1960s, 4/4, Drama, Jean-Pierre Melville, Review

Leon Morin, Priest

#5 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.

This feels like a break from Melville’s previous work, moving from crime to a quieter, more psychological duel between a man and a woman, but it feels like a combination of his early work, in particular Les Enfants Terribles, and the strict moral codes that he had been outlining through the main characters of his later films. It’s also a real return to form after the oddly built Two Men in Manhattan. Dropping the visual scope to largely take place in two rooms but also casting two of the biggest French movie stars of the time to help detail the sexual subtext of the action adds something extra that less recognizable actors might not have been able to do as well.

In occupied territory in France during the Second World War, there is a sleepy village that, aside from ration cards and the occasional fire fight outside of town between partisans and German army regulars, seems removed from the war. In this town lives a widow to a Jew, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), with an unbaptized daughter France (Marielle Gozzi). With the encroaching German forces, Barny and several other women of the town take their children to get them baptized, planning on changing the dates on the baptismal certificates in order to remove any idea that their children are Jewish. This is Barny’s first interaction with the Church since her First Communion decades prior, and the effort, combined with her communistic beliefs, leads her to head towards the St. Bernard’s one more time as a joke. She will walk into the confessional and challenge the priest directly. Choosing the confessional of Leon Morin, thinking that he would be the son of peasants, she finds a situation she does not expect.

Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a young, attractive man who has taken up the priesthood and counters Barny’s challenges head on. When she opens her “confession” by pronouncing religion as the opiate of the masses, Morin says that it can be for some people. His reactions to her provocations take her aback, and she becomes more introspective to the point where Morin giving her a penance and Barny follows through on it. The two begin meeting on a weekly basis for Barny to borrow books from Morin’s small library and discuss God. What makes these conversations really interesting isn’t the details of epistemology and theology (though it is quite interesting to see the two viewpoints butting heads) but the subtextual attraction between the two.

It doesn’t remain subtextual for the whole film, but the first bulk, there’s no direct mention to the fact that Barny considers Morin attractive, and yet it seems undeniable. In a town where all the men are gone, taken to the woods to fight as partisans, Leon Morin stands out because if he were in any other profession, he would be married. Casting Belmondo feels like an intentional choice to up the sex appeal as well. Is what brings Barny back to Morin’s spare rectory apartment the discussions on God, or is there a sexual component to her visits? Is it one way or two?

We see several other people visit Morin over the course of the film, and they are all attractive young women. The connection through Morin brings Barny closer to Christine (Irene Tunc), a coworker in her approvals office who starts antagonistic. Through both Barny’s increasing faith and knowledge that Christine also goes to see Morin, they become friends. The manager of the office, Sabine (Nicole Mirel), Barny develops an infatuation for because, as Barny explains, she has a feminized masculinity that Barny finds attractive. Morin is dismissive of the affection, asserting that Barny does not know how to love, and the attraction falls away after Sabine receives news that her brother has been exiled and most likely killed in foreign camps with her looks and demeanor degrading in response. There’s another woman, Lucienne (Gisele Grimm), who is a bit of a floozy and is convinced that she’ll be able to sleep with Morin, but she ends up attending confession after he angrily pulls her dress down over her knee to cover her up.

It seems obvious that Morin does not partake of these sins of the flesh, but he is awful close to them all of the time. He has a strong sense of faith and can speak well with those who challenge him, but why does he only seem to engage with young, attractive women? This intersection of the faith of the mind and heart with the reality of life in the real world is the heart of the film, and it’s not just from Morin’s point of view. It’s mostly from Barny’s, and her actual goal is always somewhat muddy on purpose. She says she wants faith after her first conversation with Morin, but is she just falling into the little game that Morin seems to play with all of the young women of the village?

In the background of all of this is the war. Italians are replaced by Germans (including Howard Vernon in a small cameo that may or may not be him reprising his role from La Silence de la Mer) who are then replaced by Americans (one of whom becomes super aggressive towards Barny as she walks France home from the boarders who had kept her up). A hotel is bombed out, and reprisals are made against collaborators. None of it ends up being that immediately important to the questions of God, His will, and His existence. The movie never comes to a solid answer in a pious and preachy sort of way, but there are implications about the good of religion in the life of Barny. She becomes more selfless and helpful to those in need, in particular a Jewish family in hiding, after the insistence of Morin. She becomes more friendly with her enemy at work.

However, she cannot deny her desires for Morin, and when she calls his bluff, Morin storms out. Why can’t he be dismissive of her like when he thought it was a joke? He presents himself as this man of purity, but is he hiding some kind of temptation and desire that he doesn’t act upon? Is he only a man? If he is only a man, has he led her down a human path and not a divine one?

Most of this is implied, not explicit, but it’s definitely there. When Barny fantasizes/dreams of Morin coming into her room to make love to her, it’s the film getting the most explicit about the central idea. She’s obviously been attracted to him by this point (outright admitting it in a bit of voiceover earlier), but he refuses that sort of intimate touch. Where does that leave her? Where is she in her faith? Is her faith driven by physical needs (in this instance, the touch of a man) or by spiritual needs? What drives her movement towards God? When Morin is sent to another parish (a mission to the middle of France, as he puts it), what will become of Barny’s faith?

Like much of great art, there are no easy answers, the film just leaves you with questions to ponder. This is a surprising work from Melville as well. He had started on his path in crime pictures with Bob Le Flambeur, but his earlier stuff was more psychological in nature. This is a combination of intellectualism, spiritualism, and character-based emotion that didn’t really feel like was in his wheelhouse. Far from thinking he was any sort of bad director, his cinematic interests felt more visceral and less cerebral. And yet, at the same time, this fits perfectly in with the thematic ideas of his films. The psychological aspect is present in the duel between Barny and Morin. Morin has a code of ethics that he may or may not be able to live up to.

Leon Morin, Priest is a serious-minded film for adults that uses its characters to look into hard questions about faith in difficult times. It represents a talented filmmaker showing that he can work beyond his familiar territory while still making the film his own. It is a great film.

Rating: 4/4

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