Not Blasphemous, But Gripping: A Review Of Jacques Rivette’s The Nun

by Rachel Bellwoar

If The Nun were as reverent as the cover for the DVD suggests, it wouldn’t have been banned in France, but it’s not a work of blasphemy, either. For all the good it did, the film tried to protect itself. A disclaimer at the beginning assures viewers that the film is fictional while a brief history lesson introduces Diderot’s novel, including the names of a few people who could’ve been his inspiration.

While you can understand why people who haven’t seen The Nun might think it’s anti-religious, Suzanne Simonin never loses her faith. What she lacks from the beginning is a vocation to be a nun, yet instead of being met with sympathy, Suzanne gets her hand forced. The film is about her struggle to be released from her vows, so she can stop being a nun and gain her freedom again.

As Dennis Lim puts it in his booklet essay for Kino’s DVD, “… The Nun is less an anti-clerical broadside than a defense of personal freedom, directing its ire not at Catholicism so much as at how it is practiced, and at the use of religion as a tool of control.” If Suzanne didn’t find cloistered life unbearable, she wouldn’t fight so hard to get out. Jacques Rivette directed the picture after directing the stage production which, like the film, starred Anna Karina as Sister Sainte-Suzanne.

At times you feel like you’re watching a horror movie. The film opens on Suzanne’s vow ceremony. Dressed in a wedding gown, the whole scene is shot between bars, with viewers given the same vantage point as the spectators who have come to watch. When Suzanne declares she won’t go through with it, the nuns have to pull her away from those bars. One nun covers her mouth while another tugs at a curtain so you can’t see what’s going on, but you can hear Suzanne’s screams.

More obviously, the bars suggest a prison movie. For Suzanne, that’s what the convent is – a prison. It’s in the language used (each nun’s room is called a cell) and in the bars that separate Suzanne from her lawyer in the visitor’s room.

There’s an argument to be made for the convent being more isolating. None of the nuns bunk together. In his commentary track, film critic, Nick Pinkerton, talks about the way sound works in the film, imbuing the outdoors with an indelible presence. Suzanne is never allowed to forget what she’s missing, thanks to Jean-Claude Elroy’s soundtrack.

There’s also no socializing between the nuns. On two notable occasions Suzanne’s sisters come to her aide (once when a nun helps her reach out to a lawyer and another time when a nun sneaks her some fruit, against the Mother Superior’s orders) but we never know their names and because their habits obscure their features, it’s possible they later join the nuns who are harassing Suzanne. Had Rivette designed the film to be in the first person, like Diderot’s novel (a change Pinkerton talks about in his commentary as well), maybe the access to Suzanne’s thoughts would’ve let us know for sure, but there’s more to chew on in Karina’s performance.

In a new making-of documentary, Karina and Georges Kiejman (who was the producer, George Beauregard’s, lawyer) talk about the ban, and a few other aspects of the filming. One thing that isn’t touched on are these jarring cuts that occur sparingly throughout the movie, where Suzanne will be walking towards a candle to burn a note and then it’s burning. In a film that leans so heavily towards realism, it’s a surprising editing choice, for you’re very aware in that moment that there’s a step missing.

Available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber, The Nun might test some viewers’ patience but, for my money, never loosens its grip.

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