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Film / Léon Morin, Priest

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Léon Morin, Priest (Léon Morin, prêtre) is a 1961 French film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) is a widow living with her young daughter France amidst World War II, in an unnamed village somewhere in Italian-occupied France (so, the southeastern corner of the country). The time under Italian occupation is not that onerous, as no one takes the comic-opera Italians very seriously. When the Germans arrive, however (this dates the beginning of the film to November 1942), oppression becomes more serious and life becomes more difficult.

But that's not strictly what the movie is about. Around the time the Germans enter the village, Barny meets a young priest, Léon Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo). Barny, a communist and an atheist, taunts Morin by greeting him with "Religion is the opiate of the masses!" in the confessional booth. To her surprise, the young priest receives this troll in a friendly, understanding manner. Barny and Léon strike up a friendship that mostly involves earnest intellectual discussions in which she pits her atheism against his gentle, liberal version of Catholicism. Barny soon starts to develop feelings for the handsome young priest, feelings that Léon very subtly encourages. And soon, all of good-looking Barny's attractive young female friends are getting spiritual counseling from the handsome priest.

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Tropes:

  • Answer Cut: Barny, mocking all the faithful Catholics leaving the church, decides to play a prank. She says "Know what I'll do?" Cut to her inside the church, looking for a priest in a confessional booth to antagonize.
  • Les Collaborateurs:
    • Christine, Barny's colleague at work. She's a mild version as she advocates cooperation with the Germans, is a big fan of Petain, and says nasty things about Jews, but she doesn't really actively help them.
    • Then there's the young woman whom Barny likes to bicycle to town with, who apparently is actively working with the Germans by informing on the Resistance. The Resistance kills her.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: Eventually, as Léon asks probing questions about her personal habits, Barny confesses that "I do it with a stick." After she gives in and becomes an observant Catholic again, he tells her she has to stop using her wooden dildo. (Leon's lack of hesitation when talking about the mode of Barny's masturbation habits is a clue to the weird psychosexual dynamic of his control over her.)
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  • Day of the Jackboot: In the most literal sense, as the arrival of the German army in the village is marked by the actual sounds of jackboots, marching on the cobblestone streets.
  • Erotic Dream: Barny, whose sexual frustrations are growing to fever pitch, has an erotic dream in which Leon enters her apartment and kisses her. After she wakes up she prays to God to forgive her for her dreams.
  • Hands-On Approach: Sabine, who is very much aware of how much Barny is attracted to her, comes over to Barny's desk and shows her some document. While pointing at said document she deliberately stands behind Barny and leans over, so that her large bosom rests on Barny's head. Barny gets very horny.
  • High-Class Glass: On the eve of liberation a boy on the sidewalk is giving a Death Glare to the Germans as they march down the street. A German officer ostentatiously screws his High-Class Glass in before staring the boy down.
  • Jump Cut: There's a jump cut between two different shots of Barny passing through Leon's door for the last time, underlining her emotional distress.
  • Meet Cute: Leon and Barny meet for the first time when mischievous Barny comes into his confessional booth and greets him with "Religion is the opiate of the masses!"
  • Meet the New Boss: After liberation, two American soldiers walk Barny and France home. One of them gets very rapey with Barny before his less evil buddy gets him to stop.
    France: Are they some new Germans?
  • Mildly Military: The Italians, who are comic opera soldiers that wear large feathers in their hats. Barny comments on how she thought they were traveling actors until she saw the guns. No one takes them seriously. (The Italians are eventually surrounded and annihilated by their erstwhile German allies after the Italian surrender.)
  • Murder by Inaction: Barny actually uses the phrase "murder by omission." This comes after Barny's friend in the Resistance blabs that they're going to kill Barny's other friend, who is an informant for the Gestapo. Barny is torn by conscience, wondering if she should tell her informant friend. Leon advises her to keep quiet, she does, and sure enough her informant friend is murdered.
  • Pet the Dog: One of the few German soldiers to get dialogue is a kindly infantryman who gives France a hug and a present before his departure to the Eastern Front (which by that stage meant a very high chance of death).
  • Really Gets Around: Marion, the sexy blonde at the correspondence school that Barny steers to Father Leon, has five boyfriends.
  • La Résistance: They're out there, as shown when a couple of them pop into town to see their children christened, then go back to the woods. Later they kill a young friend of Barny's who is known to be an informant for the Germans.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Mr. Edelman, the philosophy teacher at Barny's correspondence school, disappears after the Germans arrive in town—he's Jewish. He shows up again after the liberation.
  • Self-Abuse: Leon's attitude towards masturbation, per Catholic doctrine. After Barny comes back to the church, he gives her the party line about how her body is a temple and she has to stop getting herself off with a stick. Of course, this may be because Leon wants to keep a hold over Barny and doesn't want her to have a release for her sexual frustration.
  • Sexy Priest: Father Leon, who wields his handsomeness and sex appeal to lure sexually frustrated women like Barny back to the church (and in all likelihood, also to toy with them).
  • Sexy Secretary: Sabine, the secretary/administrator at the correspondence school. She is curvy and hot and Barny feels a strong sexual attraction to her. Later, after her brother is arrested by the Germans (he's never seen again), Sabine more or less wilts, and becomes less beautiful.
  • Straw Atheist: Barny the atheist is only a foil for Leon to run rings around and undermine with his logic. She spars with him for a while but eventually gets frustrated with arguments she never wins—and she also gets more and more sexually frustrated. It's that latter factor that eventually causes her to cave, renounce atheism, and rejoin the church.
  • The Tease: Eventually it becomes clear that Father Leon is deliberately teasing Barny and the other women in his orbit (many of them lonely and horny because so many men are away) with the promise of a sexual relationship that he never intends to deliver. This is most obvious in the scene where Barny is sitting in a pew during a service and Léon overtly, deliberately brushes the sleeve of his cassock against her cheek. He also is way too willing to admit that he would marry her if he were a Protestant minister. His motive is unclear. It seems that at least in part he's leading these women on so that he can get them back in the Catholic Church. However that doesn't explain why he's playing The Tease with Christine, who is an observant Catholic. It seems that the likelier and much darker explanation is that Leon is teasing Barny, Christine, Marion, and all the others because he likes it. Unable to have an actual sexual relationship with any of his women, he instead leads them on and tantalizes them. The last scene of the movie, where a Scare Chord plays on the soundtrack as Leon looks down the staircase after Barny's departure, hints at this.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Leon and Barny. Barny lusts after Leon, has erotic dreams about him, and when she can't take it any more finally makes an overt sexual advance towards him, which he rejects. It's unclear if Leon for his part is genuinely attracted to Barny, or whether he's just toying with her For the Evulz.
  • Visual Title Drop: Father Léon has a card with "Léon Morin, priest" written on it, which he's pinned to the door of his apartment.

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