When Léon Morin, prêtre was released in 1961, Jean-Pierre Melville’s career was at a crossroads. Whilst the film is not generally regarded as a watershed moment, it was certainly a turning point. Melville had already set up his own studios in Rue Jenner, including his own screening room, but despite, or perhaps because of, his iconoclast status, commercial success eluded him. With help from Jean Bruller (Vercors) and Jean Cocteau, Melville achieved renown amongst the intelligentsia for adaptations of Le Silence de la Mer (1949) and Les enfants terribles (1950).
Within a few years he was to become the darling of the Cahier du Cinema with his proto-New Wave, blackly comic Bob le flambeur (1955). However, these were interspersed with average to poor efforts, including Quand tu liras cette lettre (1953) and Deux hommes dans Manhattan (1959). Perhaps the immediate success of the French New Wave, including his own cameo performance in Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960), was the decisive moment in his career, in that it enabled Melville to elicit the production of Georges de Beauregard and Carlo Ponti, firstly for Léon Morin, prêtre, and then a spectacular return to form in the crime genre, Le Doulos (1962).
And yet, much like Le silence de la mer and his later, supreme masterpiece L’Armée des ombres (1969), the subject matter is of a more personal nature than his policiers, set during the German occupation of France. Melville had been a member of the French Resistance, and his battles included Operation Dragoon, an Allied invasion of southern France in 1944. Indeed, as is well known, Melville is a pseudonym from the War, his real surname Grumbach was perhaps changed to hide his Jewish Alsatian origins.
On the surface, the three wartime films are interrelated, but in fact Léon Morin, prêtre is something of a peculiar oddity. Unlike the other two Resistance pictures, it is an unconventional love story. What could possibly have compelled Jean-Pierre, whose films would suggest a preference for boys adventure stories, to adapt a prize winning romance novel by Béatrix Beck? Was it more than just to make a commercial success? It may be that an answer is impossible to come by, but the contradictions may in fact give an insight into neglected aspects of Jean-Pierre’s complex oeuvre.
On this occasion, the War is merely the background to the main theme. Sure, there are marches on the streets, and even a friendly stance between German occupiers and Barney (Emmanuel Riva), a young widow, and her daughter. In fact it is only two American soldiers, on a night patrol, who view her with lust. The main bombing takes place at night, heard and not seen, with the play of light and shadow flickering against the windows. The film also highlights the importance of woman workers during Wartime whilst the men are in action, set against the decrepit state of the buildings.
The wartime setting does bring together two people who may never otherwise have met. Two people whose circumstances contrast considerably. It is fair to say that the relationship between Barney and Léon is unusual to say the least. Barney is a committed Marxist who comes across Léon by chance at his local parish. She wanted to provoke a response in confession as to how she felt about the Catholic Church, whilst he was the only priest available. Nevertheless, Léon is no ordinary priest. He goes so far as to sympathise with Barney’s perspective, in the belief that the Church, with all its wealth in a time of poverty, has neglected the principles that Jesus founded. He is also extremely beautiful, radiant under the white light. It is no wonder that Barney, and many of her friends, are attracted to him.
And yet, as they come closer together, Léon’s sole intention remains to show Barney the religious path she has neglected. He acts as a spiritual adviser on a highly intellectual level, a reformer who lives on a meagre sustenance, not dissimilar in spirit to the title character in Nazarín (Buñuel, 1959). Unfortunately, she begins to love him on an emotional and physical level, and when she attempts to kiss him, the shunned response is assertive. Plainly, the priest loves her in return but the call of duty is testing his moral disposition. When they do eventually part, it is due to Léon moving, enforced, to another parish, not able to take his books or his piano with him. The Catholic Church here is presented like a burden, an imprisonment on individual freedom, and yet Morin initially chose the role by his own will, his faith is higher than that of love.
When discussing the Crucifixion, Leon relates to a passage from Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why are thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?”. We are reminded that these words are aimed at the Jews who had abandoned their God, and yet it was the faith Jesus grew up on and was preaching to.
“Don’t forget that the Old Testament is the book of the Jews”, Léon says, “the one the Messiah lived on. Jehovah chose Christ of flesh and blood for his earthly life, thus giving himself youth. He chose to die in the prime of his life. God will never age because he is protected by that blood of youth.”
This is most interesting from Melville’s perspective because he was born a Jew, even more so if we consider his sympathetic approach to the character. Léon is opposed to the self-interests of the Catholic Church, quoting “in my father’s mansion there are many rooms” from John 14:12.
In a similar vein to Jef Costello (Le Samourai, 1967), he is a man no longer in control of his destiny when faced with an empowered woman. The character of Barney, on the other hand, is fiercely strong-willed and independent, surviving though her own strength. Melville may not have been known for writing strong female characters as love interests, but Barney, particularly along with Mathilde in L’Armee des ombres, finds an inner strength and solidity to overcome the immediacy of German Occupied France. A female character of this magnitude can only be found in Melville’s War films. In his crime films they are merely a femme fatale or an objet du désir.
© 2017 AGP