The Nun / La Religieuse (2013)

La Religieuse

In 18th century France, when a teenage girl is forced by her parents to become a nun, she rebels to try and regain her freedom.

The Nun

Of Gods And Men by Alexa Dalby

CAUTION: Here be spoilers.

Diderot’s novel La Religieuse started life as a series of joke letters to a friend, purporting to be from a nun wishing to leave her convent. Nicloux’s classily conceived film, too, is hard to take seriously at times. The opening scene is ushered in by atmospheric organ music. In a softly candlelit bed a young woman lies sleeping, surrounded by sumptuous red drapery, while an old man watches her and slowly lifts a hand to stroke her hair and outside we hear a carriage approaching. Out of context, it could almost be the start of a Hammer horror. In fact, it’s the framing device the director uses to introduce the manuscript containing Suzanne’s memoir of her suffering, which tells the story that follows.

A beautiful girl from an impoverished aristocratic family in the French pre-Revolutionary era, Suzanne (Pauline Etienne) is forced to enter a convent by her parents, who say they can’t afford to maintain her or give her a dowry, having exhausted their finances on her sister’s marriage. Though she has faith, this is totally against her wishes until her mother pressures her by confiding that she is the illegitimate product of a past affair with a man who cannot be named, and by entering the convent she will expiate that sin.

Suzanne enters as a novice and her first Mother Superior, elderly Madame de Moni (veteran Françoise Lebrun) is kindly, though she also tricks Suzanne into taking her vows, condemning her to a life sentence. But when she dies in unexplained circumstances, she is replaced by Sister Christine (Louise Bourgoin), a sadist and religious fanatic, who takes an instant dislike to Suzanne and tortures her for her defiance and attempts to leave. Eventually, Suzanne is released from the misery of starvation in her prison cell by the sudden intervention of a highly placed male cleric, who arranges her transfer to another convent. Here she faces renewed perils, this time from a warm welcome which develops into the bizarre amorous advances of Mother Superior Saint-Eutrope. Isabelle Huppert seems to relish her role as the predatory abbess – “Would you like to know the language of the senses?” – who makes the innocent Suzanne her favourite. This tenderly intended persecution becomes yet another form of torment. Eventually Suzanne succeeds in smuggling a letter out and, thanks to a persistent lawyer and a sympathetic reluctant priest (more male saviours), makes a secret dawn escape – to end up where we saw her sleeping in the opening scene.

The key change – modernisation? Nicloux has made to the anti-clerical original is that Suzanne is no longer the passive victim of the 18th century novel. She really does have faith, and is deeply and conformingly religious, but her rebellion is to preserve her own individuality and freedom in the face of the authoritarianism of the Catholic church and her enforced cloistered life. If the film was not so overblown, you could perhaps have accepted one girl’s story as an allegory of the oppression of women in religion or even state repression. Pauline Etienne is perfect as an innocent who surprises us with unexpected depths of determination and gradually learns to take some control of her life, yet somehow without ever losing that innocence. Unfortunately, the film descends from the potential drama of her initial incarceration in the first convent into the sub-porno absurdities of her lascivious victimisation in the second and the obsessive sexual pursuit and hysteria in the third.

What is most notable about this rather uncomfortably pitched film is the cinematography and music. Secular scenes are warmly lit in sensuous browns and reds, composed like oil paintings. In contrast, light in the convent light is cold, white and the atmosphere is ascetic. Nuns grouped together in their sail-like blue and white habits form almost abstract compositions against the stone walls of the convent or in its garden, where they gather like prisoners in an exercise yard. If only the whole film had maintained this pared-down dramatic aesthetic.

The Nun is released on 1st November 2013 in the UK

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