Award-winning film critic Adrian Martin writes about The Nun (AKA La Religieuse). A 4K restoration of the film, supervised by the director's widow, screens at Arc cinema on 10 May as part of the Cinema Reborn season.
Jacques Rivette (1928–2016) almost missed out on benefitting from the entire, public phenomenon of the Nouvelle Vague – even though he was, as a core member of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd, such an integral part of it.
His first feature, Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient) began production well before Claude Chabrol’s early films, François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) and finally Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de souffle (AKA Breathless, 1960) pounded this New Wave into the minds of audiences in France and well beyond. However, due to infernal complications, its completion and release were delayed until the end of 1961. Then his second feature, The Nun (or, more properly, Suzanne Simonin, la Religieuse de Denis Diderot), went through an even more protracted birth cycle: beginning as a 1960 play (adapted by prime Nouvelle Vague screenwriter Jean Gruault) from Diderot’s novel, Rivette directed it first on the stage in early 1963, and then began the long haul of getting the necessary resources together to make it as a film.
This time, alas, finishing the work in 1966 signalled only the start of the real problems faced by Rivette and his adventurous producer, Georges de Beauregard: in the face of well-organised protests from religious quarters, the ‘Commission of Cinematic Control’ (!) banned the film from both local and overseas exhibition not once but twice – a ban only overturned in 1967. Rivette was duly amazed to see that his rather discreet, chaste – albeit extremely powerful – film could ignite such a scandal in the mid 1960s.
All this is to say that Rivette – like his Nouvelle Vague travelling companion Éric Rohmer, and also like the innovative Jacques Rozier (whose masterpiece Adieu Philippine was shot in 1960 and released in 1962) – was a rather untimely figure within the French cinema of the early to mid 1960s. He had not only effectively missed the Wave but, when he finally got back on his surfboard, what he delivered to the world was a (to some) puzzlingly old-fashioned, classical film – more like the tragic historical melodramas of Otto Preminger or Kenji Mizoguchi (two directors he had praised as a critic during the 1950s) than anything Jean-Luc Godard was doing in his rambunctious prime. The Nun is untimely in another, properly Nietzschean sense, too: it is only now that the film is reborn in a carefully restored version, over 50 years after its sign-off date, that we are able to truly appreciate its greatness.
Rivette was always, in an intuitive and unselfconscious way, the most feminist member of the Nouvelle Vague’s all-male auteur crew; that much became patently clear with the release of Céline and Julie Go Boating in 1974.
But The Nun hits with an anti-patriarchal wallop that was launched well before its time, and waiting for our time to really make direct contact: the tale of Suzanne Simonin, this 'difficult soul' (as she is described) is one long, sustained wail of pain and frustration concerning an endless ordeal of abuse and manipulation.
It is not ‘men’ who are so much the problem (some of the women here are A-grade sadists, too); rather, it is the various institutions (church, law, family, convent) that unfairly position some people with power (when they scarcely deserve it), and others forever without it. Suzanne is a victim of every system going, beginning with a largely unspoken moral-social code that deprives her of money, autonomy and freedom of choice; but she is also someone who never ceases crying out against injustice, revolting with her whole, soulful being against injury and indifference.
This role gave Anna Karina a special opportunity (her husband of the time, Monsieur Godard, had financed the stage production which also starred her), and she made the absolute most of it. Karina was both blessed and cursed (then as now) with the tag of icon or emblem of the Nouvelle Vague; almost everyone who cast her (including Luchino Visconti, Tony Richardson, even Rivette himself in the wonderful musical Haut bas fragile, 1995) exploited that association, and rarely required of her to play an individual character of any depth. The Nun is the shining exception to that rule: in every respect, the role shows what she’s capable of as an actor.
The 25 year-old Jacques Aumont, writing the rave Cahiers du Cinéma review for its October ’67 issue (no. 194), put the matter of The Nun’s aesthetic orientation firmly and correctly: far from opting for 'non-modernity', Rivette had detoured around received wisdom concerning what constitutes cinematic novelty in order to arrive at 'one of the two or three most innovative films' of its time.
Crucial to the film’s staggering formal coherence is Rivette’s approach to the soundtrack: with composer Jean-Claude Éloy and editor Denise de Casabianca, he went through the entire film and mapped its holistic 'score' for music, direct sound recording of voices, and added noise effects (bells, birds, wind …). The result is a stunning example of what filmmakers now routinely call 'sound design', on par with what only a few truly 'audiovisual' directors (such as Ritwik Ghatak) were doing at the time. The model of serial music (in the Karlheinz Stockhausen tradition), with its intricate interrelation and patterning of parts, informed the film at all its levels: Rivette joked that he conceived it as a 'cellular' movie about people imprisoned in cells.
Rivette would again take up much of the iconography of The Nun, and its agonised dance of emotional and sexual relations, years later in Don’t Touch the Axe (2007), adapted this time from Balzac. But, in the immediate context of the film’s release in 1967, Rivette declared he had been 'utterly bored' by the often tedious process of realising such a thoroughly pre-planned project, and had already made a bolder leap into the void: with the long-form, largely improvised, evidently contemporary film-and-theatre game launched in L’Amour fou (1967). That particular milestone, which would set the experimental parameters of Rivette’s art for the following 15 years, now awaits imminent digital restoration: therefore, it is another must-have for a future iteration of Cinema Reborn!
The Nun (AKA La Religieuse) screens at Arc cinema on 10 May as part of the Cinema Reborn season. This glorious 4K restoration was made from the original negative and screened as part of Cannes Classics in 2018, 52 years after its original premiere in competition at the Cannes Film Festival.