8 January 2014 | shawneofthedead
Get thee to a nunnery... though perhaps not this one
Imagine being sent to a convent against your will. Imagine taking a religious vow in which you don't personally have faith. Imagine discovering that the treacherous currents of guilt, power, control and sex remain every bit as relevant within a nunnery as outside of it. Such is the tragic predicament in which the film's titular nun finds herself in this handsomely-shot - if not entirely well-executed - adaptation of 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot's controversial novel.
With the family coffers drained for the dowries of her two elder sisters, Suzanne Simonin (Pauline Etienne) is sent to a convent. She has no desire to be there, and makes that known to the kindly abbess who takes care of her. When her benefactress mysteriously dies, convent life rapidly becomes all the more complicated. Suzanne finds herself treading far murkier waters, her wellbeing completely at the mercy of the cold, unforgiving Supérieure Christine (Louise Bourgoin) and the overly attentive Supérieure Saint-Eutrope (Isabelle Huppert).
For much of its running time, The Nun explores Suzanne's plight with a steely depth and determination that's fascinating to watch. There's an icy tension to her confrontations with Supérieure Christine: these are rife with politics, power and drama, as the flock of nuns dutifully turn against Suzanne with the capricious menace of school-children on a playground. Etienne is wonderful throughout, playing Suzanne's rebellious spirit as convincingly as she does her moments of surrender and despair.
It's when the usually magnificent Huppert appears on the scene that The Nun stumbles badly. Huppert's character is drawn in broad, garish strokes, with none of the depth, complexity and subtlety of which she is so very capable. Almost laughably, Supérieure Saint-Eutrope appears to be little more than a fickle, amorous gargoyle leeching on the younger nuns in her charge.
Perhaps that's partly the point - it could be a tip of the hat to the fact that Diderot's novel started out as an elaborate practical joke on a friend, rather than a genuinely impassioned treatise on the state of the church. Even so, the shift in tone from considered to campy is abrupt and, ultimately, too much to bear.