“La Religieuse” (“The Nun”), the second feature by the New Wave director Jacques Rivette, ignited a first-class scandal — a preview of a French upheaval to come.
Long without an American distributor, the movie opens on Friday for two weeks at Film Forum in a new 4K DCP restoration. As the New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby wrote on the occasion of its 1971 commercial release, “It’s with pleasure that I report its arrival.”
The story of a teenage girl forced by her parents into a nightmarish convent, “La Religieuse” is based on Denis Diderot’s 18th-century epistolary novel. The New Wave exemplar Anna Karina stars as the unwilling novice Suzanne Simonin who, brutalized and sexually harassed, is driven to find her freedom in death.
Although based on a literary classic, “La Religieuse” was attacked by influential Catholics and cultural conservatives even before it was completed in 1965. Twice approved for release by the Censorship Board, it was twice blocked by the Minister of Information. Mention of the ban was itself banned on French TV.
Elliott Stein, an American journalist living in Paris, reported in the British film magazine Sight and Sound that “Le Monde ran a day-to-day feature, ‘L’Affaire de La Religieuse,’ to which one opened as if to a daily horoscope or weather report.” His article gave examples of the heated discourse Rivette’s movie inspired. A writer for the right-wing weekly Carrefour declared: “If, in the name of freedom, we let this film be shown, we might just as well throw open the doors of France to all the dirty hairy beatniks of the earth.”
Beatniks prevailed when, after a year of acrimony, the Minister of Culture André Malraux allowed “La Religieuse” to be shown at Cannes. It was met with acclaim mixed with befuddlement. The New York Times correspondent, Bosley Crowther, found the film’s prohibition a “riddle.” Still, it was as a free-speech martyr that “La Religieuse” made its American debut at the 1968 New York Film Festival.
The festival that year included two masterpieces by Jean-Luc Godard (“Weekend” and “Two or Three Things I Know About Her”), Robert Bresson’s “Mouchette” and John Cassavetes’s “Faces,” along with first features by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet; Werner Herzog; and new movies from Bernardo Bertolucci, Milos Forman, Miklos Jancso, Norman Mailer and Orson Welles. Even in this crowd, “La Religieuse” stood out, less for its notoriety than its brilliant filmmaking and impassioned restraint.
“La Religieuse” is founded on contradictions. The movie is as sumptuous in its color photography as it is austere in its mise-en-scène. Suzanne is victimized equally by repression and license. Her situation simultaneously evokes pre-Revolutionary France and 20th-century Europe. Rivette’s direction is both theatrical and cinematic. Unable to get funding for a film, he first presented “La Religieuse” as a stage play, partially underwritten by Godard as a vehicle for Karina, who was then his wife.
Anticipating many of Rivette’s later films, “La Religieuse” has a ritualistic quality accentuated by a sound design of tolling bells and clapped wooden blocks. The movie consists largely of interiors; that many were shot in a sixth-century abbey gives it a documentary feel. So too, the long takes and continuous observation of Suzanne’s ordeal. (Some have seen the film as a forerunner of Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.”)
Karina, whose expressive suffering is worthy of a D.W. Griffith actress, appears in all but a few scenes and nearly every shot. At her first convent, Suzanne is subject to torture, interrogation and ostracism. (“Walk on her, she’s just a corpse,” the mother superior instructs her sisters.) She is accused of heresy, put on trial, and thwarted by the clerical bureaucracy. Brought to a second convent run by a flighty libertine abbess (Liselotte Pulver, who played a bombshell secretary in Billy Wilder’s 1961 comedy “One, Two, Three”), Suzanne experiences another sort of torment.
Throughout, her desire for freedom is taken for madness. (In early 19th-century France, political dissidents and atheists were often committed to mental hospitals.) “La Religieuse” is not so much anticlerical as it is anti-authoritarian. The movie’s real subject is the nature of social control, the totalitarian demand for unquestioning obedience and the capricious application of power — a theme that may have inspired and was only reinforced by its arbitrary censorship.