La Religieuse (The Nun) is a moving portrait of the cloistered life nuns lead at convents and the horrors they house by forcing regressive religious practices onto people who have no interest in them. Based on Denis Diderot’s posthumously published novel of the same name, this adaptation by Guillaume Nicloux includes a few welcome changes that help to make the 1700s tale very relatable even in the 21st Century. The Nun beautifully captures the sense of entrapment felt by the nuns, many of whom enter service not out of willingness but out of desperate situations.
The young Suzanne has no interest in the austere life in a convent that her parents force her into. She loves Christ dearly but is not willing to give up herself for a life of devotion. Nevertheless, circumstances dictate that she must become a nun and thus begins her struggle to break free of these religious chains that tie her down. Her first abbess tries to ease her in, counselling and convincing her, trying to ease her pain. But that doesn’t last long when she dies under mysterious circumstances and is replaced by someone far less friendly.
By refusing to conform and always speaking her mind, Suzanne incurs the wrath of almost everyone around her. Trying to stay afloat in a world of punishment and humiliation, her only hope comes in the form of a friend’s assurance to help her escape from her hellish predicament. But help isn’t easy to get and a transition that initially feels like respite soon turns sour, leaving poor Suzanne in dire straits.
The Nun is a deeply impactful narrative questioning traditional religious practices, one that depicts convent life akin to life inside a prison.
The treatment meted out to our protagonist by the other sisters is reminiscent of rogue wardens and bullying inmates in a jail ― whether it be the solitary confinement, the strict hours and bland food or even attempts of sexual assault by people in power. Even seeing the nuns let out and allowed to roam the gardens reminded me of inmates gathering at an exercise yard.
One particularly strong sequence that showed Suzanne protesting against the torturous practice of having to wear cilices, as she walks into the garden and throws her cilice into the fire, letting it burn, signalling her lone rebellion against the evil practices of the day ― something that would make modern feminists proud indeed. The sad irony being that the people of God, supposed to serve humanity, are the ones being inhumane themselves.
The script frequently uses symbolism and irony to inform the audience of Suzanne’s psychological plight. There’s a shot during the sequence when the sisters take their vows, where Suzanne lies down face-first on the floor as a huge fabric emblazoned with the holy cross seems to cover her. The camera goes down and up close on her face, even as she closes her eyes in resignation, an effective visual indication of the Church taking over her life’s freedom. One particular Mother Superior, while discussing marriage with Suzanne, surprisingly condemns the act.
She reasons that by marrying, a woman is forced to obey a man she did not choose. One whom she might not respect. Ironically, the nuns at a convent are bound to the same fate ― to obey and respect a man that was chosen for them, and give up their freedom in the process. “It can be hell if you have no appetite for it”, she tells Suzanne, an observation applicable to both the marital and the cloistered life. Nun
The film features rich use of colour, whether it be an interesting mix of shades depicting life at Suzanne’s home or the sea of navy blue and white for the congregation of nuns at her convent; the composition of the frames are a thing of beauty as if taken out of paintings. Cinematographer Yves Cape does a stunning job of capturing it all, his aesthetic sense being one of the film’s strengths. The camera angles shift to reflect the characters’ relative position of power ― looking down upon a distraught Suzanne while aiming up at her tormentor Abbess Christine; while in her second convent, where there’s more equality, almost everyone is shot at the eye level.
Pauline Étienne is a treat to watch as the young Suzanne Simonin, damaged yet determined. Displaying an impressive range, her performance is compelling and cathartic. She easily flits from innocent and joyful, towards the beginning, to uneasy and uncertain as Suzanne is forced to take her vows; before devolving into despair as a broken shell of a woman. The accomplished Isabelle Huppert, despite doing a good job, is let down by the script and direction. Her character’s development was poorly managed, resulting in a moment that feels a bit absurd in retrospect. Nun
The protagonist doesn’t just passively absorb all evil but has the guts to protest, a smart decision by Nicloux. And instead of a clichéd depiction of an atheist being victimized by the church, here Suzanne actually is a devoted servant of God. This shifts the focus to the core matter presented ― the torturous nature of life at convents. There are a few pacing problems, despite the script’s wealth of material, but I’m almost nitpicking here. Given the sensitive nature of the subject matter, this portrayal feels very personal and honest. And it is an experience that I surely won’t be forgetting in a hurry.
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When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.