The Nun clocks in at two hours and twenty minutes—one of Jacques Rivette’s shorter films. In addition to length, his real-time approach challenges the patience of filmgoers. Containing fewer long takes than normal for Rivette, The Nun stands out as relatively kinetic in theory, although the plodding sense of time is not lost. Set in 1760, the story concerns an unwilling nun, Suzanne (Anna Karina), forced into convent life after her marriage prospects are squandered by her irresponsible parents. The claustrophobia inherent in the austere location more than compensates for the lack of Rivette’s trademark shot durations. Even if it contained brisk editing, which it does not, the story would still proceed like a dirge.
Based on a novel by Diderot, The Nun’s depiction of religious volition, and the corruption/lack thereof within the clergy, caused controversy at the time of publishing and release. The resounding judgement of religion is not of concept or practice but of organization, denouncing the oppressive and hierarchical systems that seems more intent on sequestering unwanted and willful women away from society than honoring God. The most telling aspect of this heretical statement arises early on, when the single religious authority figure, whose motivations are benevolent and based on a true calling for religious guidance, Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), dies soon after she’s introduced, and Suzanne is left to the wolves.
The first of these antagonists is Sister Saint Christine (Francine Bergé), a vindictive and tyrannical Mother Superior whose harsher and harsher punishments lead Suzanne into depths of torturous isolation and humiliation. A figure for all clerical officials who abuse their station in their pursuit to feel godly themselves, de Chelles remains the imposing figure for roughly the first half of the film, a criticism of so-called religious vocation in all its hypocrisy. Later, Suzanne finds herself under the matronage of Madame de Chelles, a cherubic and seemingly nurturing caregiver who soon reveals a carnal side that threatens Suzanne’s already tenuous sense of security within the convent.
For The Nun, Anna Karina channels the punishing physicality of Renée Jeanne Falconetti of Carl Theodor Dyer’s masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, her movements intermittently jolting and sluggish, her skeletal face pale and waxen and subject to flashes of cosmic horror and disembodied fugue. Far from a canonically angelic figure, Karina’s nun is a pitiful wretch, a literal prisoner condemned to the rooms which convents and monasteries unironically call cells in tandem with other institutions of confinement.
Though bleak and miserable, The Nun contains a sort of hidden ecstacy, compliments of Rivette’s Bazinian mission of total cinema. Uncompromisingly restrained and deliberately paced, the desire for escapism, even in the masochistic realm of the weepy melodrama, is stricken down in favor of genuine experience. Suzanne’s despair, her entrapment, and yes, her boredom, are ours. And in those few moments of extravagance are cinematic miracles: ruby flowers encircling a fountain, brief but enchantingly ominous musical scoring, and effervescent projections of light from the arched, stain glass windows that line the otherwise dreary stone corridors. Even in the film’s abrupt and tragic ending, there exists a harmonious sense of relief and catharsis, a sudden release of the fruitless struggle that preceded it.
For patient viewers, The Nun is an excellent feel-bad film with a secular but spiritual appeal, though the unrelenting severity and somberness may nag at some. Admittedly, I found myself squirming a few times, hoping that Rivette would momentarily let up if only just to provide a brief solace. But indeed, that denial of pleasure is the entire point— Suzanne’s sorrowful reality and the undue burdens of organized religion. | Nic Champion
This release contains a commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton, a making-of documentary, and an excellent booklet essay by Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.