Film buffs most familiar with Jean-Pierre Melville’s taut, laconic crime dramas (among them Bob Le Flambeur, 1956, and Le Samourï, 1967) may consider this something of a departure for the director. But for Melville, who joined the Resistance and Free French Forces during World War II, this is an equally characteristic work. As J. Hoberman pointed out in a 2017 New York Times article about the film, Melville’s reputation may rest on his stylish noirs, but “the heart of his oeuvre” beats in the sensitive, evocative studies of occupation and resistance created in Le silence de la mer/The Silence of the Sea (1949), L’Armée des Ombres/Army of Shadows (1969) and this intimate story of the relationship between a priest and a young widow in a French town during the Nazi occupation.
Barny, a communist, atheist and single mother, baptizes her half-Jewish daughter to protect her from the Nazis but has no respect for the Catholic Church or any other religion. As a provocation, she goes to confession not to expiate her sins but to start an argument with the eponymous parish priest. Thinking she’s about to best a working-class bumpkin, she is instead disarmed by the young man’s calm, intelligence and complex morality and more than a little turned on by his rugged good looks. The two begin to meet on a regular basis for debates and discussions of church teachings and the place of faith in a cruel and chaotic world.
That may sound at worst deadly dull and at best more like a Bresson film. But there is much more going on here than a simple plot summary can convey, not least the sexual tension ignited by the desires of the local women for the attractive cleric in a town mostly devoid of other men. That’s only heightened by the fact that the priest is played by Jean-Paul Belmondo, still fresh in everyone’s minds as the sexy small-time thief of Breathless (1960), and the widow is Emmanuelle Riva, the actress caught up in a passionate affair in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). Although the sexual undercurrent is always palpably there, Melville doesn’t play to expectations of seduction, opting instead for something more complex and transcendent.
Likewise, the film avoids simplistic notions of “good” and “bad,” “right” and “wrong” – a German soldier is depicted sympathetically, a liberating American GI is seen as crude and sexually threatening. In this respect, Léon Morin reveals its connection to Melville’s crime dramas, where the criminals often show greater honor and loyalty than the authorities tracking them. As Gary Indiana noted in his essay for the Criterion Collection, the film is “fortified by its lack of didacticism, its emphasis on anomaly: moral clarity is elusive at best, and even the most righteous people are a mess of contradictions.”
The story is based on a novel that won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. Melville thought the book was “the most accurate picture I have read of the life of French people under the occupation.” His original intention for the film was to follow author Béatrix Beck’s more expansive narrative, but ultimately he went for a more stripped down and narrowly focused take on the book’s themes, packing them into a handful of characters that exhibit a range of actions and attitudes in their responses to wartime conditions.
In France, Léon Morin, Priest was critically praised and more commercially successful than Melville’s previous movies. Although the American art house vogue for French New Wave pictures was heating up at the time, the film was only briefly released in the U.S. under the salaciously wrongheaded title “The Forbidden Sinner.” When it officially opened in New York in 2009, with the restoration of a short scene cut from the initial American release (depicting the widow’s harassment by a GI), New York Times critic Manohla Dargis noted: “What is remarkable is the depth of feeling he exacts from the juxtaposition of these ordinary moments with their extraordinary context. When Melville cuts to some Resistance fighters leaving the baptism and returning to the woods that shelter them, it’s as if you were watching fathers leaving for that day’s work.”
Melville was pleased with the film’s success. Working with a larger budget than he had on any of his previous projects, he was eager to be noticed as more than a niche independent filmmaker. “I made it for the producer and the mass audience,” he said. “I’ve had enough of being an auteur maudit, a maverick who can’t be trusted.”
Although now considered an influential forerunner of the French New Wave, Melville’s relationship to that loose movement was always tenuous, and its more doctrinaire critics and theorists did not appreciate his bid for wider audience acceptance. But even they eventually came around, recognizing the film’s power and its blend of classical cinematic style with the casting, acting and location shooting more closely associated with the groundbreaking new films coming out of France. That connection was furthered by Henri Decaë, longtime director of photography for Melville (a total of 7 films beginning with Melville’s debut in Le silence de la mer) and for other notable New Wave films (Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, 1959; Claude Chabrol’s The Cousins, 1959). The musical score was composed by Martial Solal, who wrote the music for Godard’s Breathless.
German director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, 1979; Death of a Salesman, 1985) served as assistant director, as he would on Melville’s next film, the crime drama Le doulos (1962), also starring Belmondo. Schlöndorff also played an uncredited role as a German soldier.
The story was retold under the same title for a 1991 episode of the French television series La grande collection.
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producers: Georges de Beauregard, Carlo Ponti
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville, from the novel by Béatrix Beck
Cinematography: Henri Decaë
Editing: Jacqueline Meppiel
Production Design: Daniel Guéret
Music: Martial Solal
Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo (Léon Morin), Emmanuelle Riva (Barny), Irène Tunc (Christine Sangredin), Nicole Mirel (Sabine Levy), Gisèle Grimm (Lucienne), Marco Behar (Edelman)
By Rob Nixon