Many American street preachers will tell you that they get most of their converts from hecklers. Unlike people who walk by your fire and brimstone sermon without comment, hecklers are passionate, engaged. Even if they only want to prove you wrong, they’re still interested in what you have to say. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s criminally neglected film Léon Morin, Priest (1961), Barny (no that’s not a typo and no I’ve never heard that name before either), a beautiful young widow in her twenties played by Emmanuelle Riva, is ripe for conversion. A teacher at a correspondence school which has been moved away from the German occupation in Paris to a small town in the Alps, she’s bored. Not to put too fine a point on it, she’s horny. Not only was her husband, a Jewish communist, killed in the Battle of France, most of the men in their twenties and thirties are either in forced labor camps in Germany, or hiding out in the wood with the Resistance. After she decides to have her half Jewish daughter baptized as a Catholic, she decides to “troll” a random priest in order to prove to herself that she’s still a communist and a good atheist.
“Religion is the opiate of the people,” she says to the handsome young Abbe Morin, probably the only unattached man in town under 30. In the United States, Barny would have had to settle for an evangelical Bible thumper or a dull, elderly Presbyterian Minister. In Jean-Pierre Melville’s imagination, however, the priest she has chosen to heckle is a well-read, left-wing intellectual played by none other than Jean-Paul Belmondo, the James Dean of the French New Wave. “Not exactly,” he responds. “The bourgeoisie have made it so, distorting it to their advantage.” Barny’s “confession,” which goes on for about five minutes, isn’t so much a confession as it is a debate between two undergraduates in the dormitory lounge after everybody else has gone to bed. If you don’t know what love at first sight looks like, you will after you’ve seen this film. Abbe Morin asks Barny if he’d like to drop by his apartment to borrow a book from his library. Barny leaves the confessional a changed woman. This is where Riva demonstrates her greatness as an actress. Something about the way she walks, in a slow, distracted manner then bumps into one of pews allows the viewer to understand Barny’s motivations in a way that neither Barny, nor indeed Jean-Pierre Melville himself understands.
I have always suspected that woman don’t particularly like men, that they admire male social status and economic power, but could do without the creatures that inhabit them. After watching Léon Morin, Priest, I have changed my mind. It’s not so much the script. Barny never grieves her dead husband, who’s more of a plot device to give her a half-Jewish daughter than a real memory. Melville establishes very early in the film that Barny is probably bisexual. In spite of how it is one of the most passionately romantic films I’ve seen in awhile, Leon and Barny never consummate their relationship or even kiss. All they really do is talk about books. It is, rather, the performances of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva that make what could have been a crushingly dull film come alive. Léon Morin, Priest was not among Jean-Paul Melville’s favorites. He not only disparaged the religious impulse behind the original novel, he ascribed motives to Barny that, if not necessarily sexist, were certainly crude and reductive. She was sexually frustrated, and wanted to get laid. The way Riva looks at Belmondo, however, the way her eyes wander over his course black robe, the way she tries to work her way into his physical space, the way she reacts to an occasional rough, aggressive gesture are a tutorial in how a heterosexual woman looks at a man she’s not only attracted to, but actually loves. Belmondo, in turn, gives life to a character who, on the page, must have seemed confused, even manipulative. Does he love Barny as much as she loves him, or is he merely leading her on in order to save her soul? After a particularly intense discussion, however, and she reaches over the tale to touch his shoulder, he pulls back so quickly it looks as if he had just gotten an electric shock. Jean-Pierre Melville, a Jewish atheist, has managed to visualize the presence of two Christian souls struggling against temptation.
In the fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno, the poet Virgil explains to Dante who inhabits the Second Circle of Hell. Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, they are people who, unlike Barny and Léon Morin, did not resist their carnal desires. Dante does not consider the shades who inhabit the Second Circle of Hell to be evil. They are merely sinners whose lust proved stronger than their reason. As someone whose reason is almost always stronger than his lust, I can certainly admire a Tristan, an Achilles, a Romeo or a Juliet. I can also understand that lust, without reason, inevitably leads to the dissolution of the mind, and therefore hell. The mostly vividly depicted sinners in the Fifth Canto are Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca — who along with Paolo is blown through the Second Circle of Hell as they eternally cling to each other — does all the talking. When she was a young girl, she was forced into an arranged marriage with Giovanni Malatesta, Paolo’s cruel, and physically deformed older brother. I’ll let her describe the rest. What brought the two young lovers together in an adulterous and ultimately and quite literally damned relationship – Giovanni murdered them both before they could take the last rites – was exactly what tempted Barny and Leon, reading.
The double grief of a lost bliss
is to recall its happy hour in pain.
Your Guide and Teacher knows the truth of this.
But if there is indeed a soul in Hell
to ask of the beginning of our love
out of his pity, I will weep and tell:
On a day for dalliance we read the rhyme
of Lancelot, how love had mastered him.
We were alone with innocence and dim time.
Pause after pause that high old story drew
our eyes together while we blushed and paled;
but it was one soft passage overthrew
our caution and our hearts. For when we read
how her fond smile was kissed by such a lover,
he who is one with me alive and dead
breathed on my lips the tremor of his kiss.
That book, and he who wrote it, was a pander.
That day we read no further.
“The double grief of a lost bliss is to recall its happy hour in pain.”
It is a perfect one line summary of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), the film for which Emmanuelle Riva is best known, and which, even though it was made three years before Léon Morin, Priest, almost reads like a sequel. Here Riva plays a thirty-five-year-old French actress, referred to only as “she.” While in Hiroshima for a film shoot, she has a brief, and adulterous affair with a thirty-seven-year-old Japanese architect, referred to only as “him.” We never find out if the actress loves the architect. He loves her, but we suspect his feelings are not reciprocated. For the French actress, the Japanese architect, like the madeleine in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, is a mnemonic device, a means to recover her lost youth. Seventeen years before, during the German occupation of France, she had a love affair with a twenty-three-year-old German soldier, an incident that had scarred her for life, one that she can, but does not want to forget.
“Grant me my desire just once,” Barny had said to herself in Léon Morin, Priest, “only that once, and afterwords blessed be the eternal torment.” Unlike Paola in The Inferno, Leon, the object of her desire, is more interested in saving her soul than in fucking her. The French actress in Hiroshima Mon Amour’s “she,” on the other hand, gets exactly what Barny wants, fulfilled sexual desire followed by eternal damnation. As the film progresses, and she continues to tell her story to the Japanese architect, we learn what happened. Just before her twentieth birthday, and the liberation of France, a resistance sniper had shot her German lover in the stomach and left him in the street. We don’t learn much about what he was like. Was he a Nazi? Was he just a soldier doing his job? We never find out. His memory in the mind of the French actress is dim, and she can recall him only after sex with the architect.
The resistance, the French actress tells her Japanese lover, had shaved her head and paraded her through town as a traitor. Now that she has come to Hiroshima, which years before the Americans had transformed into a very literal hell, she can remember that her parents, in shame, had locked her in the basement until her hair grew back long enough for her to travel. She can remember that she spent two hours in the street with her German lover, hovering over him as the life drained out of his body and he died in agonizing pain. Months in that basement had destroyed her youth forever, but since it was the key to her past, the place where she had replayed the German soldier’s death over and over again as the scarlet letter marking her off as a traitor and a collaborator disappeared beneath her hair, she has come to Hiroshima to find her lost bliss in the grief of another people. Hiroshima has recovered from the nuclear holocaust. It’s now a beautiful city with a vibrant peace movement and a nightlife that the architect tells her never ends before dawn, but the outtakes from her movie, which is set in 1945, tell a different story. Here we see children running from the flames raining down on the city into a boiling river, mutilated bodies, and women with no hair, who mirrors her own fate at the end of the German occupation of France. It is a hell where, like Francesca, she can live with her lost lover until his image, along with the last of her youth, fades completely from her memory.
If Emmanuelle Riva’s task in Léon Morin, Priest is difficult, it is even more difficult in Hiroshima Mon Amour. Resnais’ film depends less on his actors than Melville’s, his camera, floating through the streets of Hiroshima like a disembodied spirit, does most of the work. Riva often resorts to conventional dramatic outbursts. “Oh I was so young then,” her performance lacking the refined subtly of her performance as Barny in Léon Morin, Priest. Here, like Belmondo, she is the object of desire, not the unrequited lover. Much of the weight of the film, therefore, falls upon Eiji Okada, who plays the Japanese architect. The architect, who learned French in order to study the French Revolution –we suspect that he was never a fascist – owes his life to having been drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army. A native of Hiroshima, he had been away from the city as his family were boiled alive in the river trying to escape the heat in the river that runs through town, a recurring image in the film we search for any clue about his past. Eiji Okada is a less expressive actor than Emmanuelle Riva, but, we suspect as we listen to the opening monologue – we she recites the past and he denies that she remembers anything — that is part of the director’s intentions. The actress, still in hell, continues to seek the past, and her lost German lover. The architect wants to live in the present, for the actress to leave her husband and live with him in the reborn Hiroshima. The film ends on an ambiguous note. We want her to stay. We suspect that she doesn’t, that she will continue to seek her hour of bliss, which grows ever shorter as it fades into the past, in her pain, which she must cultivate in order to hold on to the last few moments of her lost youth.