Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In the pantheon of female erotic fantasies, seducing a priest sits near the top. The female adventurer requires a challenge, and bedding a celibate who probably is a virgin is one of the biggest challenges of all. Stealing him from no less a rival than God bestows on the victorious woman a thrilling sense of power as well. Léon Morin, Priest is based on an autobiographical book by a woman that might not have been the bodice ripper this film seems to be. Nonetheless, Jean-Pierre Melville’s screen adaptation manages to generate an erotic charge that perhaps the author would have approved of.
The film is set in a small town in occupied France. Our narrator, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva, a sensation after her appearance in Hiroshima, Mon Amour), introduces us to her world—a town filled with Italian soldiers in bright uniforms with feathered caps and an office filled with women. Barny’s husband was killed in fighting, and a lonely and sexually frustrated Barny has formed a crush on Sabine Levy (Nicole Mirel), an elegant, androgynous woman who is assistant to the company’s director.
Barny is a communist and atheist who decides to have some fun one day at the expense of the Catholic Church. She chooses St. Bernard’s as her crime scene and selects the priest taking confession who has the most proletarian name—Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo, fresh from his star turn in Breathless). Once inside the confessional, she carries on a challenging, irreverent conversation about her atheist, beginning with the classic Marxist line, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Despite her scorn for his beliefs, the priest assigns her a penitent’s task—to kneel and pray for forgiveness. “On the soft cushions at the pews?” she asks sarcastically. “No, on the flagstones,” Morin instructs. He invites her to come to his chambers for further discussion. As Barny exits the confessional, she looks back toward where the priest sits hidden from her, walks toward the exit, and kneels very briefly on the stone floor.
On her first visit to Morin’s chambers, Barny confesses that she has done very little reading about Christianity. She explains her atheism by her need to see with her own eyes that God exists. The priest counters that with proof, the world loses faith, which he seems to think it needs. After a bit more verbal sparring, he sends her home with a thick book, and asks her to return three days later. Although Barny says she’ll never finish reading the book by then, she spends every spare minute with her nose buried between its covers. She can’t wait to return. Of course she can’t. She’s meeting Jean-Paul Belmondo!
It’s pretty funny watching Barny pursue God, eventually becoming a believer like a flash of lightning while cleaning out her attic, without realizing—at least not all at once—that God isn’t what she’s after at all. She interprets Morin’s questions and actions as sexual provocation. For example, when he asks in confession if her hand is clean, she unashamedly admits to masturbating. He tells her she has been without a man for too long; she says she uses a stick. He’s not put off by this boldness, but rather only asks her if it hurts. When he seems to make a point of coming behind her in church and brushing her sleeve, she’s sure that her feelings are returned. Naturally, when she asks him if he’d marry her if he were a Protestant minister, he jokingly answers, “Of course.” When she shows she is serious, he takes the axe he has been using to cut some wood for her stove—taking over this job she had been doing quite capably herself—and angrily embeds it into the chopping block.
Aspects of the war intrude on this hothouse, such as obtaining baptism certificates for a number of the half-Jewish children, including Barny’s young daughter, hiding these children from the Germans who supplant the Italians in the village, and watching Sabine age rapidly and lose her appeal when her brother is arrested by the Gestapo. Fortunately for Barny, her regard has turned elsewhere.
Does Morin know what he is doing? It’s hard to believe that someone so acutely aware of human foibles could be completely unaware of his seductiveness. Perhaps he thinks brusqueness and philosophizing will be his shield, but this brusqueness and intelligence are fatal charms for Barny. They both enjoy the intellectual stimulation of their conversations. He seems to feel comfortable manhandling and bossing Barny throughout this film, pushing her out of the way when he has an elderly parishioner approach him with a question and patronizingly choosing books for her to read until he decides to let her choose for herself. In fact, many of the women in this film approach the young priest for advice, with one mankiller giving her seduction her all, only to have Morin pull her tight skirt over her exposed knees. His youth, good looks, manly command, and unattainability make him irresistible. It’s clear that Belmondo is having a blast playing the forbidden fruit, both complicit and clinically outside the game. This type of character not only is a favorite for Belmondo, but also for his director, Jean-Pierre Melville.
For her part, Riva builds her obsession patiently. She’s an intelligent and subtle actress who helps us sympathize with her character even as we see how foolish and blind she is allowing herself to be. We’re used to seeing people react to the tension of Nazi occupation in the movies, but this type of reaction is something quite different. Wartime is supposed to make individuals throw caution to the wind, and Barny certainly does, from giving up her communist/atheist beliefs to declaring her feelings for Morin and praying to God that He will, just once, grant her desire to have sex with the priest. Morin, however, throws the cliché of surrender out the window.
The war finally ends, and Barny, separated from Morin since he stormed out on her, finally goes to visit him. Her employer is returning to Paris, and Morin is off to become a country priest. She surveys the room in which her lust grew, seeing outlines of the furniture on the bare walls and those precious books sitting in crates. Morin appears, and they say their good-byes. The wartime madness recedes, and life goes on.