Léon Morin, Priest

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Adaptation: Jean-Pierre Melville (based on the novel by Béatrix Beck)
Stars: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Léon Morin), Emmanuelle Riva (Barny), Irène Tunc (Christine Sangredin), Nicole Mirel (Sabine Levy), Gisèle Grimm (Lucienne), Marco Behar (Edelman), Monique Bertho (Marion)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: France
Léon Morin, Priest Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Léon Morin, PriestAs a narrative trope to explore (or exploit) the tensions between the spirit and the flesh, the “amorous priest” genre is one of my least favorites, if only because it is so tiresome in its obviousness. Putting a powerful, sexually alluring actor like Montgomery Clift or Richard Chamberlain in a frock of celibacy is the laziest evocation of forbidden fruit imaginable, and the resulting play of “Will he or won’t he?” reduces both religious conviction and sexual desire to a melodramatic parlor game. Thus, I approached Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest, whose title character is played by French New Wave romantic idol Jean-Paul Belmondo, hot off his turn as a casually amoral thief in Jean-Luc Godard’s groundbreaking Breathless (1959), with some trepidation since it seemed to fit the formula, despite my strong admiration for many of Melville’s films.

I found, however, that Léon Morin is actually a thoughtful, moving evocation of spiritual life, even though it is often described primarily in terms of sexual repression, which is not surprising given that Melville was an avowed atheist who compared the existence of God to that of Father Christmas. Interestingly, the film works despite Melville’s off-screen skepticism, thus creating a fascinating tension between the secular and the spiritual that tends to be read in wildly divergent terms depending on the critic. So, for example, in his liner notes for the Criterion Collection release of the film, novelist Gary Indiana opens his remarks by saying that the film is “about almost anything except religion,” even though much of its running time is filled with theological discussion and the French Catholic Church embraced the film on its initial release.

The story, which was taken from Béatrix Beck’s autobiographical novel of life during the German occupation of France, takes place in a small, occupied mountain village during World War II. This was territory that Melville understood well, as he had fought with the French Resistance during the war and started his cinematic career with Le Silence de la Mer (1947), which also takes place in an occupied French village. Despite the title, Léon Morin is not the main character and does not even appear in the film for some 20 minutes. Rather, the protagonist is Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, the star of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour), a young widow and mother who has moved to the village from Paris because of a shift in her job working for a correspondence school. An avowed atheist with communist ideals, Barny decides on a whim to enter the local church and bait the priest in the confessional by declaring, “Religion is the opiate of the masses!” She is disappointed, but then intrigued by the fact that the priest, Léon Morin, does not take the bait, but rather engages her in a thoughtful, nuanced discussion that leads to weekly theological meetings in his presbytery.

We expect--and on some level want--sparks to fly between them because the movies have taught us that when two attractive people are on screen together, then physical connection is the logical outcome. Yet, to see the relationship on only those terms is to engage with an exclusively secular imagination that must eventually reduce all human connection to sex; that is, we must Barney and Morin only as bodies and not as minds, much less spirits. We are clearly encouraged to see Barny as being attracted to Morin, with that attraction growing throughout the film until she cannot help but proposition him, if indirectly by asking him if he would have made her his wife if were a Protestant minister, rather than a Catholic priest.

And there are intimations throughout the film that Morin is a sexual creature who flirts and then resists the results of that flirtation. Much has been made of a brief scene in which Morin walks past Barny in church and appears to purposefully brush the edge of his sleeve across her, a gesture that has been read in almost exclusively sexual terms. Yet, more powerful is Morin’s anger at sexual advances toward him. When Barny asks about being his wife, his response is to slam an axe into a chopping block and storm out of the house. Similarly, in an early scene when Barny’s sexually aggressive coworker positions herself in an alluring pose on his desk and all but tells him she wants to have sex with him, he brusquely pulls her skirt down to cover her knee and chastises her simplicity.

Is this a character that, in Melville’s own words, is a “Don Juan,” an “amorous priest who likes to excite girls but doesn’t sleep with them”? Or, as Gary Indiana puts it in his essay, “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.” It strikes me that any such wishes are more in Indiana’s mind than Morin’s, as Morin dutifully enacts his role as village priest with a rare sense of intelligence and integrity despite the fact that the village is populated almost entirely by women (all of the men are either dead, interned, or fighting with the Resistance). Morin is, in this manner, very much a Melvillian character: a consummate professional who sticks to his code and maintains his honor to the very end--a spiritual cousin to Melville’s roster of noble gangsters, Resistance fighters, thieves, and assassins. Anything that Morin does that resembles flirting ultimately pales in comparison to his commitment to the church and his beliefs.

Morin loans Barny books that she avidly reads and instructs her in the Catholic faith, whittling down her objections with reflection, patience, and honesty, resulting in her eventual conversion to Catholicism, a decision whose sincerity has been debated, but seems to me to be absolutely genuine. Morin is, in every sense, a progressive priest, meaning that he doesn’t hold to rituals, traditions, and beliefs unless they hold true meaning for him, and he wants to see the church move into the modern age. Much is made about Barny’s physical attraction to Morin, and the fact that he is played by Belmondo, then a white-hot continental James Dean or Marlon Brando, certainly encourages such a focus. Yet, because so much of the film is taken up with their theological discussions and we are given access to Barny’s interiority via a voice-over narration that becomes more and more spiritually minded as the film progresses, it is ridiculous to overlook the film’s overriding religiosity (the war around them is really just a backdrop that intensifies their theological discussions). Melville may not have intended it, but Léon Morin, Priest is most effective in conveying the power of the spirit over the flesh, and even its seemingly tragic conclusion, with Barny and Morin going their separate ways, is complicated by Morin’s heartfelt assertion that any separation is only in this world, an ending that is more Bressonian than purely agnostic.

Léon Morin, Priest Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Léon Morin, Priest is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.66:1
AudioFrench PCM 1.0 monaural
  • French television interview with director Jean-Pierre Melville and actor Jean-Paul Belmondo from 1961
  • Selected-scene commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau
  • Deleted scenes
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic and novelist Gary Indiana and excerpts from Melville on Melville
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 26, 2011

    Criterion’s excellent new 4K transfer of Léon Morin, Priest was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored, resulting in a beautifully clear, clean, and film-like image. The black-and-white cinematography by Henry Decaë looks gorgeous, with fine gradations of grayscale that bring out the finest details in the clothing and surface textures without losing the inherent grain structure. The original French monaural soundtrack was transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical track print and digitally restored. It sounds clean and hiss-free throughout.
    In terms of supplements, Criterion has dug into the archives for a five-minute excerpt of a 1961 interview with director Jean-Pierre Melville and actor Jean-Paul Belmondo that originally aired on French television. From the 2004 BFI DVD we have a thoughtful and informative audio commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris; the only downside is that it only plays over three scenes in the film. There are also two short deleted scenes, surely just the tip of the iceberg considering the fact that Melville’s original cut of the film was over three hours in length, and the original theatrical trailer. The insert booklet includes an excerpt from Melville on Melville and a new essay by critic and novelist Gary Indiana.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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