It was Rivette’s second feature, after the puzzling ‘Paris Nous Appartient,’ and eschewed the nouvelle vague in favour of something altogether more structured, indeed rigorously so. “This film is a work of imagination,” the opening caption informs us, “not a portrait of religious institutions, 18th century or other. It should be viewed from a double perspective; history and romance.”
Based loosely on the Diderot novel of the period, “La Religieuse” is set in the mid 1700s and concerns Suzanne, the third daughter of a once wealthy couple effectively impoverished by providing dowries for their eldest two daughters. As their third daughter, and now aged seventeen, she is being sent into the cloisters as a nun as they cannot afford another dowry to marry her off. The overriding reason for this disfavour compared to her elder siblings is that she’s only a half sister to them, the illegitimate offspring of her mother’s amorous affairs, and as such with no chance of succour after her mother’s death. After initially refusing to take her vows, she accepts only to not recall taking the vows themselves and causing an unholy scandal by trying to accuse the convent of cheating her into taking her vows when not of sound mind.
Diderot hasn’t been the most popular of authors on screen, the only other film of note from his work being Bresson’s modernised Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne. It’s not perhaps coincidental then that the film La Religieuse most resembles is Bresson’s preceding debut film Les Anges du Péche. It’s certainly light years from the simplicity of Zinnemann’s The Nun Story, and it’s helped immeasurably by the period detail. There’s undoubtedly a Bressonian feel to Rivette’s view of history. Everything is reduced to the simplest tangibility, with the entire psychosis of the protagonist summed up perfectly in the very first scene, indeed in the very first shot of Karina through bars between the supplicant chapel and the visitor’s gallery, and the parallel to a condemned man being taken into the execution chamber in front of interested parties is hard to dislodge. From this moment on, Karina is not only doomed to be suffocated in the sacrosanct cloisters of the convent, but to wishing herself dead in turn. Buffeted from the cruelty of one convent regime to the salacious advances of a lesbian superior in another, then helped escape by a degenerate monk who intends to rape her, reduced to begging and taken into a brothel before jumping to her death, it’s a life that, like Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe, sees virtue punished most cruelly and the heroine served up as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of morality. Indeed some of the cruelty on display in the convent sequences remains hard tack for the devout even now, with the nuns acting like habited kapo in an 18th century Sobibor, and it’s all the more shocking for being so understated.
Visually, the film is an absolute pleasure to look upon, with the stained-glass performing wonderful tricks of the light inside the convent, a couple of truly ethereal sequences bathed in moonlight, and an ethereal carpet of leaves in the gardens to symbolise the autumnal feel of the piece. Karina drew mixed reviews at the time, partly because contemporaries had problems disassociating her with the very contemporary films of Godard, yet she is more than adequate in the role, while Presle and, especially, Pulver, are unforgettable as very different matris excellens. Forty years on, it’s now rather unfashionable, overtaken in his pantheon by others, yet no discussion of Rivette’s masterworks is complete without it.
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