with his lover his star of this fairy tale that still celebrated a heterosexual union (perhaps if she fell in the love with the beast, it could be called Bestiality), whereas Melville begins Leon with its main character Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) declaring her love for a woman. It’s the middle of World War II, and it’s set in Saint Bernard – which is occupied by the Italians, and then later the Germans. People are dying, the concentration camps are real, but other than a lack of men, people go about their business in the small town. And perhaps it’s the lack of men that stirs Barny’s loins as she’s attracted to a woman who seems to take no prisoners.
Though Barny’s an atheist, she respects the need for religion in this time, and gets her daughter baptized, partly because the father was Jewish. She then comes to Leon Morin (Jean Paul Belmondo), the priest of the area, who has also been helping those hiding from the brutal Nazi regime. Barny confesses her attraction to the woman, but once she talks about it, the feelings evaporate, as she finds herself drawn to the priest. The two then enter a strange courtship/friendship as Barny throws other women at him, but knows what she wants.
Starting with lesbianism and moving to sacrilege, Leon Morin, Priest challenges the viewer, and walks them through one of the worst times of its country as it also creates tension around two doomed lovers. But one of the lovers may or may not be fighting their feelings. And that tension is partly why Melville is considered a genius. The viewer can put a lot on Jean Paul Belmondo’s performance as Leon, but the film never tips its hand on exactly what Belmondo is thinking. Melville tells the story from Barny’s viewpoint, and so there aren’t the sort of “tells” that might come from a story of equals. When Morin loses his temper, or she pushes too hard, there’s a sense that it could be because he can’t leave his profession, just as much as it could be from him rejecting it outright. There is a connection there, but how far it can go beyond where it is at the moment is unknown.
There’s a lot to digest here, and Melville’s text is dense and yet straightforward. He’s interested in more than the two (the film stops to talk about conspirators, and puts a sexually adventurous woman in Leon’s path), but it’s the conversations between Barny and Leon, and the tensions that comes from their illicit and perhaps imagined romance that fuels the film. It’s a smart film about loneliness and desire, and Melville’s touch here is immaculate. The film was never shown in America before 2009, and now that Melville’s great works (like this and Army of Shadows) are being released stateside, it’s impossible to deny he is one of the masters of cinema.
The Criterion Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.66:1) and in uncompressed Monaural sound. Supplements include an interview from 1961 with Melville and Belmondo (5 min.), selected scene commentary by Ginette Vincendeau (35 min.), two deleted scenes (4 min.), and the film’s theatrical trailer. AS most everyone involved is dead, this is as good as it gets.