Editor's note: The notes below were used by Max Berghouse as his introduction to the film "Leon Morin, Priest" as part of the season of films by Jean-Pierre Melville shown at the Ritz Cinema Randwick in October and November in association with Cinema Reborn and StudioCanal. The original notes have been slightly amended to reflect very useful comments made by some members of the audience.
When I was first invited to introduce this film, certainly one of the maestro's mature films, it was on the basis that the Cinema Reborn Organising Committee thought I would be able to make something worthwhile of what might appear to be a "theological" film. I don't think I have the qualifications to do that but I shall mention this aspect of the film later. I decided I would speak directly from my own experience of this film and, hoping to clarify its meaning and purpose, to compare it with another film Brief Encounter (1945). I thought this was very clever on my part! Then I discovered that there were to be some truly experienced and highly regarded cinema critics amongst the other introducers which suggested to me that I should do some background research. It turns out that Brief Encounter was a favourite of Mr Melville.
Brief Encounter is the story of an intense but completely platonic relationship between a couple, married to others. In the film they renounce their relationship to return to their pre-existing life. This film is said to be the last English film in which a sense of obligation or duty trumps personal happiness and satisfaction. In this case the film purports to support the institution of marriage, I think partly at least as a matter of support of existing society. It's not as if the director, David Lean, particularly believed in the permanency of marriage: he was married six times and the storyline itself from Noel Coward is a story from the man who was albeit discreetly, a significantly promiscuous gay man.
Although the expression wasn't used at this time, this public support of "institutions" even if one did not personally believe in them or practise them, is a hallmark of the "neo-Conservative movement". Melville was notoriously unfaithful to his long-suffering and patient wife. By the time of this film' s genesis, his political views had shifted from nebulous leftism to hard right radicalism, although to what extent this was an histrionic pose, I'm not sure. In any event he was certainly attracted to an authoritarian relatively right wing view of the world.
Leon Morin, Priest follows a very similar logic. Personally, Mr Melville had tired of being an art film director and wanted to make commercial films with the attendant higher budgets and hopefully more "bums on seats". As a background, in 1958 the right wing conservative General de Gaulle returned to office as the president of the new Fifth Republic. The president was a known supporter of the Catholic Church and held very conservative views – although these views did not necessarily inhibit his political actions. There was a renewed interest in the Catholic Church because it was only shortly afterwards that the great revolutionary conclave, Vatican II, was held. The film is based upon a very highly regarded semiautobiographical work (Beatrice Beck, "The Passionate Heart") which was a bestseller in France, although forgotten today. So it seemed to have all the hallmarks of the requirements of the director: intellectual integrity and commercial success.
French films about the Occupation were initially, for about a decade after the end of the war, fairly uniform in their view as to the unified resistance of the French people to the Germans and support for the underground and the free French. Around this time (late 1950s – early 1960s) a more honest and nuanced perspective became public including in cinema. There were indeed the general "resistants" who were active in defiance of the Germans, there were the "attendants" who waited round trying to discern the lie of the land and there were those who actively supported the Germans. All these tendencies can be seen in the film. Since in my view French cinema has only been able to deal with this whole issue of the occupation with honesty in the 21st century (many will disagree with this I'm sure) it was probably unwise to be so balanced in presentation. This illustrates a distinctive characteristic of the director in that he was defiant and quite prepared to do whatever he thought he wanted, unencumbered generally by studio pressures.
The film is a mix, as one would expect of interior/studio work and exterior filming. It doesn't fit in naturally to the current critical perception of the "hero' s journey" construction where the "protagonist" is faced with an "antagonist".
|Jean-Paul Belmondo, Emmanuelle Riva|
The film stars Emmanuelle Riva as Barny and John Paul Belmondo as Morin. Most of the exterior scenes feature Riva much more strongly. These are the scenes essentially of colour and vitality.They equate to the long French tradition of "quality cinema". Contrariwise the scenes in which Belmondo is more strongly featured are interior: the church, his presbytery, the confessional. All very spare, cool in terms of decoration and essentially devoid of humanity. All these scenes are clearly "noir" inspired.
The priest' s behaviour is pretty much what one would expect of a priest at that time. Belmondo who was superficially playing a role unlike his previous "exterior" and action driven performances, doesn't really come into his own until I think about halfway through the movie. Thereafter he is like his female star Miss Riva’s performance, faultless. I think all these factors have helped some critics to view the film as one in which the female performer is the star and Belmondo is simply the co-star. I think this is a wrong inference. It is however a fair conclusion to come to because Morin, no matter how intense, is essentially unchanged throughout the film whereas Barny undergoes very profound changes. But to come to this as a final conclusion is to ignore the director' own deeply held perspectives on life.
Morin is clearly a very dedicated and highly intelligent priest. Anyone who knows anything about the Catholic Church knows that a priest with these qualities is almost certainly rebellious and often sent "to the provinces" to pacify the rebellion in him. On top of that Morin is an "activist" – he assists and believes in the resistance. He is both a man of interior dedication and external action. He is the Catholic equivalent of the "muscular Christian" which is an essentially Protestant tradition
The consistent protagonist in all of Melville's films is a loner. He lives by a code which can be specifically religious or just generally quasi-religious. I mean religious in the sense that there is a clear demarcation between what should be done and what should not be done and that in the latter case punishment must ensue. Melville's heroes are all "samurais", obedient to a specific code to which they are attached by virtue of intellect rather than emotion. I should however note that Barny does get lots of "airtime" but I suggest that this is to show up her subjectivity whereas Morin always remains "objective. The competent professional Barny ultimately becomes obsessed with an unapproachable and unattainable object: the priest whom, whatever his loneliness, might be (shown particularly in terms of his austere surroundings, is never going to forsake his vows.
Like other Melville protagonists he combines heroic masculinity with asexuality. Quite clearly the film identifies completely and overtly with the patriarchy represented by the church. Another aspect of the film to take note of (and this is entirely consistent with, it seems to me, all his other films) is a genuine appreciation of period. I can't comment obviously about the accuracy of village life, "dress and look" in south-west France in 1945, but it seems to me as accurate as all his other films. By this I mean that his creation of the period is accurate with the village folk commingling with outsiders who are essentially living out of a suitcase. In many of his other films, set in the then present day, reviewers all note characteristic features: the men wear hats, when this had long since ceased to be fashionable; they were trench coats and belted up ones at that whereas in reality this was part of the "Anglosphere". But the net effect is to create a sort of hyper- reality which over the long-term becomes more powerful than genuine reality!
I have been led to believe that I was asked to give this introduction because I could make some sensible references to theology. I'm not sure I can; in any event even though Melville employed an active priest as consultant, the "theology" is pretty much "cod theology" which is readily comprehensible regardless of the viewer' s prior background. It's not important in itself and is simply part of the mise-en-scène. Melville himself said that the film was not about religion. It is a pity then that many admirers of Melville's works dismiss this film because of its purported theological dimension. While this part of the film is accurate so far as it goes, it is only a device.
The copy of this film you will be seeing today is quite superb and what we see is I think exactly what cinema going audiences saw when the film was first released.