Thursday, July 22, 2010

I'm a Believer

LEON MORIN, PRIEST / Lèon Morin, Prêtre
(Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1961, 35mm, 117 mins.)

There's not a trace of doubt in my mind.
-- Neil Diamond
, "I'm a Believer"

Lèon Morin, Priest provides persuasive evidence that French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville didn't just make movies about men, like Bob le Flambeur and Le Samouraï, but about women, too. And from a female perspective.

For a director responsible for some of the best tough-guy films ever made, he had a sensitive--but not sentimental--side for which he still doesn't receive due credit, as exemplified by La Silence de la Mer, which also takes place during wartime.

Arriving in American theaters 49 years after its debut, his adaptation of Béatrix Beck's semi-autobiographical novel centers on Mrs. Barny (Hiroshima, Mon Amour's soulful Emmanuelle Riva), instructor at a correspondence school. In her opening narration, the widow describes the Italian soldiers descending on Saint-Bernard during the Occupation, noting how silly they look in their feathered caps.

Formerly known as The Forbidden Sinner

In an era in which same-sex attraction wasn't exactly encouraged, Barny acknowl-
edges a crush on Sabine (Nicole Mirel), the school's voluptuous personal assistant,
who boasts a silhouette similar to that of Mad Men's Joan (Christina Hendricks).

"The sight of her," Barny exults, "sent me flying through time and space," adding
that she "felt an intense pleasure when my gaze sparred with hers." To Barny, Sa-
bine is more like a figure from Greek literature than an object of desire. Quips her
roommate, "In short, you want to sleep with her." Barny denies any such intention.

Nonetheless, few men populate the village, since many have left to join the Resis-
tance. That leaves priests, like Lèon (Jean-Paul Belmondo, between Breathless and Melville's Le Doulos). Barny, a confirmed communist, meets him in the confession booth, where she aims to shock, but the open-minded Morin has a clever rejoinder for everything she says. (Despite her antipathy for Catholics, Barny's half-Jewish daughter, France, undergoes a baptism to protect her from the incoming Nazis.)

Lèon encourages her to take advantage of the parish library, which she does, read-
ing several books on faith. He wants to teach, she wants to learn. There is no im-
propriety. Each time, she notices the minor repairs to his cassock (the camera al-
ways see him through her eyes, which is to say: Melville's equally besotted gaze).

When the Nazis start to round up Jews, the school director doesn't say a word,
just looks profoundly uncomfortable. The implication is clear: like Melville (né
Jean-Pierre Grumbach), he's Jewish. No one, except Barny, seems to notice,
such that the occasional anti-Semitic remark ensues. "Jews aren't part of the
French race," states a colleague. Counters another, "There is no French race."

Melville and furry friend

Barny soon learns that other women seek out the priest for spiritual guidance. One
even attempts to seduce him. As the world around them changes, Barny and Lèon
change, as well, but not in the ways one might expect. The description of the film
as a love story implies a forbidden affair like the one in The Thorn Birds, except Lè-
on Morin
isn't a soap opera, despite Melville's flirtation with Sirk-style melodrama.

It is, instead, a film about faith and about life during wartime, but it's also about a chaste (if sexually charged) male-female friendship. Whether or not the priest and the widow are attracted to each other, they certainly find each other of interest.

As such, it's more talkative than Melville's other movies combined--or at least it seems that way--but the dialogue always engages. As do Riva and Belmondo. The lack of action may frustrate some, but it's his most heartfelt effort after Army of Shadows (a veteran of the Resistance, he felt a connection to both source novels).

In the end, Barny is one of Melville's strong females, like Army's Mathilde (Simone Signoret). She isn't a man in drag, though she does possess androgynous qualities.

His insistence that women don't have to be overtly feminine (though some do con-
form to that image), that they can be brave (Mathilde gives her life for the cause), and that they can be the intellectual equal of any man, doesn't make him a fem-
inist filmmaker in the conventional sense, but it does make him progressive, and helps to explain his enduring appeal. This is a beautiful, heartbreaking film.

Lèon Morin, Priest plays the Northwest Film Forum from 7/23-29. The NWFF is lo-
cated at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill. For more informa-
tion, please click here or call 206-829-7863. Images from Rialto Pictures and Shooting Down Pictures (click the link for a review of Le Deuxième Souffle).