The Nun (France, 1966) * * * 1/2
D: Jacques Rivette
For the winter/spring semester, the UW's Cinematheque is hosting the touring retrospective on overlooked French master Jacques Rivette, most famous for Celine and Julie Go Boating--a through-the-looking-glass metaphysical comedy that I wrote about here. That film opened the retrospective, and the series continues each Saturday...but, alas, without Out 1, his 729-minute opus (I guess since they played the 450-minute Satantango last semester, they thought we needed a longer break from the marathon cinema sessions). The first in their Rivette series which I've been able to catch is The Nun, his ultra-controversial adaptation of the 18th century Denis Diderot novel about Catholic corruption.
There's a whole genre of late 18th to early 19th century novels about depraved Catholic clergy, in which Diderot's novel fits snugly, and at times, in watching this film, I was reminded of one of my favorite books that's right out of that genre, Matthew Lewis' The Monk, which is about the extreme lengths to which a monk is driven to satisfy his unrequited sexual desires for a young woman. Here is another potboiler, just as lurid. It is divided cleanly into three acts, the third being abbreviated. In the first, a teenager, Suzanne (Anna Karina, star of many Godard films), is being forced into a convent against her will, and she refuses to take her vows; this causes a scandal, but she is nevertheless compelled to join the convent or risk living on the streets, as her callous mother will cut her off from the family's savings. Her allegiance to a sympathetic mother superior is cut short when the woman dies, and the new mother superior quickly suspects her of trying to resentfully divide the nuns against her. In fact, Sister Suzanne is only trying to contact a lawyer to win her freedom from the convent, as she was coerced into taking her vows. When the mother superior learns the truth, life becomes a waking nightmare for Suzanne: she is deprived of linens and food, even a prayer book and her rosary, and locked in a cell. She begins to grow delirious, which leads the nuns to suspect her of being possessed by the devil. Her abuse in this convent is as much psychological as it is physical, and it's arresting to watch these seemingly innocent nuns coldly conspire against each other, finally turning Suzanne into the scapegoat for all their sins. ("She thinks she's Jesus," one of the nuns sneers at one point.)
In the second act, events become more interesting, and the film heads into Bunuel territory. Suzanne has failed to win her freedom, but at least, through the efforts of her lawyer, gained transfer to another convent. At first it seems she's acquired a paradise, by comparison to her old life. The mother superior appears to be delightfully frivolous, and lets Suzanne play her harpsichord and lead the nuns in a singalong love song. But something else is going on that only gradually reveals itself to Suzanne: at first it seems that the mother superior is using her favoritism toward Suzanne as a method of psychological warfare against one of the other sisters. But then the mother superior begins to flirt with Suzanne, and invites herself into her bed chamber in the middle of the night...
In the third act, Suzanne finally gains her freedom, only to discover, inevitably, that "society" offers as many prisons, in various guises. This plays out very quickly, as the pace of this rather long film suddenly picks up and skips ahead through time, underlining the black satire of the premise while rushing ahead toward a tragic conclusion, which isn't hard to predict. For all its obviousness, Rivette's film is magnificently subversive. Towards the end of the picture, the convents have been transformed from the expected stereotype of prayers, confessions, choir, and seclusion in silent rooms, into a dark labyrinth of sinister traps made of pride, vanity, jealousy, and lust. Typical of this 18th-century genre, the plot's sole purpose is to point out that those whom society has deemed the most pious prove invariably to be the most deeply corrupt. I get a kick out of this stuff. There's just something about the luridness of the story, the desperation of the characters, and the giddy breaking of taboos by the author. In this case, it was too much for the Minister of Information in France, who banned the film. It seems inevitable, since the lesbian lust of the second act isn't hinted at, but spelled out, underlined, and highlighted in bright yellow marker.
The film is rather drably shot--appropriately, given the milieu--and not at all stylish, like the films of Karina's then-husband, Godard. There are only brief flashes of an experimental, cacophanous score, and the odd jump-cut, to add a bit of interest here and there. But Rivette is keenly interested in the storytelling, which is never less than compelling, and Karina transfixes the audience, perfectly portraying the only character in the film who presents a resolute moral pillar. Given to suicidal inclinations, and sometimes hanging to sanity by a thread, she is nonetheless determined to keep her faith in God and do right by him--which, perversely, requires escaping the one place which is supposed to be closest to him. It's a potboiler, yes, but a brilliant one.