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Film review: The Nun (1966)

03 August 2018

Stephen Brown sees the restored version of a New Wave film banned in 1960s France

A still from Rivette’s The Nun (1966), now digitally restored

A still from Rivette’s The Nun (1966), now digitally restored

JACQUE RIVETTE’s 1966 The Nun (Cert. 12A) has been given a 4K restoration for its cinema re-release, which precedes a release on DVD by StudioCanal in September. Not to be confused with other adaptations of the philosopher Denis Diderot;s (1713-1784) novel, this telling, in line with fellow Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, challenged Gaullist France with its cry for freedom.

It is curious that in the Swinging Sixties, as the Second Vatican Council was revising some of the Roman Catholic Church’s harsher monastic practices, the film came under attack. The script is faithful to Diderot’s well-known text. A play version that preceded the film experienced no such objections. When, however, it became known that La Religieuse was going to be made into a film, the Secretary of State for Information, Alain Peyrefitte, and de Gaulle’s wife were bombarded with objections, chiefly from former students of RC schools.

Church and State yielded to this pressure in a classic case of opposition to something about which people had no knowledge. Despite a nomination for the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, it was banned as blasphemous. When eventually it was allowed a release, it came with an 18-rating. Yet nothing in the film is hostile to religion itself. The Nun acts more as a parable about liberty, secular or sacred, in a society that oppresses women and uses ideology to maintain power.

Anna Karina plays Suzanne Simonin, an illegitimate young woman incarcerated in a convent by her parents. The film begins with her in a wedding dress — a bride of Christ — before she revolts against the vows that she is expected to make. We learn how Suzanne’s mother cannot bear to look at her, a shameful reminder of an illicit sexual relationship. The girl is also a convenient scapegoat for others who have under duress taken vows, often projecting their anger at an oppressive, patriarchal society by making Suzanne suffer.

Various Mother Superiors are kind, cruel, or lustful in their treatment of her. The film plays as an essay on what options are left to those whose resistance has been quelled. The film became widely available not long before the 1968 student uprisings. One wonders what part The Nun may have played in awakening the young in their desire to change the world.

There is a scene in Rivette’s film where Suzanne is imprisoned by the Sisters, broken glass is strewn in her cell, and she is half-starved, only to be declared mad and in the devil’s grasp. It is plain to the viewer that if anything is demonic, it is this distortion of Christianity’s message of love. Rivette rarely gives us a close-up. It is as if he keeps an objective distance from the characters being scrutinised. He is saying: this is what repressed people do to one another. Be warned.

New Wave directors were rejecting “the Cinema of Papa” and its attitudes. Rivette’s film uses the stigma of illegitimacy, which robs Suzanne of her dowry, as symbolic of a society in which parental sins continue to be visited on their children. Through its cloistered characters, he pictures our world as a prison that we can dare dream of escaping.

Showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1, until 2 August. Phone 020 7930 3647. www.ica.art

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