When I saw Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love and David Lean’s Brief Encounter, both a couple of years ago, it seemed to me that it was terrible to tease the audience with the possibility of two characters having a romance if it could never be. As exquisite as these works are in their individual ways, the agony of that impossibility would not allow me to say that I “loved” the films. Maybe I felt so much for the characters, felt so much of their inner torment, that I could not let myself appreciate the films as much as I otherwise might have.
Now, having just seen Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, Priest, I did not react with the disappointment I might have previously expected from myself. The widowed heroine, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), tries to sublimate her loneliness and sexuality into a platonic relationship with a priest (Jean-Paul Belmondo) and subsequent conversion to Catholicism. Barny eventually realizes that her feelings for the priest run deeper than she had led herself to believe, leading to dream sequences that only provoke her longings. I did not find myself lamenting the fact that the characters talk about Christianity without knowing each other in the biblical sense. The process of watching Barny was in itself so riveting that I was drawn to her and wanted to know what would happen to her.
Léon Morin, Priest has a lot of religious and philosophical talk in it, but ultimately it is about passion: passion for something to believe in, whether it is God or another person, drives both Barny and Morin. It is not a story that needs a happy ending because what would have been “happy” for these characters? Not every story can or should end like a Hollywood romance. Sometimes there is more to think about.