In the mid-90s I saw Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, one of those foreign classics that it’s assumed everyone will like. Well … I gave it a try, and it just didn’t do anything for me, though I later liked Godard’s Alphaville and Pierrot le Fou. And I found that Godard in general had a fantastic sense of absurdity, atmosphere, and was of course very good at editing. I just got off to a patchy start with Breathless. But I did think that the lead actor in that movie had some quirky star power and wondered if he was in anything else.
As I found out before long, Jean-Paul Belmondo was a major movie star in France. I’m not sure what I saw him in next, but I soon understood the extent of his stardom, and that his career was long and varied between commercial and experimental movies. While he often played conventional leading man parts, Belmondo had range and I can’t recall him ever seeming fake in anything. Among his lesser known roles, one of Belmondo’s most interesting was for Jean-Pierre Melville, frequent director of crime films who also made one of the greatest religious dramas of all time with Leon Morin, Priest.
France used to produce a bushel of serious movies about Catholicism and the tensions between hope in the next world and life in the present one. Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, from a novel by Georges Bernanos, is probably the most famous, but Leon Morin, Priest deserves much more attention. (It used to be a Criterion title. Many thanks to Kino Lorber for bringing it back to Blu-Ray in the U.S. a couple years ago.) Cast as far from a ladies’ man as possible, Belmondo is utterly convincing and engrossing as a sincere young priest, engaged in a part spiritual battle, part platonic relationship with a young windowed mother (Emmanuelle Riva, soon after Hiroshima, Mon Amour).
Leon Morin, Priest is a great movie and maybe, all these years later, I should give Breathless another try too.
Rest in peace, Jean-Paul Belmondo.