In a 1968 interview with Cahiers du cinéma, former Cahiers editor-in-chief and filmmaker Jacques Rivette made the provocative comment that “the cinema is necessarily fascination and rape, that is how it acts on people; it is something unclear, something one sees shrouded in darkness, where you project the same things as in dreams”1 – an echo of Luis Buñuel’s assertion that “Sometimes, watching a movie is a bit like being raped.”2 Rivette’s innate understanding of cinema’s capacity to unsettle had, surprisingly, already been confirmed when his second feature film, La religieuse (The Nun, 1966), was banned before its release by France’s State Secretary of Information, Yvon Bourges. The prohibition of this filmic adaptation of Denis Diderot’s 1796 novel of the same name, which Rivette had previously directed for the stage, is striking given his austere and restrained portrayal of the appalling treatment of a young woman named Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina), who is forced into a convent by her parents. Indeed, scholar Fabienne-Sophie Chauderlot contends that the more salacious aspects of Diderot’s text are “deliberately toned down in the visual representation.”3 With the film’s official release delayed by two years, Karina would reflect in 2016 that neither she nor Rivette understood the real basis for the controversy.4
This view is mirrored in a 1966 review in The New York Times following a special screening of the film at Cannes, which states that the reasons behind banning the film are “a riddle.”5 Providing a fresh perspective in 2018, Jonathan Rosenbaum writes that the ban “reportedly stemmed almost entirely from the status of Diderot’s novel as a condemned book for practicing Catholics and from the consequent bias of Charles de Gaulle’s devout wife.”6. The scandal, which has formed the foundation of The Nun’s cinematic legacy, has arguably overshadowed the serious work that Rivette set out to achieve in the film: an exploration of the insidious and sanctioned abuse entrenched within the structures of the church, along with the institution’s cruel subjugation of female agency.
The viewer is introduced to the paradoxical space of the church in the opening sequence’s self-reflexive voice-over narration, which situates the film in relation to Diderot’s novel, the true story of Marguerite Delamarre on which the novel was based and the historical time period of the film’s setting. In these opening moments, convent life in the 1760s is described as “often only outwardly a true religious life […] In many of them [convents], a life of luxury was the rule. The religious life lost all meaning.” This disjuncture is portrayed in two disparate nunneries in the film: the first cloister where Suzanne is interned, governed by the sadistic Sister Sainte-Christine (Francine Bergé), who subjects Suzanne to starvation, ostracism, emotional cruelty and torture; and the seemingly liberated convent run by Mme de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver), who exploits her position of power to seduce the young nuns under her care. Suzanne, however, is under no illusion about how her betrothal to God will impact on her life, and – in a scene symbolically filmed behind bars –initially refuses to take her vows. Her protest is met with the disapproval of her parents; the curtain separating the sacred world and the witnesses of Suzanne’s oppression is drawn by an irate nun, and Suzanne is physically silenced.
In Mary M. Wiles’ book-length study of Rivette’s career, she posits that “within this initial scene, the codes of theater – architectural, cultural, gestural – are encrypted within the film text.”7 Far from simply performing as a gesture towards The Nun’s previous life as a stage play, Rivette’s use of the restrictive spatial conventions of the theatre serves to visually emphasise Suzanne’s confinement. Early in the film, it is ironically speculated that if she fails to take her vows, Suzanne will meet the far worse fate of prison. The convents in which she is captured, claustrophobically composed of tiny “cells” in which the nuns sleep, are embellished with prison-like bars and grilles, veils and curtains, and gardens that are landscaped to hide a view of what lies beyond. Meanwhile, Suzanne is continuously framed exclusively in medium or long shots, highlighting her intolerable entrapment within these spaces as she attempts to maintain her sanity in the face of harrowing treatment and engage a lawyer to fight for her release.
The sense of oppression is heightened by the bizarrely discordant soundtrack, which inserts non-diegetic sounds of birdsong, chirping crickets, playing children, babbling brooks and – most ominously – the ringing of church bells. On one hand, the soundscape derived from nature serves to remind Suzanne of the everyday life beyond the walls of the cloister and her abject isolation. On the other, the bells are a traumatic aural reminder of her current state. Initially heard over the opening credits, their persistent and deafening ringing throughout the film functions as a warning sign of Suzanne’s severe distress. Given that the film eschews the epistolary style of Diderot’s novel, which is structured through Suzanne’s first-person narration, Alan J. Singerman convincingly asserts that Rivette links the soundtrack to “Suzanne’s inner world in the most intimate way.”8 This is best encapsulated in the scene in which Suzanne first dons the veil, which is accompanied by a dissonant, percussive effect that underscores the bewildering situation into which she has been coerced against her will.
Despite the intonation of Suzanne’s emotional register via the soundtrack, the trajectory of her story is marked by effacement. Before taking her vows of “chastity, poverty, obedience”, she is told, “You know who are you and what you can expect.” After taking the veil, she is “Sister Suzanne, that is all,” and will later overhear Sister Sainte-Christine instructing the other nuns to “walk over her – a corpse” after she collapses from starvation. Her desperate fight for freedom resonates in her statement that, if she escapes the veil, she “shall appear.” In the shadow of recent controversies surrounding the church and the public outcry of the #MeToo movement, the themes of Rivette’s The Nun are, sadly, still relevant today.
• • •
La religieuse (The Nun, 1966 France 140 minutes)
Prod. Co: Rome Paris Films, Société Nouvelle de Cinématographie (SNC) Prod: Georges de Beauregard Dir: Jacques Rivette Scr: Jean Gruault, Jacques Rivette Phot: Alain Levent Ed: Denise de Casabianca Mus: Jean-Claude Eloy Prod. Des: Jean-Jacques Fabre, Guy Littaye Cost: Gitt Magrini
Cast: Anna Karina, Liselotte Pulver, Micheline Presle, Francine Bergé, Francisco Rabal, Christiane Lénier
- Jacques Rivette, quoted in, Alan Williams, Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 375. ↩
- Luis Buñuel, My Last Sigh, Abigail Israel, trans. (London: Vintage, 1984), p. 69. ↩
- Fabienne-Sophie Chauderlot, “‘Becoming Image’: Deleuzian Echoes in Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse,” Eighteenth Century Life 25.1 (Winter 2001): p. 95. ↩
- “Anna Karina on Jacques Rivette,” YouTube, 11 May 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cAGQpBWil8 ↩
- Bosley Crowther, “Diderot’s Nun Shown at Cannes with Special Permit for Festival,” The New York Times, 7 May 1966, p. 18. ↩
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Sister of Mercy,” Sight & Sound, 28.10 (October 2018): p. 85 ↩
- Mary M. Wiles, Jacques Rivette (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012), p. 27. ↩
- Alan J. Singerman, “Desperately Seeking Suzanne: The Semiotics of the Sound Track in Jacques Rivette’s La Religieuse,” Diderot Studies, 28 (2000): p. 143. ↩