NEW YORK — The May 28 video release by KL Classics of Jacques Rivette’s “The Nun,” an adaptation of Denis Diderot’s 18th-century novel “La Religieuse,” revives memories of the long-ago controversy that surrounded this once-notorious movie.
Diderot’s novel has been adapted for the stage and also was made into a 2013 French film. But only Rivette’s version has a transgressive reputation. Completed in 1966, it was not distributed in France until the following year because of a ban by the French Ministry of Information. It was not seen in the United States until 1971.
This was due to its portrayal of some abusive nuns and of a romantically obsessed lesbian mother superior. But the film’s shock value has long dissipated. In fact, the homosexual material is, by current standards, not only less than lurid, but also unintentionally comic.
Its implied criticism of the cloistering of women as an unnatural arrangement is far removed from the ugly nunsploitation genre, and the production, considered an exemplar of French New Wave Cinema, has some of the stodginess of any film based on classic literature.
It opens with a prologue explaining that the story is a work of fiction, is not meant to represent actual working conditions of modern women religious, and — the key to the drama — that, at the time, families who couldn’t afford dowries for their daughters sometimes forced them into convents. This might put one in mind of being about to see an assignment for history class.
A restoration from the film’s original negative had a brief limited release in theaters in January, prompting Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights to write, “What would possess Diderot to paint such a dark picture of nuns? Anger. Anger at the Catholic Church’s sexual ethics.”
At least on screen, it’s not an angry story, though. At the time of its 1971 American run, the furor had passed, and Henry Herx, reviewing the film for what at one time was called the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures, remarked: “In point of fact, the film on its own merits was really not worth all the fuss.” He gave it an A-IV rating, equivalent to the L rating (limited adult audience) used by the Media Review Office of Catholic News Service today.
When the project was first announced, there had been protests from women religious in France, concerned, unsurprisingly, that the drama would give a false portrayal of their vocation. In 1966, the French Film Censorship Commission recommended release for viewers older than 18. But Yvon Bourges, state secretary of information, vetoed that recommendation on grounds of “disturbing the public order.”
In 1967, a new information minister, Georges Gorse, reversed the decision after a year of protests by filmmakers and intellectuals over artistic rights, and French audiences predictably flocked to showings. Four years later in America, it was just another foreign film that attracted small audiences in the cities where it was shown.
What was all the excitement ever about?
Suzanne (Anna Karina) is from a family with enough money to educate her, but there’s a twist — she’s illegitimate, the result of her mother’s long-ago affair. Her mother says there’s no money for a dowry, and furthermore, she wants to expiate her sin. So Suzanne is shipped off to an austere convent at Longchamp.
Suzanne has faith — there’s never a question about that — but she feels no calling. She considers herself a Christian who is not bound to any theological arguments. Her one question is, “What if I am not meant to be a nun?”
The abbess at Longchamp, Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), is sympathetic to Suzanne’s plight, which can only be resolved by a court. And since the French government and the Catholic Church operated as one at the time, Suzanne’s prospects are bleak.
When Madame de Moni dies and an unsympathetic superior, Sister Sainte-Christine (Francine Berge), takes over, Suzanne’s travails begin. Accused of burning her hair shirt and smuggling out a letter to a lawyer, she’s first ostracized, then put in the dankest cell in the place, then starved and essentially left to die before a bishop steps in — after which she’s transferred to a more cheerful convent at Arpajon.
Its abbess, Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver), is worldly — a libertine with a lace-trimmed habit and a massive pearl necklace — and the audience gets an instant idea of what’s up when she trills, upon seeing Suzanne, “How pretty she is!”
Other sisters warn Suzanne about the mother superior’s proclivities. But her ensuing attempts at seduction, as her obsession with the new nun grows, play out as more comedic than threatening.
Suzanne escapes from there with the help of a monk, Dom Morel (Francisco Rabal), who tells her he’s lost his faith and longs to escape. They do so together, but Suzanne finds that he, too, has carnal intentions.
This sends her running to a village where she works as a seamstress, despite being a fugitive. Then she ends up — in a segment not taken from the novel — in a brothel, as her tragic descent reaches its nadir.
Let’s allow Herx’s review to have the final word: “Suzanne’s unflinching adherence to Christian values as she understands them, even though she is ultimately driven to her own destruction, may actually be commended. But while the exaggerations and stereotyped characters and situations may annoy or disturb some audiences, the historical context of the religious and political milieu of 18th-century France is not without interest.”
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