In 1961, reeling from the failure of his U.S.-set thriller Two Men in Manhattan and resolved to break with his image as a cult director “known only to a handful of crazy film buffs,” Jean-Pierre Melville signed on to adapt and direct this film version of Béatrix Beck’s acclaimed roman à clef about her life in a French provincial village during and just after the Occupation. In fact, the material wasn’t so much a departure as a homecoming for Melville, who had fought on the side of the Liberation forces and had made his 1949 filmmaking debut with another adaptation of a seminal Resistance text: Vercors’ La silence de la Mer.
For Léon Morin, he chose the ravishing Emmanuelle Riva (fresh off Hiroshima Mon Amour) to play Beck’s surrogate, an atheistic widow who, on a whim, saunters into the local church with the goal of making a mockery of the place. But Melville himself, who knew the real Beck, would later say he most closely identified with the eponymous man of the cloth (Jean-Paul Belmondo), who rather than taking offense at Riva’s outré claims (among them, that she masturbates with a wooden stick and harbors a secret lesbian crush on a co-worker) offers her compassionate counsel and attempted conversion–a personalized attention she is not alone in receiving among the village’s single, man-hungry women.
If the affinity seems an unusual one for an atheist Jew best known for his steely, stylized films noirs, on closer inspection it’s easy to see Morin as the prototypical Melville protagonist–an ascetic man of principle who, while tempted by the allure of a conventional life (and, in this case, the pleasures of the flesh), remains an incorruptible professional to the core. (In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Belmondo responds to Riva’s question, “Would you marry me if you weren’t a priest?” by slamming an axe into a piece of wood and storming out of the room.)
Shot mostly on Melville’s own Paris soundstage by the great Henri Decaë, the film would eventually be edited by the director–against the protestations of the producers!–from a three-hour rough cut to this two-hour release version. The result is a movie that moves with the diamond-cut precision and carefully constricting tension of Melville’s trademark gangland sagas, the precious booty here being nothing less than the human soul, the price for an errant gesture the retribution of an even more fearsome underworld.