La Religieuse (The Nun) Jacques Rivette (1966) Anna Karina
viewed: Tyneside Cinema 9 August 2018; Ticket: £9.75
The Age of Enlightenment
Rivette’s movie La Religieuse is a product of an age of cinematic enlightenment, the era of European cinema of 1960’s and 70’s that represented a different way of thinking about cinema. A time when both filmic form and content were cut free from the narrative strictures of both Hollywood and its pale European imitators to be an expressive outlet for the play of ideas, practical jokes and political polemic. Rivette’s movie, echoing the form of Diderot’s original text plays on the idea both of the joke and the possibility of film as a palette for ideas.
Diderot’s novel started life as a series of faked letters purporting to be from Suzanne, an unwilling nun, to an enlightened grandee begging for him to help her to escape the nunnery. The letters were subsequently contrived into a novel, part English gothic, part philosophical/didactic, somewhat in the manner of Voltaire and Rousseau’s work.
Suzanne, Diderot’s heroine, like Candide, is put through the mill, experiencing life in its full rigour. Like Candide she keeps her head above water and stays true to her philosophical principals. In Rivette’s script Suzanne is a modern existential hero. Her guiding light similar to that of Sartre’s lost characters whose personal cannon revolves about freedom. However confused they may be, the existential protagonist gropes for a personal freedom that they intuit gives authenticity and meaning to life. They know life cannot be lived in bad faith, as a series of acts of betrayal of the self.
And Rivette understands how to express these ideas without compromising their integrity. He understands that the forces he puts into play in La Religieuse comprise a series of events that take place in absurd worlds. Worlds that make no sense. In themselves Suzanne’s family, the nunnery, the church and its representatives are absurd institutions creating situations which although degrading are not worthy of serious consideration by the individual. In La Religieuse, Rivette and Anna Karina adopt discipline when confronting the spectacle of the absurd. They do not invest in emotive stratagems to oppose the ridiculous. They do not indulge emotional displays, melodramatic intensities, explicit devices such as torture, sex or nudity. These would simply grant quasi legitimacy to absurdity. Instead these institutions are opposed by ideas. Idea which are fleshed out with a script and acting style designed to prevent Rivette’s movie from colonisation by the purely personal.
La Religieuse is a film of ideas. And in the script itself and its filming, it is the ideas in themselves that are the statements, Suzanne says: ‘I am not a nun’; ‘God has not changed me.’ Ideas point strongly enough to states of mind and actions that don’t need explicit acting out. Rivette directs his movie so that there is a consistent miscalibration between scripted suggestion and what we see. La Religieuse in this respect becomes a running joke. The insistence of the ideas underlying and driving the action allows the viewer full appreciation of the situations and processes, the punishments, the severities, the mortifications, the orgies and indulgences without literalistic enactment.
The familial/nunnery rites are all portrayed, but employing an acting style that is restrained and deintensified. A style that uses formulaic gestures to indicate to the viewer what is happening – pain humiliation intimidation etc. – but not to exploitively manipulate these states by using the usual imagery of close up faces set in rictuses of pain anger grief. La Religieuse is like the Sixties: cool. Rivette authenticates La Religieuse by attention to the sets and costumes. He locks Suzanne into a historical period where although in the earlier scenes Ana Karina is bewimpled, she later comes more and more to resemble an archetypal sixties wild child, wondrously and humouressly incompatible with the settings in which she is imprisoned.
Rivette also gives clarity to La Religieuse in the way he uses his camera. For the most part the film uses wide shots to develop its theme. This is critical to the film’s intention as it enables us to see relations clearly, the interconnectedness of the characters in respect of their family social and religious status. For this is a political film about the nature of power relations and how they are brought to bear on Suzanne.
The weight of patriarchy, both in the confessional and in the family, the weight of those claiming to act in the name of god. The absent father when Suzanne confronts her mother, the absent god when mother superior gives her orders, the flurry of nuns carrying out the diktats of religion, the absence of sin in the confessional. Carried by tracking movements of the camera Rivette captures the urgency and primacy of space not the face.
Stripped of the encumbrance of melodrama with its accompanying faciality, Rivette can give clarity to the primacy of Suzanne perception that she and she alone will dictate what she is and what she can become. Her freedom has nothing to do with where she is, the nunneries are simply types of forces that oppress her. It is everything to do with what she is. She cannot be manipulated, bought, sold, bribed or given a fake phantom release from the clutches of power.
Rivette’s conclusion brilliantly sums up the film. Suzanne, escaping out of the frying pan world of religion, has leapt into the fire. She finds herself trapped in the world of patriarchy, of men who want to conform her to their desires to their belief system about the destiny of women. Understanding what is happening, and Suzanne is now an expert in those who would shape her to their will, she calmly evades the the clutches of a would be suitor, goes over to the open window, sits herself on the sill. Calmly without fuss or advertisement leans back against the non resistant void behind her and falls to her death. No melodrama, no last words, simply a statement in action, the perfect existential riposte to the intolerable: praxis.