To a secular eye, Jean-Pierre Melville’s sixth feature film, Léon Morin, Priest (1961), is about almost anything except religion: the deleterious effects of sexual repression, the moral bleariness of wartime and life under occupation, the harsh inflections of history in ordinary lives. Melville, who fought with the Free French during the war and lost a brother to the struggle, began his career with a cinematic hymn to the Resistance, and he revisits the subject in Léon Morin with an obvious sense of commitment, fortified by its lack of didacticism, its emphasis on anomaly: moral clarity is elusive at best, and even the most righteous people are a mess of contradictions. The film’s eponymous priest hides Jews in his presbytery and adheres to the virtues of clerical asceticism while courting/deflecting the overheated attentions of several women.
The film devotes a lavish amount of time to theological discussion, but the viewer is less inclined to ponder the nature of God and the mysteries of faith than to marvel at how incongruous and irresistible Jean-Paul Belmondo looks in a cassock. Belmondo’s droll, pummeled-looking gorgeousness and catlike athletic prowess (evident even in liturgical frock), combined with a vow of chastity, make him one of the most alluring priests in cinema, rivaled only by Montgomery Clift in I Confess (1953). It’s hard to imagine this film without Belmondo, since its central drama depicts a “spiritual crisis” more or less hopelessly entangled with the strong draw of Morin’s physicality. “The main idea,” Melville glibly told interviewer Rui Nogueira, “was to show this amorous priest who likes to excite girls but doesn’t sleep with them.” Belmondo brings wonderful things to Léon Morin—a lovely economy of gesture and movement, an aura of inner calm and occasional air of childlike curiosity, and . . . that face.
At the same time, Léon Morin derives its intensity less from the priest’s blandishments, however considerable, than from the surrounding absence of other men (they’re all off fighting in the Resistance, or in concentration camps) and the indirect way the film conveys the stresses of wartime: through confining spatial arrangements, synecdochic political signifiers (a Nazi flag, occasional shots of soldiers parading in the street, a Star of David and the word Juden chalked on a shutter), and small, resonant slices—gunfire is always heard “off”; the start of deportations is shown only reflected in a shopwindow. The main business of the film seems perversely cloistered from its historical mise-en-scène, though it’s impossible to imagine it playing out in quite the same way under other circumstances. Melville initially planned a broader picture of life during the occupation, in keeping with the film’s source, Béatrix Beck’s Goncourt-winning novel. But he ultimately opted to represent the period in microcosm, as he had in his first film, Le silence de la mer (1949), cropping the original tale down to a few truncated narrative lines and fleshing out a mere handful of characters to represent the spectrum of wartime behaviors.
Melville avoids the implication that people who make unfortunate choices in wartime are intrinsically bad, or that support for the right cause automatically reflects essential goodness, confounding expectations by depicting a sympathetic German soldier and collaborationist, while picturing a GI who arrives with the liberating Allies as a boorish potential rapist. This complication of simplistic formulas of right and wrong can also be seen in Melville’s crime dramas; people on either side of the law, or prevailing standards of rectitude, may have admirable integrity or exhibit base cowardice, and a lot of things in between. In many ways, the spiritual tug-of-war at the heart of Léon Morin is a compressed, metaphoric staging of precisely this ambiguity: the baton of “goodness” passes back and forth between the principals, who, at various moments, are also “wrong.”
The film’s setting is a town in the French Alps, in the depths of the fait accompli: at the outset, Italian troops arrive, in comically plumed headgear, and the narrator, Barny, passing them on her bicycle, reflects that the war seems almost weightless, apart from the censorship. Barny, played by Emmanuelle Riva (the glorious Elle from Hiroshima mon amour), is a widow with a little girl, relocated from Paris along with the correspondence school she works for. At the office, she entertains a secret crush on Sabine, the director’s secretary, and defends the principle of resistance against the decidedly mixed views of her coworkers. She will become Morin’s spiritual sparring partner.
The bell jar quality of the town has some affinity with the cloistral parlor of the earlier Le silence de la mer: the feeling of stasis and of people waiting for better times suffuses Léon Morin and imparts an event quality to smallish happenings. After the Germans arrive, Barny and some friends—widows and wives of Jews and Communists—arrange “belated baptisms” for their children, which partisans from the surrounding hills come down to attend. Christine, an anti-Semitic colleague, provokes Barny into slapping her. A Jewish philosophy professor at the school goes underground after shaving off his curled mustache and pointed beard.
Piqued by the relative privilege enjoyed by the clergy, Barny decides to needle a priest in the confession booth; she chooses Léon Morin because his name suggests working-class origins. She tells him religion is the opium of the people; to her surprise, he half agrees with her, and draws her into a discussion of the church. He offers to lend her books; she accepts, avidly. This leads to a succession of increasingly charged meetings in Morin’s presbytery that compose the bulk of the movie. Morin’s sly, implacable arguments in favor of belief, his physical grace, and his material poverty all create an unacknowledgeable erotic nimbus around him. This causes Barny, who resists seeing her physical attraction plainly, to question her avowed atheism. She channels her sensual impulses into misguided longing for spiritual clarity.
One could almost impute utter cynicism to Melville, himself a Jewish atheist, for devoting quite so much of this movie to religious disputation; given that other, arguably more important things are elided or shown obliquely, the freighted dialogues between Morin and Barny seem incidental to what’s actually passing between them. But that’s really the point: Melville shows us an extreme distortion of feelings produced by Barny’s loneliness and Morin’s immutable vow of chastity. Implicitly, the church and the war both impose a drastic curtailment of existential freedom; Melville is depicting a world where natural impulse and the choice it presents are preempted by contingency, transpersonal exchange weighted and warped by external circumstance. This isn’t to say that Morin ever exhibits desire. His interiority is hidden from his spiritual clients. If his baldly flirtatious manner indicates conscious seductiveness, it’s unclear whether he’s content to lure women into the arms of Christ or secretly wishes he could nail them.
I have to confess to a certain exasperation with Melville’s treatment of Barny. Frankly, she deserves better than Morin’s teasing chastity, which is delineated in somewhat the same excruciatingly protracted way as the heists in some of Melville’s other films, without the satisfying payoff of a cracked safe or a smoothly executed bank robbery. (And Barny is not the only woman in this film who falls under Morin’s spell—Christine does too, and both she and Barny eagerly direct other potential penitents to Morin’s door.) She, as the shopworn phrase goes, bares her soul to Morin, revealing everything from her infatuation with Sabine to the fact that she masturbates with a piece of wood. Morin recoils from her one timorous physical overture as if Satan himself had speared him with a pitchfork, then orders her to confess her indecent lust—and to him, no less. Untouchable, unattainable, Morin still insists, sadistically, on continuing their sterile trysts.
Despite that, Léon Morin is Melville’s closest approximation of a “women’s film,” his only extensive venture into female subjectivity; and given how much of the movie represents Barny’s point of view, we tend to see Morin as she does—as a manipulative male with markedly adolescent tics, really, who foists his libidinal blockage onto other people. If Barny never articulates this insight, it’s there in Belmondo’s gestures and expressions, his habit of running hot and cold in blinking alteration. Barny allows herself to fall in love with him all the same, and the ending of the film leaves her bereft of both faith and love interest, the picture of human wreckage. Yet the character of her narration, as of something from a vividly remembered past, indicates the painful amusement of a later, probably wiser self.
Morin does reveal something about himself, in a scene that happens after the liberation, in Barny’s little apartment: cautioning her not to discipline her daughter too harshly, he recounts how he was thrashed as a child. It’s not really enough to ameliorate the impression of Morin as a totemic scourge of sex-starved women. But when he mentions entering the seminary at age twelve, it’s suddenly clear that he became a priest long before becoming a man—which may explain why he devotes so much energy and craftiness to making himself lovable without ever going further.
As Barny, the stunningly complex Riva emits a fabulous array of restive expressions, flashing between defiance and abjection, pleasure and anxiety, assurance and perplexity. The range of feeling that registers on her face is perhaps the most appealing feature of Léon Morin. Her eyes convey a severe intelligence that will always rescue her from pettiness. If Barny seems destroyed in the end, it’s easy to imagine her recovering her self-possession.
Produced by Georges de Beauregard and Carlo Ponti, Léon Morin, Priest was Melville’s first film with a large budget and represented his bid for mainstream attention after years of independent filmmaking. He got it, largely by casting two of the New Wave’s biggest stars, while drastically scaling back his earlier adventurous stylistic tropes. Léon Morin incorporates the location camera work (here by the brilliant Henri Decaë) associated with the New Wave, but most key scenes feature classical cinematography (using Melville’s own studio in the rue Jenner), with intricately orchestrated pans, languid dissolves, slow zooms, and subtly expressionist lighting effects. His later films, like Le doulos (1962) and Le deuxième souffle (1966), capitalize on the hybrid style of Léon Morin, mixing the semi-improvisational with the classical.
If Léon Morin itself does not seem so far from the New Wave, Melville’s statements about it at the time do—for instance, “I made it for the producer and the mass audience. I’ve had enough of being an auteur maudit, a maverick who can’t be trusted.” Melville’s mainstreaming of his film practice put him in bad odor with the avant-garde for many years, but it won him the popularity he wanted, and his films were eventually embraced by those earlier critics as well. Léon Morin, Priest is not the big, variegated canvas of the Resistance that Melville first imagined; that came later, in 1969, with Army of Shadows. It is an exquisitely circumscribed and powerful picture of how people cope in a world devoid of certainty.
Gary Indiana’s most recent books are Last Seen Entering the Biltmore, a collection of early writings, and To Whom It May Concern, a collaboration with Louise Bourgeois. He is currently working on an untitled novel.