The Nun Review
A vastly different movie to another with the same title released this month, Jacques Rivette's historical drama The Nun is a masterful takedown of religion, institutional misogyny, and the intense boredom imposed on reluctant youth. It features Anna Karina in a role that wonderfully displays her talents as an actress, and despite being somewhat of a slog to get through, I guarantee it will stick with you long after viewing.
After being told by her cold and indifferent mother that she was the result of a brief fling with a now-deceased lover, Suzanne (brought to life by Karina) is forced to become a Nun and enter a convent, the alternative being a life of poverty. The defiant Suzanne becomes increasingly beaten down by her repressive surroundings, and despite brief glimmers of hope, the movie is mostly an exploration of her intense misery. In classic New Wave style, it is also bookended by an explanation from Rivette of the controversial source material, Denis Diverot's novel La Religiuese, which encourages you not to think of the film as an immersive experience, but instead a highly self-aware critique. Rather than willing you to feel involved in Suzanne's life, which I certainly did as somewhat of a side effect, it asks you to reflect on how this bleak situation could have occurred, and whether similar events are happening in your own time and place.
Though interesting and worthwhile in so many other ways, The Nun is worth watching for Karina's performance alone. Working within a role in which she is reduced to silence more often than not, and physically restricted by stifling or constricting costumes, her ability to express herself with her facial features alone is incredibly impressive. Rivette's tendency to isolate her in the corner of the room could also prove a challenge for another actress, but Karina radiates rebellion here, and her well-justified anger, misery and eventual apathy permeates each scene.
A formal technique often associated with the New Wave is movement, both physically and narratively. Francois Truffaut's camera jostles to follow Jules and Jim in their now iconic race against love interest Catherine, and the pace of a movie like Jean-Luc Godard's Vivre Sa Vie is breakneck at points. Going against this trope, Rivette lingers almost tortuously over the religious rituals Suzanne must suffer through, her boredom becoming the audiences own. The frame is rendered in a similar fashion; the arrangement of characters cloistered by churches and convents frequently reminded me of a Medieval painting.
The restoration of this film is beautiful and well worth purchasing for anyone interested in this period of film history. Having said this, the only extras on the DVD are a trailer for the film and a short featuring interviews with Karina and others about the controversy generated by both the movie and its original existence as a play. Though these special features are certainly interesting and worth watching, for fans of Rivette it's understandable if some may be disappointed by this admittedly small amount of extra content.
Following a theatrical re-release in July, Jacques Rivette's takedown of religion and societal oppression at large The Nun will be out on DVD on 17 September - the movie receiving more attention this year feels appropriate. An overtly political critique on the arbitrary cruelty of societal structures and norms, it still provides some thoughts to chew on today - particularly the notion that even a man who may initially appear against the system could later support it in even more damaging ways. If you can handle a runtime of well over two hours long and are prepared for how nihilistic and upsetting The Nun can become, I couldn't recommend it more highly.