Film review: The Nun / La Religieuse

An epistolary novel such as the one Guillaume Nicloux based his upcoming film on is by nature of the confessional variety, and as such suggests a story filled with drama and scandal. This year’s adaptation of the 18th century book is the second to come along, as French director Jacques Rivette brought it to screen in 1966, causing quite a stir among the public due to its explicit questioning of authority in terms of both Church and State. While the story will meet a very different reception this time around, it certainly still packs a heavy swing against authority.

Beginning sometime in the 1760s, the story introduces us to Suzanne Simonin (Pauline Etienne), an eighteen year old girl from a high-ranking background in France. Once wealthy, her family is now suffering financial strain as a result of their eldest two daughters’ dowries. Suzanne’s coming of age presents a very real problem to them, as they cannot afford to marry her off but fear bringing shame on the family if she is not taken account of. Each member of the family exhort Suzanne to discard her freedom and become a nun for the sake of the family name. There are other reasons for her enclosure, as we later find out. Comparisons can and will be made between this and the Magdalene Laundries, perhaps illustrating the defiantly traditional nature of the Church and its unwavering strictness.

Pauline Etienne holds the audience’s attention faultlessly as the strong-willed yet compassionate young girl who has suddenly been robbed our her future in an unnervingly hushed conspiracy. Given how dramatic the events of the plot are, kudos should be given to the filmmakers for how restrained it is in its style. Not only does it move the film out of the reaches of melodrama but it adds to the strength of its main character. She is not a poor little rich girl continually brimming up with Bambi tears over her lost future, but a young woman trying to meet the demands of her family without becoming a ghost of her own self. The restraint also reflects the rigid etiquette of the era. The simple, naturalistic approach to camerawork promotes a serious face for the film’s serious content.

If you thought a story based in a convent for the most part would be pretty black and white in its depictions of morality, The Nun lets you know otherwise. The first mother superior is an image of humanity, in that she strives to be as devout as possible but still remembers what it is to live outside the convent walls. However, succeeding mother superiors only worsen Suzanne’s life through their selfish needs and corruption.

The cumulative effect of all Suzanne’s tragic experiences does create a morose atmosphere which leans heavily on the audience, but never to the point where it overtakes the benefits of watching it. Our lead is never once granted amnesty from the turmoil of duty, but then again nobody in the story is. If her mother is not feeling burdened by her indiscretions during marriage to the point of willingly sacrificing her child, the mother superior Suzanne shared an affinity with is lost amidst the injustices incurred against the innocents within the convent walls and those without. It is a fine, if not ground-breaking, story about a young girl admonished for wanting her freedom, a request far too outspoken for her day.

Aoife Ryan

The Nun is released exclusively at the IFI from 01 Nov 2013. Watch the trailer now on

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