Guillaume Nicloux’s The Nun (La Religieuse, 2013) is based upon French philosopher, art critic and writer Denis Diderot’s controversial novel of the same name. Previously adapted by Jacques Rivette, whose daringly derogatory adaptation was originally banned by the French censors for its controversial representation of the church, The Nun’s infamous story has all the ingredients required for a gripping, divisive religious expose. We’re regaled with the confession of defiant sister Suzanne Simonin (played with aplomb by Pauline Etienne), whose forceful incarceration within a nunnery led her to compose a memoir of her suffering.
After paying the dowry for her two older sister’s weddings, Suzanne’s families can no longer afford to marry her off, with the only financially viable option to send her of to the local nunnery. Suzanne is sent against her wish, yet her life within this secular compound is made easier thanks to a caring and supportive mother superior. However, when she mysteriously dies, Suzanne finds herself under the authoritarian watch of Supérieure Christine (Lousie Bourgoin) and is consequently subjected to vicious prejudice, religious fanaticism and physical punishment.
Commendably eschewing the controversial issue of immoral activity within Catholicism, The Nun narrows its focus onto the more universal issue of an individual made to feel helpless by a pitiless system – a fitting allegory for everything from state repression to the suppressed role of women within certain religious beliefs. Distancing itself from its central premise helps creates a far more comprehensive story, an approach only amplified by cinematographer Yves Cape, whose palette of bright white and subdued blues creates an artificial sense of purity. Sadly this sumptuous aesthetic only carries the film so far, before a tragic and incomprehensible nosedive in the final act turns this tragic tale into a laughably timid romp.
Once Suzanne manages to free herself from the malevolent clutches of Supérieure Christine, she’s relocated to another nunnery where her malaise towards the church will be better accepted. It’s here she meets the warm, comforting (and perhaps a little too friendly) Supérieure Saint Eutrope (played by the usually reliable Isabelle Huppert). At this moment, The Nun transforms from a reputable religious drama into a farcical pantomime of pathetic sexual advances and cringe-inducing seduction. More has come to be expected of Huppert, whose performance here as a preposterously randy nun obliterates the entire film’s carefully fashioned atmosphere of helplessness and oppression, replacing it instantaneously with fits of incongruous giggling and a sense of dumbfounded disbelief.
It’s almost unfathomable as to why such a film should so abruptly disengage its audience at the final hurdle, yet somehow Nicloux’s beautiful, yet narratively imprudent, ecclesiastical endeavour manages this seemingly impossible task. The Nun is a terribly disappointing film that, through it’s inability to deviate from absurdity, has no one else to blame but itself.
The 2013 Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. For more of our Berlinale coverage, simply follow this link.