Anna Karina Keeps the Faith in Jacques Rivette’s Rarely Seen Second Film.



Although only his second feature film, Jacque Rivette’s The Nun (La Religieuse) was and continues to be considered an anomaly in his filmography.  A languid and tempered period piece, this adaptation of Denis Diderot’s novel of the same title stylistically deviated from the director’s proto-Nouvelle Vague debut, Paris Belongs to Us, as well as most of the work of his career that followed.

Sporting a laser-focused screenplay by Jean Gruault and Jacques Rivette, The Nun tells the tragic tale of Suzanne, a young lady forced by her parents into life in the convent.  This being eighteenth-century France, it means her dowry is turned over to the convent, essentially rendering Suzanne unmarry-able.  And also, she’s a nun.  The closest Suzanne will get to wedded bliss is the white wedding gown she’s made to wear as she takes her vow of chastity.  It’s a cruel, cruel thing for a girl whose heart is already breaking thanks to her awful situation.  

Like so many young women of the time, the convent proves to be a most effectively insular dumping ground for daughters that are deemed futureless.  For Suzanne, it’s actually even worse, as her self-righteous mother, in a moment of total deflection and hand wringing, later reveals her true motives for being rid of her.  It’s as horrible as it’s being alluded to.

Over the course of the ornately engaging film, Suzanne belongs to two different convents, led by two very different mother superiors.  The first, Mme de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver), is an obsessive authoritarian who routinely takes her enforcement tasks to the levels of humiliation and centralized dehumanization.  Her goal of forcibly molding Suzanne into a good little rule-follower goes unfettered, resulting in a crushed spirit rather than an uptick in devotion to the convent.

Eventually, the time does come when Suzanne is granted transfer from the white boot of de Chelles.  She finds herself under the tutelage of Mme de Moni (Micheline Presle), who proves to be an altogether different type of soul-crusher.  As this new mother superior cozies up to Suzanne, it’s obvious that it’s entirely too cozy for comfort.  Before long, Suzanne finds herself in the precarious spot of having to ward off de Moni’s unwanted and increasingly forward lesbianic advances.  As the previous situation crushed Suzanne’s spirit, this one goes a long way in crushing her hope.  

The Nun comes for Karina at the height of her marital and professional relationship with notoriously essential director of the time, Jean-Luc Godard.  This is significant insomuch as it’s this film, not one of the many she starred in for Godard, that is in the tight running for her finest performance.  Rivette is collaborating with Karina the actress as opposed to utilizing Karina the muse.  Karina perfects Suzanne’s blend of anger at the system and persisting devotion to God.  It is a heartbreaking performance, rendered all the more heartbreaking by the fact that The Nun has, in large part, fallen off the cinematic radar.

Which brings us to this outstanding Blu-ray release by Kino Classics.  Recently restored in 4K from the original negative, and following a special theatrical-release, this recently issued high definition edition is quite a fine thing.  The fact that Godard continued meddling/”advocating” for Karina throughout the production is covered in the new twenty-nine minute making-of documentary Suzanne Simonin, La Scandaleuse, a new making-of documentary, that features a newer interview with the actress herself, among others.  This short documentary is the primary meat of the extras, providing Karina herself an unrestricted platform to reflect on this experience.

Film critic Nick Pinkerton is on hand for a newly recorded audio commentary track, well-researched and decently articulated.  It too should not be overlooked.  Finally, besides the newly created trailer for this restoration/re-release, there’s a booklet essay by Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.  For such a thoroughly French film, there’s an awful lot of New York commentary going on here about it.  But then, considering that it was Rivette, Godard, and their critical cohorts who turned the world onto the hidden-in-plain-sight artistry of so many American films, perhaps this treatment is merely one small opportunity to begin to return the favor.

Sadly, the institutions of her day left Suzanne with little to no recourse against mistreatment and injustice.  Likewise, no amount of substitutional relationships could ever mend the part of her psyche which her mother broke.  Rivette and Karina, however, saw fit to present this tale of the unhappy reality of many a young girl back in the day in the form of this film.  France has provided the adaptation, now Kino Lorber has seen fit to make sure that today’s differently challenging and oppressive cultures are able to experience and reflect upon this one.


“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen…

And she shows you where to look

Among the garbage and the flowers

There are heroes in the seaweed

There are children in the morning

They are leaning out for love

And they will lean that way forever

While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her

And you want to travel blind

And you know that you can trust her

For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind