Guillaume Nicloux’s dramatic film, The Nun (French Title: La Religieuse), based on the 1796 novel by Denis Diderot, is a story about the unimaginable pain and suffering inflicted on women, and the power structures that allow those administering it to flourish. The tragic hero and titular nun is a figure who suffers due to factors beyond her control, namely the circumstances of her birth; like many other women throughout history, she is kept in her perpetual state of misery by religious zealotry and the dominant ideology of patriarchy.
In the film, Suzanne (Pauline Étienne) is forced by her parents to become a nun as a result of her illegitimate birth. She is told that her mother’s sins must be paid for, so she is given no choice but to accept her new life in the convent. The Abbess treats her well, and the two form a bond that helps Suzanne adjust to the new environment. However, when the kindly Abbess suddenly dies, she is replaced with someone else, and the pain of her absence causes Suzanne to question whether or not she can continue this life that has been forced upon her. She confesses that she would like to return to her former life, which causes the new Abbess, as well as many of the other nuns to treat her horribly and deprive her of even basic human necessities. When the Abbess’s misdeeds are discovered, Suzanne is transferred to a different convent, only to become the sexual plaything of Abbess Saint Eutrope (Isabelle Huppert). It is only when a friend of Suzanne’s visits the convent that she is given a glimmer of hope that one day she may be free from her hellish life as a nun.
As is probably evident from the synopsis, there are times when The Nun revels in its own excess, allowing an absurd degree of punishment and injustice to be acted out on Suzanne’s mind and body. While the life of a nun is already pretty harsh and unforgiving, her particular situation is taken to a new extreme. She finds few friends, but is quick to make enemies, despite being an innocent and unassuming young woman. Her body is abused and her spirit broken time and time again, and even when it seems that there is hope for a brighter future, it is often taken away from her by the heartless authority figures in her life.
Some may find these extremes to be too much, literally and figuratively. There are times when Suzanne’s suffering is palpable, and even difficult to watch, and yet, for this same reason, it can come across as unnecessary stylistic excess on the part of the filmmakers. The Nun is a film in which the tragic hero faces one barrier after another and, rather than being able to overcome any of them, is pushed down further, so that the barriers may stack on top of one another to form an insurmountable obstacle. It is cruel to the point of being ludicrous. Of course, I am of the opinion that the filmmakers manage to expertly straddle the line between plausible suffering and absurdity, though it is worth noting that there were times throughout the film that I felt nagging doubts about its sincerity.
However, these issues can be largely dismissed if one steps back and examines The Nun as a whole, and as an important reflection on the suffering inflicted on women, particularly by institutions of faith. It is easy to condemn a film for being excessive, even to the point of being sadomasochistic, but this misses the point entirely. Sure, there are some out there who could derive pleasure from seeing a woman suffer so much on screen, but for the majority, it is painful to watch; thus, the film works as a brutally honest portrayal of the female experience in a patriarchal world. Naturally, this story portrays a rather unique (and fictional) situation, insofar as the suffering is extreme, but it is nonetheless a statement on the plight of women and their forced subordination throughout history.
In edition to being effective in its message, The Nun also excels as a technical achievement. It is a quiet, contemplative film, that is also filled with moments of visceral imagery. The convent is simultaneously beautiful and claustrophobic, a reflection of its image from both inside and out. The European locales are equally gorgeous, though we are only given brief glimpses of the landscape; it is just as untouchable to us as it is to Suzanne.
The actors are all well-suited for their roles; Isabelle Huppert accomplishes the complex task of playing a lecherous Abbess, who submits the nuns under her watch to sexual power games, while somehow treating them with care in every other respect. It is a difficult role to portray realistically, but Huppert is predictably outstanding at bringing the character to life.
Though The Nun can be a bit much to stomach at times, not so much for graphic violence or gore, but for the suffering it depicts, it is still an incredible film with a powerful message.
Rating: ★★★★ out of 5
The Nun is available to rent or purchase via Amazon here.