The Chequered History of Nuns in Film

Guillaume Nicloux's 'The Nun' has a translucent woman at its centre; her face at first a budding rose becomes increasingly drawn and bruised over the course of the film.

The history of nuns in cinema is a chequered one. As far as adaptations of Denis Diderot’s controversial 1796 novel La Religieuse go, Guillaume Nicloux’s new interpretation has a long shadow cast over it: Jacques Rivette and Anna Karina collaborated on a version in 1966, at the height of the global social revolution, where the subject of a woman forced into and oppressed by a convent burned with injustice and righteousness, especially as the French Catholic Church banned it.

Nicloux’s new adaptation has a woman as translucent as Karina at its centre; Pauline Etienne has the face of a budding rose, with her large, open features becoming increasingly drawn and bruised over the course of the film.

If The Nun feels rather oddly placed in a modern cinematic landscape, it’s somewhat comprehensible through Nicloux’s approach. Yves Cape’s cinematography has a crisp, nude look to it, the sort where the physical exhaustion of the central character makes itself evident through the imagery.

The first two acts of the film are dedicated to showing the mental and physical erosion of Suzanne (Etienne) who, after informing her mother that ‘Christ is my lover’, is convinced to enter a convent. ‘I feel like that wrong note sealed my fate,’ she narrates softly, having tripped up during a piano recital, and immediately establishes her idiosyncratic status as an outsider.

Suzanne’s spirit doesn’t take to the lifestyle of religious devotion, but it seems that once you’re in, it’s hard to get out, despite the Sisters’ protestations that ‘no girl has ever been held here against their will’. Emotional blackmail 1700s-style — ‘You would disobey your mother?’ – can’t quite keep her there, but her mother’s (Martina Gedeck) revelation that Suzanne is the bastard child of a secret love affair manages it. What else, after all, for a discredited girl to do?

These few scenes outside the convent effectively portray the silent sacrifices of women and the louder regrets of men, neither of which are as simple as they might be. A late revelation from a priest comes as a particularly poignant moment.

Thrust back into the sisterhood, her inherent resistance shamed from her, act two sees Suzanne crumble physically as her discomfort and dislike for the convent is demonised by those around her, particularly Sister Superior Christine (Louise Bourgoin), who at one point turns up flanked by two cronies, shot from below as if she’s about to brandish a gun and slice an earlobe off. Etienne’s astonishing physical erosion is reminiscent of Michael Fassbender’s commitment to Hunger, but it’s alleviated by the caricatured approach to the other nuns, whose hatred is frequently too cartoonish to cohere with the bare realistic presence of Etienne.

The film’s third act then journeys into some peculiar kind of camp. Suzanne moves to another convent and finds herself the object of the affections of her new Superior, Saint-Eutrope (Isabelle Huppert). The abruptness of the tonal shift is hardly surprising, as Suzanne gladly breaks away from Christine’s oppressive domain into a more welcoming, homely convent that has interiors more reminiscent of an old chateau. The similarities of physical oppression and sexual fetishisation could be productive bedfellows, but the adjacent acts barely seem to exist in the same world.

Huppert’s sinister friendliness makes for a film suddenly high on comic tension as opposed to the gruelling tightness of the previous act, and Nicloux’s film loads Huppert with an abundance of ripe dialogue to suit. It’s hardly the scorching psychological portrait we’re used to seeing from the actress, but everyone has to cut loose sometime, and Huppert perhaps recognises that Etienne has that need covered here. Above all, The Nun is a stirring breakthrough for the young actress, whose commitment both physically and emotionally cuts directly through the film’s more ludicrous moments with an honesty that’s almost shaming.

Nicloux and co-writer Jérôme Beaujour have upgraded Suzanne from Diderot’s wan victim to someone with a little bit of fight, making for a more involving conflict as she tears against the wages of oppression, but The Nun still feels rather like a relic. It’s a handsome, peculiar, rather staid period piece where the more absurd tinges to the filmmaking often prevent the raw power from resonating.

The narrative’s inherent conflict between true faith and the manipulation of it through organised religion’s bigoted doctrines is an issue that lingers today, and the overtly sapphic depiction of Huppert’s character makes for a final act slightly more alert than the previous stretch of film. The on-going revelations about the Catholic Church make The Nun’s brief closing provocations about the unsuitable channels same sex desire is forced into relevant, if not entirely meaningful.

At times, The Nun has embers of the raw power that should linger long in the memory, but the effect is faded by the inconsistency of the filmmaking. Diderot’s text has become a standard for French classrooms, and likewise, Nicloux’s adaptation feels like there’s a little too much dust resting upon it. In Etienne’s performance, there’s a powerful punch fighting to break out, but the book is firmly shut, and the chalk is already etched on the blackboard. Essays in, grades middling.

RATING 4 / 10