Léon Morin, prêtre
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 21 April 2009
Source Rialto Pictures 35mm Print
Twenty-five minutes into 1962’s Le Doulos, Jean-Paul Belmondo charms his way into a blonde’s apartment, beats her up, hogties her with rope, belts her to a radiator by her throat, douses her with booze, and slaps some information out of her. Strange to think that, in the previous year, the same Belmondo had played the title role of Léon Morin, Priest for the same director, Jean-Pierre Melville, and was rather better behaved. But it’s nonetheless revealing, not only of the director’s decidedly problematic attitude towards women as expressed in his film, but also of his conception of Belmondo, then the iconic face of the Nouvelle Vague, smoldering amiguously in about a half-dozen films a year.
Léon Morin, Priest falls in an odd, but decisive place in Melville’s career, and if the film weren’t quite so good as it is, it would be easy to dismiss as a cynical bid for credibility. It was also this – a serious picture on a serious subject based upon Béatrix Beck’s highly regarded account of life during the Occupation – intended to earn some widespread acclaim to a filmmaker who had been working on the margins of the system, in his own cinematic demimonde, since 1946. It was Melville’s outsider status and cheap production model that appealed to Godard, who cast the director as the all-wise Parvelusco in Breathless (and where Melville also met Belmondo), but Melville’s successes, his great crime films of the mid-1960s, were yet to come.
But Léon Morin is not merely, as some might have it, Melville’s attempt to gain respectability by dipping his toe in the holy waters of Bresson’s milieu of country priests and moral quandaries. And one need only contrast Claude Laydu with Belmondo to see this: the latter priest has none of the bug-eyed prudence of Bresson’s curé, and a far more oblique, less confessional place in the narrative.1 In spite of his cassock, Belmondo’s Morin is in his own way as slippery as any of Melville’s smooth criminals, albeit with that certain grace the director reserves for the cool and insouciant. He is taciturn, pushy, and he knows more than the other characters, especially the pent-up war-widow Barny. The narrator of the film, Barny becomes Morin’s principal interlocutor in the film after accosting him with Marxist atheism in his confessional, only to discover that Morin is willing to glare back from behind the screen. And he’s sexy, to boot.
Since Melville’s films nearly always involve reclusive, tight-lipped men, it’s interesting to see one in which, for once, the emphasis is on female characters—and not just one, but many. In Léon Morin, Melville’s women are not the naked, blonde ciphers of his gangster films, the currency of postwar life, and even its most dispensable variety.2 Seemingly ancillary to the male world of business, useless but for a tenuous, almost perfunctory connection to sentimentality for their more willful and dynamic (if usually doomed) lovers, most of Melville’s women are to be warned against, if not dismissed outright. But here they counterbalance the grey neutrality of his hoods and flics: they are mothers and sisters, warm, expressive individuals, cynical, yet enduring war-wives, and hearty resistants.
It’s an odd divergence from Melville’s usual misogyny – not too strong a word, I think it’s safe to say – but not without precedence: Simone Signoret’s ursine battle-axe Mathilde in Army of Shadows is, like Barny, surely a force to be reckoned with (in spite of her comeuppance). And in this comparison, it seems clear that wartime women earn a respect from Melville that postwar women did not. Certainly, wartime women had to behave more like the sort of men Melville liked to eulogize: willful, hard to read, and completely self-possessed. Barny – played by Emmanuelle Riva, still sweaty from Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour in 1959 – is the type to slap her Vichy co-worker across the face or goad priests with intellectual challenges out of sheer boredom. For Morin, she’ll also brazenly own up to her lesbian crush on her Amazonian office manager and to satisfying her sexual frustration by masturbating with a piece of wood.
None of which, it should be noted, is characteristic of a model Christian, but Morin nonetheless finds the time to draw this information out of Barny, in between Bible-readings and discussions of faith. Indeed, it often seems that Morin has more sinister motives, hashing out the finer points of sin with the ladies of his parish, but Melville’s touch is a light one, sticking piously to the story, and simply allowing the inferences to abound. The casting of Belmondo was particularly canny here: The actor manages to convey the depth and intellect of Morin, while remaining almost guilty by association. Morin denies all come-ons, but revels in his seductive powers of evangelism nonetheless. Barny and the other women of the occupied village ascend to the dizzying heights of the presbytery in a succession of beautiful crane shots (orchestrated by the great Henri Decaë) for nightly consultations. And Morin dominates, puppeteering soul and intellect in a double masochistic relationship.
But while, for Morin, this shepherd-flock relationship is able to maintain a nervy stasis, Barny’s need for companionship is overwhelming. It becomes clear in her discussions of faith and religion with her confessor that she desires to understand herself and her existence through another, namely Leon. His desire, like that of so many Melville’s heroes, is to maintain himself in solitude, with only those occasional flirtations that such men occasionally allow themselves. Reinforcing this is the use of language: with each other, in their kitchens or offices, women use words overtly and easily, more to reveal than to conceal; but Morin’s words are puzzles, Socratic interrogations that force Barny’s intellect and morality back onto itself.
But Barny, in her need, reaches out. And as always for Melville the most touching image in the film is a gesture: a caress from Barny to the Vichy-sympathizer Alrette, whom she has recently slapped across the face. The two meet outside of Morin’s presbytery, and Arlette, normally dolled-up in makeup, visits her confessor without her face on. Barny’s surprise and remorse prompts her gesture, a fleeting caress of her face as the two stand, suspended in mid-flight up the stairs to Morin’s chambers. It’s a slight, graceful touch, its whole staging and blocking so light and delicate one might almost doubt it happens. But it represents a pure affection and a sentiment of deep empathy that’s analogous to similar gestures between the thickest and most fraternal of Melville’s thieves.
For Léon, however, these things are more complicated, and he remains silent. Confronted by a lustful Barny, who demands to know whether he would marry her under other circumstances, he slams an axe into a chopping block – yet another sexually charged block of wood – and dashes out of the room. This is more than just the sexual frustration of the priesthood—the scene doesn’t at all play like the lampooning of embattled priestly virtues from a Jewish atheist like Melville. If anything, Morin’s gesture plays like an orgasm, albeit a metaphorical one. It’s a similar defeat as that suffered by Belmondo’s Lazslo Kovacs at the end of Breathless or by Jef Costello at the end of Le Samouraï: double-crossed, weary, depleted.