Léon Morin, Prêtre & Existentialism

Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961), even though not explicitly a noir film, displays a lot of the director’s influences about the perception of character and the misuse of someone’s position. The film seems so contradictory to itself and in the end resembles L’Année dernière à Marienbad (1961) in that nothing is definite. Whether the narrative is this or that, it does not change, completely uninterested and unaffected by what is applied to it. This is reflective of the noir convention of the blurred line between the good and the bad in that it adds to the confusion between the characters’ behaviours and their desires. Melville does not give us any directions to what the characters’ intentions are. He just allows us a peak into their lives for what seem like brief two-minute scenes, quickly changing from the office to the church to Barney’s daughter to Morin’s apartment and to Barney’s place. This style only adds to the anxiety and uncertainty that Barney experiences throughout the film.

This brings us to existentialism, which is tied to other film noir qualities like its distinct visual style, the presence of crime, the sense of nostalgia, and pessimism. “As a philosophical school of thought it has included both Christian and atheist, conservative and Marxist.” (Porfirio, 213) Melville used this dilemma of spiritualty and politics and placed it in the setting of a war, more specifically the German Occupation. Barney embodies this dilemma. Her questions about God and how one should live their life according to the teachings of Christ partly come from her communist identity and her experiences with Catholicism as a child. She unknowingly seeks those who share her feelings and doubts. She desires understanding. When Léon Morin tells her that God is an experimental, individual reality and therefore incommunicable she repeats the last word and says, “how awful.” The thought that God is never definite, which is reflected in the style of the film, only adds to her anxiety about existence.

She learns, however, a priest, Morin, sympathizes with these doubts. He shares some of her communist thoughts about the church. For example, he mentions that he does not believe that a man needs three priests to burry him. After all, priests are not morticians.

She took comfort in his apartment, a place that’s only defining features were the piano, the bookshelf, and his desk; a place that seems to breed isolation. “I felt more at home there than I ever had anywhere, in that parlor that looked like an abandoned laundry and whose floor shone like a mirror.”

As all her doubts and thoughts were shared with Morin, or at least understood, one thing was not, her sexual desire. The film starts out with her voice over telling the viewer about her infatuation with Sabine Levy who is higher in ranking than her at work. This infatuation later moves onto her coworker, later friend, Christine. This infatuation only lasts in three interactions between them and then quickly forgotten. First, Barney slaps Christine then Christine kisses her on the forehead then Barney caresses Christine’s cheek. As for the rest of the film, the attention is shifted onto Morin.

Traditionally, there is something duplicitous about a woman who is attracted to both men and women. In the case of Barney, she is considered almost ill. She is ill to the point where her attraction to women specifically is completely disregarded by the halfway mark of the film. As Morin says to her right after she tries to touch him, “its no longer mademoiselle Sabine. That’s progress.” At that point, she is considered sexually deviant as someone who masturbates with a stick, as she mentions to Morin, and as someone who seems to be attracted to anyone with superiority over her. Her attraction to woman is only a symptom to this illness. The world of the noir protagonist is “capable of any action, without regard to conventional morality, and this is as amoral . . . as his antagonists.” (Porfirio, 214) Worried about her place in the world, Barney’s morality concerns her. She considers herself a confused and sick woman for having these impure thoughts.

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What is different in this film than in American film noirs is Melville, with his fragmented narrative that seems to lack a beginning, middle, and end with the random order of scenes, managed to undermine these binary sexual identities. It did not matter who she liked. All that mattered was her stability and self-control. Except, there is still this awareness of gender in terms of authority. There is something telling about how Barney acts on her desires for Léon and not Sabine even though both actions are looked down on. He is a priest and Sabine is a woman. Even in the beginning of the film, Barney refers to Sabine as someone who reminds her of a young man. Note that Barney is her subordinate. However, that statement seems to imply that Sabine is somehow incomplete to Barney.

Léon is a complete male figure to her and seems to hold all the answers to all the questions she has. He makes her feel ashamed for her feelings and succeeds in converting her even though not for the right reasons. She does it out of shame and guilt. As he tells her in one scene, “if only you called to God as you call to a man.” However, we should note, there is a scene where an American soldier threatens her by not returning her daughter’s bag to her and says he will return it when she goes upstairs with him. She refuses to the point where she tells him to take her daughter’s bag. This shows that she does not submit to any kind of offer out there and that she does in fact have self-control.

Léon, however, is aware of his authority and power over Barney and seems to take advantage of his license, his license to touch her or even talk to her bluntly. He only has women come to his apartment for discussions on religion, which can be viewed as an exercise of power over women for him. It is fair to assume that is derived from his childhood, which he spoke of briefly in the film, where his mother beat him. He operates with barely any tact to the point where Léon can even be considered the femme fatale of the film. The last lingering shot of him standing there in the top of the stairs and then cut to Barney breaking down in the street shows his ever lasting and damaging effect on her.

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