31 August 2018 | JamesHitchcock
A Major Work of the French Cinema
During the 17th and 18th centuries it appears to have been quite common in Catholic countries for young women to be forced to enter convents against their will; this is, for example, the fate of one character in Manzoni's "The Betrothed", written in 1827 but set around 200 years earlier. "La Religieuse" by Denis Diderot is another work of literature which deals with the same problem. The main reason for this phenomenon was economic; although many convents required a "dowry" from prospective entrants, this was generally less than the amount of the dowry needed to attract a suitable husband, and once the girl had taken her vows the family no longer had any responsibility for her upkeep. In the case of Diderot's heroine Suzanne Simonin, however, there is another problem. She is the offspring of an extra-marital affair and her mother's husband is not her biological father. Suzanne's mother, therefore, resolves to shut her daughter up in a convent, partly because she believes that this will prevent her husband from discovering the truth, partly because the presence of the girl in the family home is a constant reminder of her adulterous affair, about which she now has a guilty conscience.
The film follows the unhappy Suzanne's life as a nun. It falls into three sections, corresponding to the three Mothers Superior under whom she serves. The first, Madame de Moni, is a kindly woman who knows that Suzanne has only entered into the religious life with great reluctance and does her best to make the girl's life bearable. When de Moni dies, however, the new Mother Superior, the fanatical and puritanical Sister Sainte-Christine takes a dislike to Suzanne, whom she sees as rebellious, treating her harshly, whipping her, putting her on a diet of bread and water, and forbidding the other nuns to have anything to do with her. (Sainte-Christine is also referred to by her family name, Madame de Tourmont, a name probably chosen because of its similarity to "tourment", French for "torment").
With the assistance of a sympathetic lawyer, Suzanne asks to be released from her vows, on the grounds that she was forced to become a nun against her will. This application is unsuccessful, but at least she is transferred to another convent. Sainte-Christine is reprimanded by the Bishop for her treatment of Suzanne, but is not otherwise punished. This change in Suzanne's fortunes, however, is not necessarily for the better. Whereas Sainte-Christine's regime was characterised by an excess of religious zeal, life in the new convent is marked by an almost total lack of it. The nuns pay only the bare minimum of attention to their religious observances, spending most of their time in gossiping, eating and drinking and frivolous entertainments. Suzanne is befriended by the Mother Superior Madame de Chelles, who despite her elevated rank is a gay (in the original sense), light-hearted young woman, not much older than Suzanne herself. What the naive Suzanne fails to realise is that her new friend is also gay in the modern sense of the word and is offering her rather more than platonic friendship.
There are some excellent performances, from Anna Karina as the naïve but spirited Suzanne, Liselotte Pulver as the hypocritical de Chelles, Francine Bergé as Sainte-Christine and Francisco Rabal as Dom Morel, a priest who offers to help Suzanne but might also have self-serving motives. For a French movie this one is surprisingly international- Karina was Danish, Pulver Swiss and Rabal Spanish. Another important role is played by the German Wolfgang Reichmann.
When this film was made in 1966 it was promptly banned by the French authorities. It might have been the swinging sixties in the Anglo-Saxon world, but De Gaulle's France was a surprisingly conservative place. The authorities objected to what they saw as a disrespectful attitude to the Catholic Church, even though the action takes place 200 years in the past and the events depicted are fictitious ones. The film, however, is not particularly erotic; in Diderot's novel Suzanne and de Chelles actually end up in bed together- the younger girl is too innocent to realise what is happening to her- but this scene is omitted from the film.
The decision to omit this scene was, I think, the correct one, as "La Religieuse" was not made as a soft-porn fantasy but as a serious examination of three different types of religious hypocrisy, that of de Chelles, that of Suzanne's parents and that of Sainte-Christine, whose treatment of Suzanne owes more to an innate sadism than it does to genuine religious fervour. The serious nature of the film is emphasised by the austere look which director Jacques Rivette brings to it. Most of the action takes place in enclosed rooms, giving it a claustrophobic feel, and the predominant colour is the grey of the convent walls and of the nuns' habits. The moral climate in France gradually became more liberal, the ban was soon lifted and today "La Religieuse" can be seen as a major work of the French cinema. 8/10