Film Review: La Religieuse (1966), Dir. Jacques Rivette
Based on the scandalous 18th century novel of the same name by Denis Diderot, Jacques Rivette’s second film completed in 1965 also stirred up immense amounts of controversy in the Catholic church who denounced it using excessively harsh language. The acrimonious debates became a cause célebre in France when the Ministry of Information blocked it’s release. The following year, the new Minister of Culture, André Malraux, allowed it to be seen at the Cannes Film Festival where it was received with great acclaim. To be fair, it does not depict the Catholic monastic institutions in a flattering light. But the case can easily be made that cloistered life is unnatural and not a condition which very many people would choose. And in this particular case, it is being used against our heroine’s will, as a form of incarceration.
The beautiful Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina), is the youngest daughter of an upscale bourgeois family. Her lovely demeanor and enchanting singing voice keep attracting the attention of the young men who were invited as suitors for her older sisters, much to the consternation of her status-conscious parents. As a deterrent, her parents send her off to live in a monastery temporarily. Much to her horror, at the end of her period as a postulant, she is informed that she will be expected to take her vows. When she causes such a scene at the ceremony and goes slightly mad, screaming that she has not been “called” and cannot enter into this institution, her parents are forced to take her back. Whereupon her mother informs her that the cost of the dowries required to get her sisters married has left them with nothing to offer for her marriage. And, given that among that segment of society, there was no alternative acceptable pathway, the cloistered life was the only alternative. The devoted, obedient daughter that she is, Suzanne resigns herself to her fate, hoping that she will find the calling required to fulfill her duties.
The first convent into which she is accepted requires a lot of string pulling, since her stunning renouncement of her vows previously is well known. Therefore, she enters with a huge disadvantage and is treated quite harshly by the superiors and her fellow postulants. But, there is something so irresistible and alluring about Suzanne. Her beauty, kindness, and innocence win over a kind Mother Superior, who takes her under her wing and tries to help her with her internal turmoil. Suzanne’s mysterious power over others seems to be innate and not under her control. She does not use it or take advantage of it. Her ingenuousness drives many of those around her mad with envy, suspicion and longing. When her guardian dies and is replaced by a cruel Mother Superior, Suzanne faces retribution on a grand scale and the seeds of rebellion are revived. It is then that her mother reveals her dark secret which is the real reason for Suzanne’s predicament and appeals to her empathy. She gets it and Suzanne acquiesces for the time being. But she manages to find another champion in the form of the cleric in charge of her monastery. She makes her case convincingly enough to get herself re-assigned to a different cloister.
The difference is so extreme as to feel like parody. The Mother Superior, swans around wearing jewelry and ruffles, hair and makeup, seldom seen in a habit. She is effusive, lively and worldly, and very affectionate with her charges, whom she treats more like pets with caresses and kisses. This is a comfortable, well-appointed cloister with big bedrooms containing nice furniture and comfortable beds with duvets. They play music and Suzanne entertains them by singing and playing the pianoforte. This feels like a very simpatico sorority house. Fun is allowed. But, of course, there is darkness beneath the surface, and the simmering lust for Suzanne of her new Mother Superior goes over the top and drives her mad. When a visiting cleric (also a non-believer) becomes an ally and eventually a co-conspirator, he manages to arrange her escape from the cloister. Alas, it is a case of the frying pan into the fire, as he tries to rape her as soon as they are safely out of reach of the authorities. We are moving into melodrama territory now. Another escape. Finally Suzanne ends up in a fancy bordello, just another form of incarceration, and takes the only way out which seems available. Think, The Red Shoes.
If this seems to have the elements of satire, I came to that conclusion, as well. The sound design included howling winds outside during solemn moments inside. There are also curious percussion interludes accompanying action scenes. Not to mention, the harsh cloister is a stereotype, while the second one seems to be out of a drawing room comedy. And the fact of Suzanne’s insistent innocence and lack of guile brought to mind Louise Brooks in Diary of a Lost Girl. Her charms and her beauty are her enemy. She becomes the victim. The cinematography, costume and set design and lighting are gorgeous. The cast of postulants are so uniformly attractive that, in their habits, they resemble each other. Anna Karina, who was married to Jean Luc Godard is endlessly engaging on the screen. Anyone today would surely wonder what all of the scandal was about. That certainly speaks volumes about where we are today. By the time this appears it will probably not be showing at the Film Forum where it was for two weeks only. Prior to now, it has only been shown in the US in the 1968 NY Film Festival. But, I would recommend that if it re-appears, it should be seen. it is a beautiful and slyly arch piece of film history and a richly rewarding two and a half hours.
You can watch a trailer for the 2018 re-release here