The Nun (1966)
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In this first half or so the film is about as close as one can get outside of Carl Dreyer to it being about the pain inflicted upon an innocent in a world dominated by a) a natural prejudice towards women, in this case to go completely rigidly by the rules - or, b) for that matter, a hell placed upon those who *dont* want to be nuns and just want to experience something else in the world. We see Suzanne subjected to this convent at first run by a helpful and loving Mother Superior Mme de Moni only to die and her replacement be so hard-pressed as to eventually see Suzanne as being possessed by a devil, keeping her away from the other nuns, locked up without food or water, or any legal counsel.
This part seems straightforward as does the eventual Priests-find-out-Mme-is-unrelenting-and-transfer-her story progression... but something very fascinating happens, something that makes The Nun from what is already a heart-rending and tasteful story of repression and super 18th century Christian fervor into a great film. The second convent, on first appearance, is total bliss compared to the former one. Suzanne is treated to happy nuns, a happy Mother Superior Simonin, and even some lighthearted revelry like playing games outside, something that would have never happened at the previous convent. But there's also an underlying uneasiness that is confirmed by the Mother Superior being, how should I say, "clingy" to at first Suzanne's story and then Suzanne herself.
It's not just enough for Rivette, by way of the book, to show religion being domineering and cruel and at best complacent in the expected sense, but for another look at what should be religious organization run by caring and spiritual people to be also total kooks. It's like Rivette puts down this section of some fun like the slightest of reprieves and then to bring it back under the rug, and it's something really special to see. It's a bleak story not simply because a woman who has no rightful place in a convent of nuns is forced into it and made into another cog in the religious machine, but for the lack of hope conveyed in what good there is, the goodness of people devoted to a life of faith, that is revealed. It's an incredibly precise indictment on organized religion and society that allows how it runs as much as captivating morality drama.
The Nun can also be read as a searing feminist statement, but going into this part might make this too long a review. Suffice to say The Nun, a controversial film (at the time) made from a controversial book of its time, conveys what it wants to say in stark locations and even starker performances from the supporting cast. The two actresses playing the significant Mother Superiors in the story deserve credit, yet the main reason to see the picture is for Anna Karina. She makes a sense of purpose in every scene, a performance that is startling for it being so removed from ex-husband Godard's usual self-conscious comedy/dramas and into something that requires her to plunge the depths of whatever she can handle emotionally for the character. It turns out to be the best serious performance of her's I've seen to date outside of maybe Vivre sa vie. Suzanne, thanks to Karina, is so sad a character, so right in her common sense and driven almost mad by this rigid and monstrous Christian dogma that you cant take your eyes off her for a second. It's rare to see a performance this tender and selfless to the dark and light in human being. A+
What was all the fuss about? There's no nudity, no strong language, no violence to speak of -- what got the French censors up in arms about was in fact one of the harshest attacks on organized religion - or at least on Catholicism as it used to be practised in France two centuries earlier - ever filmed. La Religieuse, based on an unfinished 1780 novel by Denis Diderot, is the story of Suzanne Simenon, a young woman in the problematic circumstance of being forced into convent life because of her mother's transgressions and her father's failures in business, and her attempts to escape this situation, which as you might imagine required much effort in the 18th century.
Suzanne, played in an extraordinary performance by Anna Karina, is in fact quite pious, virginal, innocent and naive; she seems to be fairly intelligent and musically talented; but she is also very independent, and for all her real and honest belief in God, cannot submit to the structured life and rigorous discipline of convent life. At first, she is somewhat comforted by a kind mother superior who admits to having had some of the same problems of having no vocation - of having no particularly feeling for monastic life. But her kind and understanding leader soon dies, and is replaced by a rigorous and intolerant young woman who despises Suzanne - despises the slightest bit of nonconformity - from the first. Suzanne's life becomes intolerable, more so even when she writes to a lawyer to try to be freed from the convent; eventually some pity is taken on her once it is learned how badly she has been treated (shunned, given no food and no change of clothes, not allowed to pray) and that her mother superior is possibly deranged - and Suzanne is moved to another convent.
This new location is problematic in its own way, though - at first it seems lively, carefree and joyous, but Suzanne soon becomes the object of a different kind of unwanted attention from the young and very sexual mother superior, and finds that here too, "freedom" is completely impossible. Karina manages to show the slow progression from complete naiveté to adult understanding - and despair - without ever seeming to lose faith in her God, though she may be losing her belief in humanity. It's a powerful statement made mostly in the eyes, a curled lip, shoulders - there are a couple of manic scenes, but they are never overdone or overlong; we get what we need to understand a spirit in torture. When, finally, she does manage to make an exit, she finds that life on the outside world for an uneducated and moral young woman without money is no better, and Rivette finishes the film, and Suzanne's life, the only way possible...
Most critics will remark that this is Rivette's most conventional film, and so it may be on the surface; the narrative is very easy to follow, the scenes are quite fluid and the editing fairly simple, the storyline lacks any of the fantasy, whimsy, or narrative play that most of his other films are full of - but look closer. Certainly this is the director's most overtly political/socially critical film - though even here it is careful in its balance. Suzanne is not an atheist, does not hate the church; she simply does not belong in this life and the film's anger is at a society and a religious organization that doesn't care about her feelings or even her life. It is anti-totalitarian, not at all anti-spiritual.
The structure of the film is quite remarkable as well, though its most obvious innovations or experimentations are with sound rather than image. The score is a modernist, percussive and often harsh one, and the sounds of nature, of the world outside the convent walls, are often powerfully amplified. Inside is only the life of rules and orders, to be followed without question - outside are birdsong, the howling wind, bells and horses' hooves on pavement. Most scenes are composed of a single shot, typically a minute or two in length; Rivette's original design was to have both sound and image mimic the monastic cell, though the end result didn't work out exactly as he had hoped. Still, he and his collaborators, most notably composer Jean-Claude Eloy and the sound department headed by Michel Fano, create a world terrifyingly powerful in its ability to destroy a body, if not a soul, and yet still exist as a false and beautiful incentive, never to be grasped by a young woman without hope or ability. The further from her initial jail-like surroundings she gets, the more she finds that she only eludes one kind of prison for another - and the further we go in the film, the harsher and angrier the music and the aural surrounding become.
Like every Rivette film I've seen, this improves on multiple viewings; I first saw this on the first release of the complete uncut film in the USA in 1990, later again video, and a third time just now. Though I'm sure some will be put off by the subject matter or the depressing storyline, anyone with an interest in this great director and certainly anyone interested in the plight of women in film - Rivette's model in many ways in this film is the work of proto-feminist Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi - should really see this. It stands with the best of the New Wave, and Karina's performance proves that she wasn't just the pretty face that she typically is in Godard's work.
"La religieuse" caused a big scandal when it was released in the mid-sixties.The Church insisted on calling the movie "Suzanne Simonin ,la religieuse de Diderot".
Released with a PG 18, the movie seems harmless today:yes there's a lesbian nun ,but the crowds have seen worse since.It's a jansenist work,with a very slow pace,faithful to Diderot's novel-which anyway depicted an improbable situation:they did not lock the girls in nunneries anymore ,it was a thing of the past in the XVIII th century-,except for the ending ,but Rivette's one makes sense all in all.
The cinematography is beautiful and anti-nouvelle vague,the actresses convincing:Micheline Presles,a saint of a nun,Anna Karina, her cruel mother's unfortunate victim,and Liselotte Pulver,a bon vivant character who's got a crush on Suzanne .
And when I say little i mean, that even in its 135 form "La Religiuse" is one of the shortest films by Rivette. It is fittingly minimalistic in everything but emotion. Which flows in abundance. The story is obviously packed with emotional goodies: parents "donate" one of their daughters to a monastery, because they cannot manage hew dowry, in the first monastery she is abused violently, because she obviously lacks faith and dedication, she gets a move to another establishment where the head nun harasses her sexually. It all ends in suicide.
This is filmmaking of the highest calibre where only what is essential is shown. You'll know whether you'll like it!
Ms. Pulver, the beloved eternal comedienne of the German cinema, has taken on that most daunting role: the lesbian Mother Superior, the ultimate debauched nun in the ultimate 'Why was the Revolution necessary?' tale, Denis Diderot's grand tale 'La Religieuse'. Working against type and expectation under the direction of Jaques Rivette, Ms. Pulver has created the most complex and compelling portrait of her long career, and she has done this in ways that deviate radically from her former screen roles.
Ms. Pulver's Mother Superior, emerges in this adaptation with her monumental weakness intact. But something new and affecting is simmering within the character, a damning glimpse of self-awareness. You get the sense that if her frantic movement stops for a second, she'll deflate into a small and bitter creature.
In films like 'Die Züricher Verlobung' and 'Das Wirtshaus I'm Spessart' Ms. Pulver's persona has always been that of a delectable waif, a vulnerable creature with a heart of gold. Here she was cast against type and rumors went that she did not get along with Mr. Rivette. And then, halfway through the film, there she was, and for the first time in her long career she didn't look remotely like an ingénue.
Ms. Pulver's portrait is so intimate and persuasive that you aren't allowed to step back and think, 'What a monster she is.' That's because, thanks to this actress's willingness to turn herself and her character inside out, you've been inside her mind. What a sad and fascinating place it is.