Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville. Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Irene Tunc
Just as monster movies are often highly successful when the monster is hidden from our sight (Jaws, The Thing), so too can romances be terribly erotic when there’s absolutely no sex. Brief Encounter is such a film; it turns even the idea of a sexual liaison between the lovers into the film’s most embarrassing scene. Leon Morin, Priest makes sex even more impossible.
Father Morin (Belmondo) is implacable, and gloriously unimpeachable on the subject of his own moral duties. The one-sentence synopsis of the film usually involves the words “priest,” “women,” and “throw,” because the young priest (sorry, sorry) is handsome and does not give any real sign that he is interested in them. One woman, who fancies herself a real maneater, sits on his desk in his study with her skirt just above her knee. Not a lot, mind, just enough so we know it’s not accidental. She is in the center of the frame, far enough for us to see all of her but not so far that we can’t tell she’s attractive all over. She’s wondering if it wouldn’t be nice if Morin were a country priest and she were his maid. While she’s saying it, Morin swoops across the foreground of the shot and then positions himself to her left, but a couple feet in front of her. He’s never been all that good at being still, which is certainly no small part of what draws the lonely women of this little town to him; even if the body is hidden under his clerical robes and the collar, he still has one that is aching to move and thus reveals itself. He’s handsome in the manner of French film stars (i.e., good body, inexplicable nose), and seemingly fearless. One does not imagine a priest telling anyone that if she wants to be his maid, she’ll need to be old and ugly, but Morin does. Not long after he grabs her skirt by the hem and pulls it roughly and forcefully over her knee. His expression is stern, not playful, and the meaning is abundantly obvious. It’s also still a terribly sexy thing for him to do, and if he were not so performatively rigid just about everything he does this would seem like a come-on. The character who comes into Morin’s office and tries to seduce him exists essentially for that single scene, which foreshadows actions later which will be played for devastating effect.
The romance between Morin and Barny (Riva) is not really a romance, and yet it’s one of my favorites. Barny begins the film infatuated with her boss, Sabine (Nicole Mirel). Sabine even stands, leaning over Barny at work, her breasts falling on Barny’s back. In her first extended conversation with Morin, Barny tells the priest that she is in love with a woman. Perhaps she hopes this will shock him, but Morin is incapable of being shocked. (They meet when she tells him in the confessional that religion is an opiate of the people; he doesn’t even flinch.) It’s because all the man are gone, he says. But you’re a man, Barny replies. That’s not the same, Morin says. It’s Morin’s manifesto in one small sentence. He is not a man, not fully, and if for no other reason than that he is not an acceptable choice for a mate. I like that he says it aloud, that somehow Barny has forced him to say it aloud. It becomes part of the performance of who he is that way; in the same way that his words can give absolution, he has to speak his reservation. The first time we see him is the movie’s only crane shot; it looks down on him from above, as if God himself has his eye on this single priest.
From the beginning, Barny is a little awed by Morin; she chooses him as the priest to play a joke on because she judges by his name that he’s probably an easily offended country boy, and she’s half right. But his stoicism shocks her. In the confessional, Melville does not stay long with any one angle, but what the vast majority have in common is placing Morin in positions of greater strength. He fills the scren more than Barny, or otherwise in a deep unpierced shadow which denies her the knowledge of her target. His self-assurance – he tells her to read a book about Jesus and to report back to him about it a week later with the same kind of sureness that any teacher has that his homework assignments will be turned in – is a little intoxicating when everyone else is living tentatively. Much of the initial action of the film features Barny, who is the widow of a Jew and has a half-Jewish daughter by him, trying to get her daughter baptized so the Nazis won’t get her. The two of them strike up a friendship, meeting every Saturday morning; by pretending that he talks to her because of her intelligence, for an intellectual companionship, Morin skirts around the fact that he’s converting her. A fascinating thing happens. She decides that she must become a Catholic (which, like any good priest, Morin problematizes). She loves God but does not love everyone else; everyone else, compared to God, is worthless. Surrounded by vapid coworkers – the most bearable of the bunch, excepting Sabine, who carries significantly less wonder for her now, is collaborationist Christine (Tunc) – and with her daughter living in a safer place and with the Nazis swarming and her husband dead, Barny is clearly anchoring on Morin, not God. Morin must recognize this, but apparently decides not to address it. He exacerbates it instead. He begins showing up at her house. He brushes her purposefully with his robe during Mass. He tells Christine to adopt the simple nature of Communist women, which of course means Barny. (The film, to its credit, sexualizes Barny far less than it sexualizes Morin, though it’s impossible not to recognize Riva’s beauty. She is brainy and thoughtful, and the film is primarily about a brainy and thoughtful woman who happens to be lovely.) The text lets us assume that Morin is, however a man who is not a man can be, in love with Barny too. Unable to keep it under wraps, he instead punishes her when she reminds him that she is in love with him and asks him for some sign that he returns that love. It is brutal to watch it and it is impossible to look away from it.
Although there may be more drama in the way Barny tries to get Morin into her bed and then compounds the humiliation by confessing that she broke the ninth commandment and tried to get a priest to break his vows to Morin, I was totally seized by a scene in Barny’s house. She’s chopping some wood with a little hatchet; Morin takes it up and manfully continues the chore for his parishioner. She has been holding on to one question, and, back against the wall, she asks him a question so bold that it’s practically out of his playbook. If you were a Protestant minister, she asks, would you take me as your wife? He looks at her. He slams the hatchet into the woodblock. He storms out of the house and slams the door behind him. Of course he would take her as his wife.