After Jean-Pierre Melville finally got around to completing Léon Morin, Priest, nearly ten years after the book it was based on became a best-seller in France, he'd had his fill of scraping by on the non-commercial outer fringes of that nation's film industry. He was in the mood (or maybe just feeling the financial pressures) to have a smash hit to his credit, so he shrewdly put the pieces together to do just that. Casting nouvelle vague heartthrobs Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva in the lead roles, with a story of life under the 1940s German occupation still in vivid memory for most of its audience, Léon Morin, Priest struck all the right notes as far as the French box office was concerned. Still, the film's success and apparent embrace of conservative Catholic religious practices eroded much of Melville's street cred among that very set of critics who'd embraced his influential early work like Les Enfants Terrible and Bob le flambeur as forerunners of that same nouvelle vague that he was to some degree exploiting.. They snobbishly regarded Léon Morin, Priest as evidence that Melville was going commercial. Oh how I long for a cinema culture in today's world that would consider a film as full of intelligence and humanity as this one to be a benchmark for "selling out."
Originally intended to be a wide-ranging portrayal of the hardships and emotional angst endured by French citizens in a small country village under Vichy rule, Melville narrowed his scope as the film entered its post-production phase, trimming away most of the subplots in order to focus more tightly on the psycho-spiritual knot that developed between the priest after whom the film was named and Barny, a widow only in her mid-20s whose political past and half-Jewish daughter put her at some considerable risk, should the collaborationist authorities exert pressure upon her. We first meet Barny, who narrates the film from some undeclared future point in time that provides perspective on that intense, pivotal juncture of her life, as she looks back on a same-sex infatuation she had on Sabine, secretary to her employer, a professor whose small correspondence school has relocated to the countryside, presumably to escape the tensions of operating in a larger city. Having lost a husband at a young age, and with all the eligible and virile men her age scattered by the winds of war and resistance, Barny is understandably lonely, frustrated and longing for intimacy wherever she can find it. The office where she works is populated almost exclusively by women who each exemplify the various responses to the excruciating dilemmas adopted by females in those years. It's a hothouse of emotions, mostly driven by a struggle to survive even if it means compromising one's dignity or ideals.
Barny and her secularized, non-religious friends concoct a scheme to have their children baptized, an urgent and necessary bit of hypocrisy that will help them elude the notice of snoops who might otherwise wonder about the circumstances of their birth and, if suspicions of Jewish or Communist affiliations are confirmed, result in their shipment off to a concentration camp. It's a more complicated process than merely having them sprinkled with holy water and blessed by a priest. Godparents must be named, in some cases papers need to be forged, and of course in order for the rituals to proceed smoothly, a secular materialist like Barny must swallow whatever disdain she feels for the theology, the empty traditions and the overarching sense of supremacy that the Church holds over those who accept the security and privilege it offers.
Recognizing the vulnerability of her position, and probably not feeling overt hostility toward the Church as much as a simple vexation from having to make vows to an institution that she hardly understands or agrees with, Barny's means of leveling the score between her and the new authority in her life is to engage in what begins as simple verbal sparring in the confessional with one of the local priests. Challenging Father Léon with Marx's famous quote, "religion is the opium of the people," Barny apparently expected a shocked or angry response, perhaps a sharp chastening scold for her impudent irreverence. Instead what she gets is a cool, thoughtful response, to that and other inquiries she makes regarding religion and her doubts about the whole enterprise, as well as other more personal struggles she has, regarding her thwarted sexuality, the pressures of mothering her eight year old daughter, the stark alternatives of collaboration vs. armed resistance to the German occupation, and more. Barny and Father Léon quickly assess their mutual intelligence and intellectual compatibility with each other, and over the course of several months, their attraction to each other grows, though it never finds anything close to overt fulfillment. From Barny's vantage, the priest is all but unattainable, his athletic masculine physique and brilliant verbal parries to the best retorts she can summon only making him all the more desirable, but in a highly cerebral way, until she comes close to snapping toward the end of the film. Mixed up with these raw and, under the circumstances, highly sympathetic attractions, Barny goes through a spiritual conversion process, eventually setting aside her secular notions in order to pursue a purer vision of the faith that Father Léon has been instructing her about over the course of their relationship.
This perpetual tension between the surface respectability of religious discipleship and the underlying churning of strenuously managed erotic desire propels Léon Morin, Priest over the course of two hours toward a marvelously ambiguous (and therefore life-like) conclusion. Seeing the story entirely through Barny's eyes convinces us that she is a woman of honest integrity, continually striving to balance her sense of justice with the practical demands of life in duress, along with a need to both honor her conscience and find some relatively harmless outlet for sexual release. Her struggle is exquisitely rendered by Hiroshima mon amour's Emmanuelle Riva, whose bright eyed gaze and assured presence in her various encounters with the priest and the women in her village left quite a strong impression on me.
Equally invigorating is Belmondo, who admirably took on a provocative role that flew right in the face of the type he'd already been cast into through films like Breathless, Classe tous risques and A Woman is a Woman. Unlike Barny, whose interiority is presented prominently throughout the film (including a dream sequence that, in its reverie of forbidden lusts, echoed similar scenes in Sacha Guitry's Désiré, reviewed by me recently on CriterionCast.com), we never get a glimpse at Father Léon's inner workings. Instead, we can only draw conclusions from his words, which yield just enough to create a sense of empathy and alliance with the Other only to mesh into a tightly-woven matrix that pushes back the burden of responsibility and deflects any attempt to penetrate, and his subtle flirtatious actions, which often seem calculated to rebuff or even punish the women whom he knows are so strongly attracted to him. Rarely does Father Léon let his guard down; it's probably at its lowest when he speaks of his youth, raised by a mother who'd be considered abusive by today's standards, admitting his frequent childhood lies and disobedience, and most suggestively, acknowledging that his training for the priesthood began when he was a mere boy, oblivious to the grown-up desires and satisfactions that his vows would ultimately deprive him of, possibly putting a sadistic chip on his shoulder that the power of the Church and the circumstances of war enabled him to flaunt with impunity.
That tantalizing interplay between deeply felt sensual cravings and the crucial need to find some socially acceptable means of fulfilling them, often via religion, is what gives Léon Morin, Priest both its staying power and a more universal application to people in other cultures and circumstances. However, it also provides fascinating insight into the history of the Second World War, speaking with an authority that's unique and autobiographical (for both the film's director, who fought in the French resistance, and the original female novelist, a friend of Melville's who incorporated many of her own experiences into the story.) Watching this movie made me eager to revisit Clouzot's Le Corbeau, a film shot in the same period that Léon Morin, Priest actually took place and casting an even more jaundiced eye on the venality that ran rampant in many French villages at this time. The supplemental selected-scene commentary points out some of the ways that Melville softened his critique of the behaviors on all sides, given his concern for commercial considerations across the European continent and a well-founded desire to fix our attention on the charismatic stars and their confounding, warped "romance." Indeed, the most overt villainy we see in the film may be a short scene in which Barny is harassed by a horny American GI, in the presence of her daughter, who presses her for sexual favors as a token of gratitude to him for carrying her luggage. The more disturbing atrocities of war are for the most part merely alluded to in second-hand reports or even more indirectly hinted at in sound effects of explosions and marching feet that take place off screen. Even the rounding up of fugitives destined for the concentration camps is only shown in reflections on windows, a peculiarly distancing touch that seems intent on keeping the interpersonal dynamics between Barny, her companions and Father Léon in the foreground.
Still, when it came to marketing the film, I can't fault Melville or his studio for playing up the erotic angle as a way of garnering attention for what winds up being a fairly cerebral and talk-heavy film, with the side benefit of some stately, austere cinematography by Henri DeCae. The trailer does a pretty fine job of putting all the sexy bits into a three minute sampler, so if you go into it expecting a frisky romp about beautiful women putting their move on the virile young Belmondo-in-a-cassock based on what you see below, consider this your heads-up. Léon Morin, Priest is a serious look at feelings and pressures many of us have wrestled, with varying degrees of success. Like any serious engagement with questions of God, truth and morality, regardless of our prearranged notions of what we expect will happen when we step into that confessional booth constructed by Melville and crew, what we hear is likely to surprise us.
Next: Through a Glass Darkly