So what’s the deal with the priest?
Much has been said of the eponymous clergyman’s moral intrigue. His façade of almost cocksure piety, the intellectual judo he engages in his apologetics, and his verging-on-predatory manipulation of the young women in his parish. Jean-Pierre Melville doesn’t give much reason to doubt the “purity” of his intentions: he never sleeps with the women, but nonetheless seems aware of their admiration and does not discourage their private meetings with him. He is a handsome young man, and in a town seemingly bereft of such, is it any wonder many of the women flock to him? For some of them, sex isn’t even what’s desired: solely his presence, for a good deal of the husbands have run off to the forest to join the French Resistance to the Nazi occupation, and Léon Morin seems all-too-willing to simply utilize the possibility of sexual transgression (to sleep with a priest!) in order to create a captive audience. But an audience for what? And is there something deeper going on, something Morin himself would be loath to uncover?
For Barny (played by the incandescent Emmanuelle Riva), sex is what’s desired. It represents a culmination of sorts, for her. Bereft of God (she is a communist), widowed (her Jewish husband has died in the war), and sexually open (she crushes on one of her coworkers at the relocated wartime correspondence school, a beautiful secretary named Sabine), Barny does not seem so much repressed as she does availed of good options. This is an important point to make, as “repressed” is a loaded word, and it might be tempting to locate the source of Barny’s frustration in her, manifesting out of some unhealthy psychological baggage, as opposed to the machinations of the clergyman. There is nothing in Léon Morin, Priest to indicate that Barny, a bright, attractive and thoroughly secularized young woman, possesses any thorny complexes concerning her sexual desires – she even seems to dismissively analyze her feelings for Sabine as pure idealization, purging any kind of homoerotic transgression from their loaded exchange of gazes. Originally from Paris, and with her daughter in someone else’s care (in fear of the girl’s Jewish lineage making her a target for Nazi deportation), she lives alone, with mostly female company, and the men who work alongside her too old for serious consideration. The occupying soldiers (first Italians, then the Germans) are the enemy: in Jean-Pierre Melville’s world, to sleep with them would be a sin far greater than religious conversion, and is thus never an option. Sure, there’s stoppage, of a kind, but Barny seems – above all else – to be bored out of her mind, resulting in her intellectual prank on the clergy at St. Bernard’s. […]