Jacques Rivette’s deeply strange 1966 story – soon out on DVD and Blu-Ray – is part erotic memoir, part melodrama.
Jacques Rivette’s 1966 reinterpretation of Denis Diderot’s 18th-century novel La Religieuse, starring the queen of the New Wave herself, Anna Karina, appeared in the Classics strand of last year’s Cannes film festival and now it gets a brief cinema outing in the UK, prior to its DVD and Blu-Ray rerelease. The ordeal of a pure young woman, as Rivette conceives it, has an eerie theatricality and mystery, as it dramatises the nature of freedom. It is part melodrama, part erotic memoir. The Nun was controversial in its day, and Lars von Trier may have studied the bat squeak of black comedy in it for his own provocations, such as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark.
Karina plays Suzanne Simonin, a young woman who is committed by her family, against her will, into a convent – the reason being that her father is not the man married to her mother. The shame of illegitimacy that she represents means her mother cannot bear to look at her. Suzanne endures this injustice in a state of shock, and her residual faith that God will deliver her from this imprisonment is futile: it is precisely the business of faith that is keeping her locked up and dependent on men outside the convent. Her destiny rests with the caprices or well-meant concern of presiding bishops and a lawyer looking after her interests.
The Mother Superior Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle) is at least kindly, but she dies and is replaced by the cruel Sister Sainte-Christine (Francine Bergé). Suzanne is then transferred to another convent, as she might be to another prison. It is a more liberal establishment, where she instantly becomes the pet of the Mother, Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver), to the petulant jealousy of all the other nuns with whose girlish affections De Chelles had previously been trifling. De Chelles’s sexual infatuation with her tests Suzanne’s faith as never before, and then a very enigmatic coda about her eventual escape appears to show there is no freedom for her anywhere.
The vast majority of the movie is shot indoors, in gloomy cloistered walkways, cells, chapels. (Where, in one rather beguiling scene, a cat strays across the floor while a service is in progress.) The rare exterior locations give this film a look of something pastoral. Perhaps it hasn’t aged quite as well as the rest of Rivette’s work, but it is still a deeply, almost unreadably strange story.