Like many other filmmakers of his generation, Jean-Pierre Melville was the kind of man so committed to his profession that he would go as far as to change his name to pay tribute to one of his icons. When he changed his surname from Grumbach to Melville, in honor of his favorite author (Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame), the iconoclast auteur did one of the many things that would inspire younger directors in his country to take film more seriously as an art, by bending the rules of how it’s made.
In his native France, Melville became one of the first directors to use documentary techniques to shoot fiction films and this—along with his constant homaging to classic Hollywood—were some of the bases for what then would become known as the nouvelle vague: the French new Wave. While Melville has become more known for his stylish noirs and gangster films, his career extends all the way back to the mid-‘40s, when he made different movies: tales that dealt with the Occupation and were often filtered through the eyes of children.
Jean Cocteau commissioned him to direct a film version of his Les enfants terribles and at the beginning of the ‘60s he was asked to direct a film version of Béatrix Beck’s 1952 novel The Passionate Heart which dealt with some of the themes the director had more than made his own.
Set in a small French village during the Occupation, Léon Morin, Priest stars Emanuelle Riva as Barny, a young widow trying to cope with survival during the war. She is a Communist militant and mother to a half-Jewish little girl, meaning that she has it much harder than the rest of the women she works with. Stricken by her misfortune and her sudden realization that she might have sexual desires for another woman, she enters a Catholic church in search of answers. She goes straight to the confession booth where she is met by the young priest, the eponymous Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo).
The confession doesn’t go well, as Barny pokes fun at the idea of the ritual and devotes the entire confession to talking about how she knew the very idea of confessing was ridiculous. While she questions faith and Catholicism, the priest just listens and remains completely nonconfrontational. Angered by this reaction Barny decides to leave, not before Morin invites her to come over to his house later. He promises to lend her a book that will answer some of her questions.
Perhaps intrigued by the repressed sexual desires that might erupt out of this handsome, enigmatic man, she goes to his house, where lo and behold, he lends her a book and sends her home. In awe at the man’s lack of sexual interest, Barny decides to come back for more and they soon develop a friendship. Léon gives Barny books and they meet every week to discuss them.
Despite its seemingly predictable plot, Léon Morin, Priest is not the kind of movie you’d expect it to be. There are never scenes of sudden enlightenment, none of the main characters seem to carry a proselytizing agenda and the mood overall deftly combines sensuality with political and spiritual themes.
Part of the film’s success is owed to its ace casting. Belmondo, who was on the verge of becoming the poster child for the New Wave, makes the most out of his movie star looks to deliver a strangely appealing performance. In an interview included in this Criterion DVD, Belmondo and his director discuss the casting. Melville affirms that few actors could be as masculine and sensitive as Belmondo, comparing him to Humphrey Bogart.
When the young actor was hired for this movie, he was just coming off his international success as the lead antihero in Godard’s Breathless and his career was merely beginning. So was Riva’s who a few years before had starred in the sensuous and groundbreaking Hiroshima mon amour. You could say then that by casting two figures who were revolutionising the idea of making movies and putting them in more “regular” settings, Melville was once more playing with people’s expectations.
Riva and Belmondo being two of the most popular movie stars of their time, sharing screen time for the first time, and not being involved in a physical romantic affair must’ve seemed ludicrous for audiences. There is always a feeling of muted sexual desire in Léon Morin, Priest, most of which comes surprisingly from Barny, who looks at Léon with ferocity and need. Could the film then work as a feminist essay of unrequited love? The truth is that Léon Morin, Priest does its job quite well on several levels and might send you off wondering about the notion of good and evil in times of war, the advantages of using movie stars in smaller roles and even if the teachings of Christ are valid.
Melville, always the faithful lover of cinema, does his most symbolic move in an almost unnoticeable way: he places Léon’s presbytery across from the modern cinema. Movies were the only church Melville worshiped at.