Jean Pierre Melville Season – Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961)
One of the incidental pleasures of a retrospective film season is the ability to ‘fill in the corners’ as Bilbo Baggins likes to say, to complete the picture of certain directors oeuvre with the final few straggling pieces of the jigsaw. Such is the case with Léon Morin, Prêtre which roughly translates as Léon Morin, Priest, a not unprecedented drift away from the gangster genre for Jean Pierre-Melville, where the murky trench-coats and tilted fedoras have been exchanged for serene dog collars and aromatic rosemary beads. On the surface it might seem a significant shift of operations for Melville from his usual affinity for the criminal milieu, but a quick peek under the cassock reveals the second major theme of his career – the Occupation. Through a small cluster of films Melville charted the mental and physical distress of the Nazi subjugation, of the poisonous acquiescence of the Vichy regime, a quite specific and esoteric fringe of the war picture overshadowed by Melville’s own Army Of Shadows which alongside Le Chagrin et la Pitié are widely regarded as the definitive works on the dark chasm between 1941 and the summer of 1944. In Léon Morin, Priest these years provide the fragile moral and psychological backdrop between a Catholic Priest (Jean-Pierre Belmondo) and a wayward member of his flock, the confused recently widowed single mother Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, recently seen in Haneke’s haunting Amour). After a spiky verbal confessional Barny and Leon pirouette through a series of theological debates, intellectually jabbing and darting at each other’s ideological positions as the Second World War is waged in the background, and the day to day lives of the citizenry undergo significant social and political change. For Father Leon faith is love, a moral certainty in a physical world rent asunder by man’s baser instincts. Barny is the pragmatist, preferring to live in the moment with some scandalous thoughts on the physicality of our corporeal forms. As the war and its compounded effects stretch out from months into years Barny’s undergoes a spiritual epiphany, uncertain whether her unrequited feelings can ever hope to be reciprocated.
Riva’s voiceover leads the film and is the primary pathfinder for the audience, besotted with a female colleague in a strangely asexual way during the opening scenes it begins with quite an unusual plot thread for the period , as she confides her affections to her friend in their male asphyxiated world. Initially the Italians are the occupying force and seem largely removed and remote from the day-to-day lifestyles of the population, but when they are relieved by Nazi forces the tone turns quite different. The quiet resolution, implacable resistance etched on to the citizens faces comes to the fore from a visual standpoint, while plot-wise we witness the small acts of resistance and struggle on a domestic basis – Jewish children are baptized as catholic in efforts to thwart the racial profiling for example. The general mood of life shifts to the more dangerous and sparse, a fascinating glimpse of the desperate scrabble for comfort and nutrition under the oppressive regime, powered by a detail driven authenticity of those who lived through such times. Aligned with the physical struggle is the spiritual which is where the film really begins to take off, as Riva seeks possible solace from the cruelties and loneliness of daily life through an ecclesiastical embrace. Melville has her eyes glitter like precious stones in the initial confession booth scene, then cuts along strange axis to suggest a combatative yet warm bond with Belmondo’s clergyman, marking the piece as warmer and more intimate than anything else in Melville’s career we’ve seen so far, despite the barren environments of a shattering World War. There are no great excessive scenes of drama, the repercussions of the Occupation are met with a regret and cool fortitude, but there are no direct conflicts until after liberation the Germans are replaced with the Americans.
I’ve never quite understood the alleged charm of Jean-Paul Belmondo, unlike Alain Delon or perhaps Jean Gabin he never seemed to emanate any continental charm, but I suppose there is something of a Tom Hardy loucheness to his rather simian sexuality. Riva is the real emotional core of the picture of course, the lost spirit who desperately seeks the succour of ethereal concepts in the most pressing of times, the physical and incorporeal wrestling for pre-eminence in the cauldron of conflict. One other high level consideration that struck me after Spotlight and a press screening of this is the contemporary conception of the clergy in cinema. They don’t occupy the same position of authority as they did, as in a mirror to the real world their role and proximity of our social and cultural life seems to have diminished. Well, that’s certainly the case in my limited experience I suppose, other parts of the world and communities retain a strong religious constitution, but from a media perspective they are rarely the dispensers of placid wisdom, or symbolic champions of truth and docile piety, as there would be in the thematic lacing to the likes of Hitchcock’s I Confess, Angels With Dirty Faces or Bresson’s Diary Of A Country Priest. Now when we see a priest one of our first instincts to ensure no adolescents are left unattended in his audience, as they occupy a much more villainous role, here is a list of recent portrayals of the current clergy. It’s the battle between faith and the physical which starts to ricochet between the leads , Melville shooting dialogue scenes through lattice work foregrounds or isolated compositions, signalling a remote moral anguish matching the threats of the defilers, the alien. As the choir rises Léon Morin, Priest dons its cassock as one sleek metaphor for capitulation, of enduring or ignoring the wider repercussions of the invisible deportations, the suddenly displaced members of the formerly close community. Melville laces the film with a cluster of great moments, one day dreaming reverie is among one of the best of those difficult representations of our shared, wandering furtive imaginations, in another a fit of unexpected fury causes Barny to slap a smart-alec colleague who is making blasphemous comments, whom after striking her target stares at her hand as if it was some foreign interloper, amused with a quiet measure of appreciation and wonder.
The film arrived on the crest of the nouvelle vague which Godard had detonated only two years earlier with Belmondo’s lip-quivering grunting in Breathless, while Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player had opened the year before. Léon Morin, Priest benefits from this new ease, the new looseness that was permeating the continental cinema scene, not striking me as potentially staid and somber that the subject matter could dictate. Even less than two decades since the liberation there was a great reservoir of guilt and soul searching throughout the French psyche, so although this film wasn’t a hit its stature has grown to include a Criertion release in 2011. The banter between Riva and Belmondo while chaste has the temperature of growling volcano of lust, at least from Riva’s side of the confessional, even if the tryst must remain unconsummated in the physical realm. Instead the films seems preoccupied with the flora and fauna of storytelling, the way eyes glance over a row of coat buttons, or hands trace across the address decals of an apartment block, the frayed threads in a distressed overcoat, the little moments of life of idle inconsequence where the divine can secretly reside. This is a gentle film in many ways a world away from Melville’s stoic gangsters, a flourishing friendship blossoming in fraught surroundings, nourished by a spiritual hunger into an unrequited love. At the end Barney, like her native France, is a defeated but not extinguished spirit, stronger and mournful for her ordeal, but certain to endure;