Title: La Religieuse (The Nun)
Director: Guillaume Nicloux
Starring: Pauline Étienne, Isabelle Huppert, Louise Bourgoin, Martina Gedeck, Françoise Lebrun.
The father of French Enlightenment and co-founder of l’Encyclopédie along with Jean le Rond d’Alembert, Denis Diderot, in 1758 wrote the story of a freedom-loving woman who was forced into convent against her will (that was published posthumously in 1796). Diderot was very much of a rebel himself: he married a woman below his social status, the fatherless and dowryless Antoinette Champion. Their only daughter was named after Denis’ mother and sister Angélique. Diderot’s sibling was a nun who died from overwork in the convent and she might be the one who affected his opinion on religion and inspired the novel that was lately adapted for the big screen by Guillaume Nicloux.
Suzanne Simonin is forced to enter a monastery by her family, since she was generated by a man who is not her mother’s husband, as well as the fact that a suitable dowry cannot be paid for her. The novice endures continual harassment from one Mother Superior and is therefore transferred to a different convent, where she will becomes subject to an excess of attentions from another Mother Superior. But through all her mishaps Suzanne will never stop fighting for her pursuit of secularisation.
In 1966, former editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, Jaques Rivette made a movie out of Diderot’s ‘La Religieuse,’ that created a sensation, since the Catholic church censored it from local release, until Jean-Luc Godard and other public intellectuals lobbied to have the ban lifted. The following year the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and gained great recognition. Nowadays things are different and Nicloux’s remake – presented at the 63rd Berlin Film Festival – certainly did not arouse the controversy of the 60s.
The lead Belgian actress, Pauline Etienne, portrays Suzanne brilliantly with great emotion without overdramatising her. Every move, tear, frown, are perfectly pitched. The divine Isabelle Huppert is outstanding in her role as the libidinous Sapphic-cougar Supérieur Saint-Eutrope. Just as Louise Bourgoin makes a quietly fiendish Supérieur Christine and Francoise Lebrun is (grand)maternal to the right degree as Suzanne’s initial spiritual mentor, Madame de Moni. The camera rolls with simplicity through the entire story, as the setting and events give the solemn and mystical allure. Nicloux and co-writer Jerome Beaujour have rearranged the original text so that the young heroine’s fighting spirit is emphasised, yet they followed very closely Diderot’s condemnation of a stifling and corrupt religious order.
All in all Nicloux’s ‘The Nun’ definitely is in line with Diderot’s outcry for freedom of conscience, denouncing any form of the oppression of this right. Religious faith isn’t reprimanded, rather the deformations and indignities that are committed in its name.
Written by: Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi