The Nun is based upon a classic French novel by Diderot, which has also inspired a classic film by Jacques Rivette. Having not been familiar with either rendition of the tale prior I cannot comment on its faithfulness of it or its lack thereof, but I was fairly riveted throughout much of this film. Its a tale where fate and circumstance take our protagonist and put her through the wringer and it seems there will be no end to her downward spiral. This is fairly standard of the fiction of the time. It is the rumination on convents, social mores, religion and the performances that give this film the variety it needs to work.
As stated by Film Movement the synopsis is:
Born to a bourgeois family in 1760s France, Suzanne is a beautiful young girl with a natural talent for music. Inexplicably, her parents abruptly decide to send young Suzanne off to a convent, where she resists structure at every turn until she discovers that she is an illegitimate child. Left with no other option, she pronounces her vows and suffers the consequences of her mother’s sin. Still uncertain of her path and wishing to revoke her vows, Suzanne’s only ally, the Mother Superior, dies and is succeeded by Sister Christine, a sadistic and cruel woman who inflicts the worst forms of humiliation imaginable upon the young nun. Suzanne is finally transferred to another convent, only to discover another kind of Mother Superior, a woman who develops an inappropriately affectionate bond with her new charge. Ultimately, The Nun, based on the classic French novel by Diderot, is the story of a woman trying to resist imposed religious values and the dehumanizing effect of cloistered life.
What can plague a film of this kind, where there is virtually no escape throughout a vast majority of it, is the structure. Thankfully, there are changes in routine, locale and escalations in treatment, which invariably lead to different editing patterns that help spice up the flow. The film’s cut-points flowing one scene into another, cinematography and the sparing use of the mellifluous score also aid in varying what may seem like redundancy if one was merely looking at a beat-sheet.
Another interesting amalgamation of this tale is that there is an element of bildungsroman to this teardown of a religious convention and social mores. Suzanne’s virtual incarceration is incited by a trumped-up interpretation of her affection for a young man. Madame Simonin (Martina Gedeck) fearing that her daughter will make similar mistakes to those she made she is shipped to a nunnery. The over-punishment of children for the sins of parents are one thing, but the deeper commentary in this film is how a seemingly more religious society lead to the ruination of lives and the self-imposed strictures of religion lead to the corrosion of institutions like convents.
It seems as if its increasingly difficult to find films with a strong female presence these days. Never mind being progressive or passing the Bechdel Test, just having films fronted by female personages seems a rarer occurrence lately. Therefore, even though this is a eighteenth century tale about one woman needing to rebel simply to not be a victim of fate and circumstance it does remain significant and relevant. Having three very strong female performances at the forefront Suzanne (Pauline Etienne) and the Mother Superiors (Louise Bourgoin and Isabelle Huppert) is noteworthy indeed.
Most impressive about Etienne is that not only are there many notes to her performance, even many notes to her agonizing; never does her would-be martyrdom become trite or un-engaging. She remains magnetic and effective throughout and runs the gamut from ingenue to glassy-eyed mort vivant and everywhere in between. Isabelle Huppert’s desires fester and manifest themselves with equal parts awkwardness and oppression which create a perfect atmosphere of discomfort. The trap for Bourgoin’s character is being seemingly too one-dimensional. However, he cruelty is so perfectly-rendered it terrifies persistently without becoming cartoonish or boring.
The Nun lands a bit softer in the end than I anticipated perhaps because of the fact that it stuck too closely too the book, though I cannot say for certain. Regardless, the journey is well worth it. On the religious end it would be likely to draw skeptics and free-thinking believers alike. From the cinematic spectrum fans of dramas and French cinema should be on the look-out for this film.