I first watched Jacques Rivette's The Nun in a new restoration. I'm not sure how I originally got into Rivette, probably the least known and mentioned of the major French New Wave/Cahiers directors. It must have been with La Belle Noiseuse, which I think I saw in art school (for a class? or maybe just from browsing at the video store in the "Foreign" section). I've been wanting to see The Nun for a long time but there haven't been easily available editions. Dating back to 1966, it stars Anna Karina as the eponymous nun, based on the novel by Denis Diderot (which I was waiting to read until after I watched the movie). Much of the talk around the movie circles around it getting banned for release by the French government. A short documentary on the dvd edition primarily focuses on that (and sadly was made too late to get Rivette's participation), including an interview with Anna Karina, much older now but still with those big, bright eyes.
The movie, like a few of Rivette's others often has the look of a play: flat spaces, inobstrusive camera work, few close-ups, enclosed sets, characters walking into and out of the frame. That might be more prominent in this one, as it turns out Rivette directed a play adaptation of The Nun a few years previous to the movie (also starring Karina). As the whole movie is thematically about feeling emprisoned and constrained, the closed settings are powerfully effective. Distracting from that is how lovely they are, in particular the first cloister has these beautiful blue/green walls that match the nuns habits. They almost overwhelm the image. I want to color match them for a room in my house.
Karina is excellent in the film, going from restrained to at times almost crazed. She does, at the point where the nuns are punishing her severely, have a sort of cliched "crazy woman" style: walking along a hallway close to the wall her head bent to the side, hair bedraggled, as she almost drags herself along the wall, and a few "hysterical" type outbursts. I wonder where that particular mode started (in earlier films? in plays?), I'm not sure I'm describing it well, but it is something I've seen quite a lot.
One real interesting part of the movie, in light of both Diderot's thought and the movie's banning, is how little the movie is critical of religion or Christianity in general. The abuses and tragedies stem much more from broader society, specific individuals, and specific sub-institutions. Even a scene where there is a trial about the nun where she wants to claim her vows were forced and her abbess is trying to claim she is possessed, shows the church leaders (men of course) in a much more sympathetic light than one might expect. They ascertain her lack of possession and the wrongness of the abuse she faces, even though, it seems, they have little power to do much about it.
The lesbian content in the movie is also, I think, fairly sympathetically done for a 1966 movie based on a 18th century novel. Of course the priest confessor evokes Satan when the nun describes how her the abbess, who is sexually interested in her, is acting, but that is an attitude of the church, and I don't think the film itself takes on that attitude. Rather, the abbess is also seen through a less of tragedy and emprisonment despite her being the head of the cloister. The naive nun, just doesn't even have a framework to understand the abbess's feelings or desires, though the viewer can very early on see what is happening.
At 140 minutes it's a long film (though not really for Rivette), but I never felt the sense of it being dragged out. Perhaps I'll watch it again soon to see how the commentary track is.
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