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A classically made two-hander that revisits the source material of another classic, Nicolas Boukhrief’s The Confession (La Confession) offers up a fresh take on the Beatrix Beck novel Leon Morin, Pretre, which was adapted by film noir master Jean-Pierre Melville in a 1961 version starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and the late Emmanuelle Riva. Not unlike Melville, Boukhrief is also known as a director of gritty urban thrillers (Cash Truck, Made in France), and here he shifts to a moody period drama about a priest and atheist butting heads, then coming together, toward the end of World War II.
Featuring impressive performances from Romain Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) and Marine Vacth (Young & Beautiful), this beautifully photographed tale of religion, redemption and repressed sensuality can lumber at times due to the heavy-handedness of the scenario, though the many verbal duels between the two leads are also what make it work. Forgoing the fest circuit for a March release at home, the film should see decent local returns and scattered play with overseas art house distributors catering to lovers of austere foreign fare.
Beck’s book was published in 1952 and quickly became a best-seller that scooped up the prestigious Prix Goncourt that year. Melville’s adaptation, released less than a decade later, received mixed notices and would be the last full-on drama he would direct before shifting into policier territory two years later with Magnet of Doom and Le Doulos.
Boukhrief is clear in the press notes that he wasn’t remaking Melville’s film but going back to the original novel, which is set in a small northern French town under Nazi occupation. The story’s heroine, Barny (Vacth), is an ardent communist and postal worker whose husband has been jailed for two years in a German prison camp (in the book Barny was already a widow). The hero is the titular Leon Morin (Duris), a freethinking and seductive priest who’s been sent to the village to replace his recently deceased predecessor.
One is a nonbeliever and the other fully convinced of God’s existence. They’re both also young, extremely stubborn and definitely easy on the eyes, which helps establish their mutual attraction in ways both theological and, at times, sexual — though the latter never in an outright manner.
It’s to Boukhrief’s credit that he mostly steers clear of erotic kitsch and lets the couple duke it out with their minds instead of their bodies. When, early on, Barny tries to shock the priest during her first confession by claiming she uses a “piece of wood” to satisfy her needs with her husband so far away, Leon quips back: “Well, I hope you don’t hurt yourself.”
The banter between the two is definitely the strongest aspect of a film that can lean toward the academic, especially in some of the Nazi-related sequences, though Boukhrief thankfully keeps much of that action offscreen, including a town massacre viewed from an artful distance. That event is nonetheless jarring enough to push Barny closer to Leon and his religion, and while her change of heart can feel a bit hard to, well, believe, it’s unclear whether she actually begins to accept the teachings of Christ or is simply looking for solace alongside the only real man left in town.
Duris has always been a versatile actor, switching from crowd-pleasing rom-coms (Heartbreaker) to S&M psychodramas (the recent Iris) to a movie about a cross-dressing husband (The New Girlfriend), and here he plays Leon with a mix of pathos and philosophical verve, rebutting Barny’s constant attacks on Christianity with plenty of lucidity and wit. Vacth, who broke through in Francois Ozon’s Young & Beautiful, gives a gracefully headstrong performance, channeling a character who often comes across as more righteous in her beliefs than the priest himself.
Striking cinematography by Manuel Dacosse (Evolution) emphasizes the dark and claustrophobic feeling of life under the German occupation, with many scenes bathed in darkness or lit by faint candlelight. The look brings to mind another film by Melville — the WWII thriller The Army of Shadows — and The Confession could ultimately be seen as a thriller as well, tracking a woman trying to escape the stranglehold of Vichy-era France by embracing the very faith she has always denied.
Production companies: Radar Films, Nebo Productions, Scope Pictures, PSB
Cast: Romain Duris, Marine Vacth, Anne Le Ny, Solene Rigot, Amandine Dewasmes, Lucie Debay, Charles Lefebvre
Director-screenwriter: Nicolas Boukhrief, based on the novel Leon Morin, Pretre by Beatrix Beck
Producers: Clement Miserez, Matthieu Warter, Nicolas Jourdier, Genevieve Lemal
Director of photography: Manuel Dacosse
Production designer: Julia Irribarria
Costume designer: Patricia Saive
Composer: Nicolas Errera
Casting director: Tatiana Vialle
Sales: SND Groupe M6
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