Léon Morin, prêtre

France/Italy 1961, 117 mins
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Between Le Silence de la mer and Léon Morin, prêtre, Melville’s career had had its ups and downs. Quand tu liras cette lettre… had done well commercially but not critically, Bob le flambeur and Deux hommes dans Manhattan rather the opposite. Deux hommes dans Manhattan marked the low point in terms of box-office of all his films. After that, he ‘had had enough of being an auteur maudit known only to a handful of crazy film-buffs’. His attempts at being a producer had not worked out, and as ‘Georges de Beauregard and Carlo Ponti wanted me to make a film for them, I finally decided to adapt Léon Morin, prêtre’. With its big-shot producer, large budget and stars, and its popular success – more than 1.7 million people saw it in France, which made it Melville’s biggest success so far – Léon Morin, prêtre was a turning point, marking Melville’s move to mainstream filmmaking, a position he would occupy to the end of his career.

When Léon Morin, prêtre was released on 22 September 1961, the reputation of Béatrix Beck’s Goncourt-winning novel, the film’s stars and its potentially ‘scabrous’ topic all conspired to make it something of an event. A Catholic consultant, Father Lepoutre, was on hand to assist Melville with advice, and the then powerful Centrale Catholique duly gave it its seal of approval, as did the censorship commission. Melville’s relationship with Beck was a lot easier than with Vercors. Although present at the rushes she did not take part in the adaptation and declared herself very happy with the film and its cast. Léon Morin, prêtre narrowly missed being part of the French selection at Venice that year, but was shown out of competition and was awarded the Venice City prize. Given the film’s subject matter, French critics predictably split in their reactions along ideological lines. The film was highly praised by the Catholic daily La Croix and the right-wing Le Figaro (‘an honest, moving and beautiful film – like the novel which it reproduces so faithfully’) and harshly criticised by left-wing papers like L’Humanité and Combat (‘recalls Bresson, but more vulgar and more insistent’). The majority of critics however hailed the quality of Melville’s filmmaking: as Le Canard enchaîné’s Michel Duran put it: ‘It won’t make me go to Mass, but I like this film.’ Belmondo and Riva’s performances received ecstatic praise.

The casting of two famous New Wave actors – Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Paul Belmondo – as the protagonists of Léon Morin, prêtre stirred much interest in 1961 and contributed to the popular success of the film. While the relationship between Melville and the New Wave had already entered a difficult phase, Riva and Belmondo anchored Léon Morin, prêtre in the New Wave canon in the public perception at the time, despite its stylistic hybridity. Riva was (and would be forever) associated with her role as ‘Elle’ in Hiroshima, mon amour, in which she plays a French actress who goes to Hiroshima to act in a documentary about the bomb; her affair with a Japanese man helps her recall a traumatic relationship with a German soldier in Nevers during the war. Riva, together with Jeanne Moreau, embodied a new femininity: sexy in a ‘realistic’, less glamorous, and intellectual way (compared with sex symbols like Brigitte Bardot), related to the sensitivity and modernity of the New Wave films. Melville was struck by Riva’s talent and, apparently, resemblance to Beck. He used her screen persona to the full: her ‘new woman’ image as well as her dual association, born of Hiroshima, with war and sexual transgression. His extensive use of voiceover also showcased Riva’s famous voice, a unique blend of cultured and halting elocution, lyrical yet fragile tones. The very first images of Riva with 1940s hairstyle and clothing riding a bicycle in Léon Morin, prêtre thus place her in the Hiroshima lineage. Later, when the two old ladies who looked after her daughter say jubilantly that they have come to watch the parade of women with their heads shaven, again Hiroshima comes to mind. Reviewer Jean Collet echoed many others when he said ‘she seems never to have left Nevers’. Even some musical passages by Martial Solal evoke Giovanni Fusco’s avant-garde score for Resnais’ film.

Melville says he had waited for a suitable actor for Morin since the publication of the book in 1952. He found him in Jean-Paul Belmondo, the overnight sensation of A bout de souffle, who set a new pattern for modern French masculinity: cynical, athletic and nonchalant, unconventionally sexy. The success of A bout de souffle launched Belmondo on a prolific career (nine films in less than two years between A bout de souffle and Léon Morin, prêtre) and his currency was high in 1961. Melville’s use of Belmondo is complex. A priest was, to say the least, against type compared to the thrillers and comedies Belmondo was used to; indeed he took some convincing before accepting the part. However, Melville was right, it is precisely the contrast between his A bout de souffle star persona and his identity as priest which creates Morin’s sexual and emotional charge. A survey conducted by the Catholic publication Les Amis du film indicated that Morin had been dubbed a ‘New Wave priest – a priest with a direct, honest and virile attitude, a kind of comrade.’

Together, Riva and Belmondo lent modernity, sex-appeal and ‘New Waveness’ to a story that would otherwise have appeared dusty and old-fashioned, with its theological discussions set in a drab small town. Even the distinguished Catholic novelist François Mauriac was moved to comment on the quality of Belmondo and Riva’s performances in Le Figaro littéraire.
Ginette Vincendeau, Jean-Pierre Melville ‘An American in Paris’ (BFI, 2003)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Production Companies: Rome-Paris Films (Paris), Compagnia Cinematografica Champion
Producer: Georges de Beauregard
Production Managers: Marcel Georges, Edith Tertza, Bruna Drigo
Assistant Directors: Volker Schlöndorff, Jacqueline Parey, Luc Andrieux
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville
Based on the novel by: Béatrix Beck
Director of Photography: Henri Decaë
Camera Operators: Jean Rabier, Jean-Paul Schwartz, Claude Amiot
Stills Photography: Raymond Gauchetier
Editors: Jacqueline Meppiel, Nadine Marquand, Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte
Art Directors: Daniel Guéret, Donald Cardwell
Set Decorator: Robert Christidès
Properties: Jean Brunet, Robert Testand
Dresser: Paulette Breil
Make-up: Christine Fornelli
Titles: Jean Fouchet
Music: Martial Solal
Harmonica: Albert Raisner
Sound: Guy Villette, Jacques Maumont, Robert Cambourakis, Jean Gaudelet

Jean-Paul Belmondo (Léon Morin)
Emmanuelle Riva (Barny)
Irène Tunc (Christine)
Nicole Mirel (Sabine)
Marielle Gozzi (France)
Patricia Gozzi (France, when older)
Gisèle Grimm (Lucienne)
Marco Béhar (Edelman)
Monique Bertho (Marion)
Marc Heyraud
Nina Grégoire
Monique Hennessy (Arlette)
Edith Loria (Danielle)
Micheline Schererrer
Renée Liques
Simone Vannier, Lucienne Marchand, Nelly Pitorre (secretaries)
Ernest Varial (director)
Chantal Gozzi
Cedric Grant, George Lambert (GIs)
Gérard Buhr (German soldier)
Howard Vernon (German colonel)
Madeleine Ganne (Betty) *
Adeline Aucoc (old lady in church) *
Saint-Eve (priest) *
Volker Schlöndorff (German sentry) *

France/Italy 1961
117 mins


Léon Morin, prêtre (Léon Morin, Priest)
Mon 28 Mar 17:50; Thu 7 Apr 20:40; Sun 24 Apr 12:00
Tue 29 Mar 20:50; Thu 7 Apr 18:10; Wed 20 Apr 20:50
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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