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The Nun (La Religieuse): Berlin Review

The Nun Religieuse - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Polished sister act held together by a terrific lead performance.

Venue

Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Director

Guillaume Nicloux

Cast

Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Louise Bourgoin, Agathe Bonitzer

Pauline Etienne, Louise Bourgoin and Isabelle Huppert star in Guillaume Nicloux's update of Denis Diderot's classic novel.

BERLIN --  Denis Diderot’s infamous 18th century novel of faith, hypocrisy and the oversexed sisterhood is given a classy makeover in director Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun (La Religieuse). Altogether engaging if not all that original, this polished period piece is primarily a showcase for budding Belgian actress Pauline Etienne, whose studied portrayal of a rebellious young abbess should propel her into further starring roles in the future, if not to a possible prize in Berlin, where the film premiered in competition. Released in France by Le Pacte in late March, The Nun will convert those viewers who like their costume dramas well performed and squeaky clean.

Although Diderot’s posthumously published roman-memoires is a staple of many a French classroom, it’s less known overseas, and that may also help the movie garner attention outside the usual Francophone markets. In fact, the last time an adaptation was attempted -- by Jacques Rivette, in one of his less loopy efforts – it became an auteur cause celebre when the Catholic church censored it from local release, until Jean-Luc Godard and other public intellectuals lobbied to have the ban lifted. (It was eventually released in 1967, although slapped with an NC-17-style rating.)

Things are of course different today, and one of the updates Nicloux and co-writer Jerome Beaujour (La Moustache) have made to the original text is to give its 16-year-old heroine, Suzanne Simonin (Etienne), much more of a fighting spirit -- up to and including a revised ending that emphasizes her rise from victim to heroine. For the rest, the screenwriters stick closely to Diderot’s condemning depiction of a stifling and corrupt religious order, to which young women are handed over by feckless parents who, for various reasons, can neither pay their way or marry them off.

This is the case for Suzanne, who happens to be a real believer, but who gives the convent a go early on and realizes that all the ritualistic pomp, coupled with the lack of true freedom, isn’t really her cup of tea. Unfortunately, her parents think otherwise, and when Suzanne's mother (Martina Gedeck) tells her she’s the bastard child of a short-lived love affair, the girl is sent back to the nunnery to “expatiate” the sins of her family.

These early sequences, where Suzanne’s spirit is caught between true faith and the hypocritical nature of the church, are among the film’s strongest, and Nicloux finds some clever visual metaphors to express his character’s submission, most notably in a botched vow-taking ceremony that has her literally buried beneath the cloth. When she eventually does agree to accept the Order, she only learns about it after waking up in a haze two days later, as if the whole conversion was some sort of bad trip.

Things get progressively worse when the convent’s kindly, if not entirely honest head mother (Francoise Lebrun) mysteriously dies and is replaced by Sister Christine (the usually giddy Louise Bourgoin), a Superior Bitch with a penchant for outright cruelty, especially toward the younger sisters. Suzanne, who refuses to bow down and is accused of stealing writing material -- for which she pens the memoire that frames the narrative -- soon finds herself the subject of one humiliation after another: Her hair is chopped off, she’s stripped naked, forced to wear rags and sleep in the dungeon, and in one painful scene, lead barefoot down a staircase covered with crushed glass.

If the film remains compelling up to this point, it’s perhaps less for the slick and straightforward storytelling than for Etienne’s engrossing performance. The Belgian actress has excelled in some minor roles to date, including in Joachim Lafosse’s Private Lessons, but this is the first time she’s been given the chance to really display her chops, and she movingly portrays Suzanne’s combination of dignified virtue and subtle beauty, not to mention her defiant, bordering-on-hostile attitude and sly sense of humor.

Once Suzanne escapes the clutches of Christine, she’s transferred to another convent headed up by a much friendlier Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert). But if this seems like summer camp compared to before, things are not so simple, and the new Mother has some funny ways of having her girls prove their devotion. Compared to the rest of the movie, these late scenes are played more for laughs, which bring some pep to the proceedings but also throw the movie off balance. In the least, Huppert can now add the role of “Horny Lesbo Nun” to her long and illustrious resume.

Although this is Nicloux’s tenth theatrical feature, he’s yet to achieve auteur status in Europe, and is known more as a capable director of thrillers (The Key, Cette-femme la). While nothing in The Nun feels inspiring or truly groundbreaking, it’s certainly a well-handled package, and the strong performances are abetted by superb technical contributions, including crisp color photography by Bruno Dumont regular Yves Cape and, most notably, a series of gorgeous period costumes by Anais Romand (Holy Motors). The habits may not make the monk, but they definitely make these nuns look fabulous.

 

Production companies: Les Films du Worso, Belle Epoque Films, Versus Production

Cast: Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Louise Bourgoin, Agathe Bonitzer

Director: Guillaume Nicloux

Screenwriters: Guillaume Nicloux, Jerome Beaujour, based on the novel by Denis Diderot

Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon

Director of photography: Yves Cape

Production designer: Olivier Radot

Music: Max Richter

Costume designer: Anais Romand

Editor: Guy Lecorne

Sales Agent: Le Pacte

No rating, 110 minutes