French writer Denis Diderot played an elaborate prank on the Marquis de Croismare, penning lengthy pleading letters from Suzanne – a fictional nun – which he forged into a single narrative after the jape was revealed. Guillaume Nicloux’s new adaptation of the controversial novel, The Nun (2013), sees the Marquis incorporated into the wider story in a move that flirts with a degree of contextualisation, but sadly serves only to compound its inherent flaws. There is a fine central performance and some elegant aesthetics, but neither can make up for a generic critique of Catholicism laced with dubious gender politics.
Suzanne (Pauline Etienne) is sent, against her will, to live out her adolescence in a convent, ultimately learning that her parents intend for her to take her vows as they cannot afford to marry her off. She refuses at first but, after some family skeletons are revealed, agrees to commit. No sooner has she sworn her life away than the kindly Mother Superior dies and a fanatical young replacement, Christine (Louise Bourgoin) proves far less accommodating. To Nicloux’s credit, Etienne is perfectly cast as Suzanne, the young waif who’s forced into a life she did not choose. Nicloux shifts the focus from the source’s inflammatory exposé of the Catholic Church to a more personal tale of resilience, and does so admirably.
The beautiful photography from Yves Cape serves to similarly subdue the spite inherent in the text with its pristine whites and pallid complexions emphasising the purity of the victimised Suzanne. Her maltreatment is, finally, brought to light and she is transferred to another convent. Here, though, her new Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert) proves to be a cringeworthy sexual predator whose existence undermines all of the restraint previously exhibited. If Huppert’s incongruous Sapphic desire isn’t enough to derail proceedings, then the bizarre disparity between men and women is. It is one thing for a text from the eighteenth century to favour its male characters so completely, but audiences may have hoped for a twenty-first century version to have redressed the balance a little.
Almost every female character except Suzanne is proved duplicitous, base or just plain evil with even the first doting Mother Superior played as manipulative. Luckily, men are on hand to save the day as the supportive lawyer, the heroic Marquis or the pious priests who repeatedly relieve the protagonist’s suffering at the hands of these destructive women. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, especially when Suzanne has proved to be such a winning protagonist. As it is, Nicloux’s The Nun is lovely to look at and has given Etienne a chance to shine, which she does with aplomb. Sadly, it doesn’t bare too much thinking about, which is a shame given its potential as an emotive and intelligent religious drama.