Director: Jacques Rivette
Stars: Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver, Francine Bergé
Pity the poor, hasty or unobservant fool who snaps up a copy of Jacques Rivette’s The Nun – newly restored and available on bluray from Studio Canal – believing it to be the recent travesty of popular horror unleashed on cinemas. You can picture the bewilderment at discovering this 140 minute French film, devoid of hokey jump scares or laughable line readings. What in the name of all that is unholy have they wrought upon themselves!?
The answer is Jacques Rivette’s first masterpiece. What luck! About as far from the doolally popcorn cinema of 2018 as you can get, Rivette’s The Nun is an intelligent, moving and (for the times) daring assault on the church that was, unsurprisingly, controversial when released in 1966.
Anna Karina – the queen of the European art house at the time – stars as Suzanne. Set in 1757, on-screen text and narration advises of the climate, in which unmarried women were often packed off to convents, sometimes against their will. The opening scene of action demonstrates just this as Suzanne is presented behind literal bars, rejecting this same fate.
Her family has fallen upon hard times and cannot afford to keep another daughter, now conveniently revealed as illegitimate. Though Suzanne initially defies their wishes, she is worn down and eventually relents. Shipped off to a sparse and chilly convent, she takes her vows only to quickly regret and reject them. This defiance sets her against all those surrounding her, and the film charts a battle of wills; one woman against the church.
Suzanne is most cruelly tormented by Mother Superior Francine Bergé; a disarmingly young presence who initially appears to be her closest friend. But as Suzanne so fervently denounces her faith, she alienates her only advocate, and punishment comes swiftly. She has all her possessions taken away, is forbidden from communicating with other sisters, is kept in solitary and fed only scraps that she manages to beg.
Karina is mesmeric, summoning up one of the greatest performances in a decade of great performances. When she is pious she evokes our sympathies, when she is desperate our shock. At her wildest, the other nuns claim she is possessed. Karina poses a striking figure at these times, wandering corridors with a sickly, fixed grimace. At other times she is ironically angelic with an open face; a disciple of Maria Falconetti. Was her casting inspired by the scene in Vivre Sa Vie in which her character Nana weeps while watching The Passion of Joan Of Arc?
The suffering of a woman depicted here by Rivette risks comparison with the work of present day cinematic prankster Lars Von Trier… except Rivette’s subsequent career does not otherwise bare out such an unsavoury predilection. Instead, Rivette appears keenly to be using The Nun to criticise not just the church, but any unmonitored institution in which truth is malleable and the rights of the individual can be quickly forfeited. These universal fears are scarier than any found in the 2018 The Nun, and ring with a kind of recognisable dread that feels as relevant now as ever. Virtually no other characters are named; all retain the anonymity of the faceless collective (the film ends, incidentally, with quite another faceless institution…).
Thanks to films like those of Von Trier, we expect a certain trajectory in The Nun, but Rivette wrong foots this expectation. The final third takes a turn into altogether different territory, taking on the guise of the tamely scintillating lesbian exploitation flick, prefiguring an entire subgenre of grindhouse films that would emerge over the next decade.
In truth, The Nun is barely comparable to these. Rivette’s intention may have been to press buttons or cause shock waves among conservative factions, but he is far from gratuitous. The film retains a respectable 12 certificate, and is all the better for this more delicately judged approach. The handling of this subject is quite fascinatingly slippery and Suzanne’s fears of homosexuality are open to interpretation. Has she been institutionalised in spite of her efforts? Is she afraid of her own desires? Who’s to say that harassment is always heterosexual? The exact stance of The Nun is a cathedral of contradictions, like Suzanne’s wavering soul.
Perhaps Rivette’s ultimate viewpoint lies in the musings of one of the priests, who says to Suzanne of their otherness to society, “We deprive ourselves; they have fun. And afterwards, the same Hell awaits us.”
With the confines of the setting, the fondness for the formless found in later roaming epics from the director is largely absent. In contrast, The Nun feels icy and austere. Still, Rivette exhibits some behaviours of the time. He stamps the film with a sense of authorship through abrupt edits and occasional stings of discordant and incongruous music. Largely, though, the film goes by without score; its absence echoing in the stone corridors of the convent, accentuating Suzanne’s isolation.
A disclaimer at the top of the picture advises that the film that follows is not intended to be taken as a sweeping statement against the church, stressing that generalisations ought not be made. This statement could be taken cynically as a further provocation, or as lip service to quell quick denouncement. But what if it is meant sincerely?
It is true that the church does not come out of The Nun well, but isn’t there also intelligence in admitting openly and upfront that one story does not speak for all? In times of increasing extremism, Rivette’s acknowledgement is even more welcome. This beautiful remaster had a limited theatrical run in July. In case you missed that, this home release gives you ample opportunity to catch up on a seldom discussed classic.