Based on the 18th century novel by Denis Diderot, The Nun (aka La Religieuse) follows Suzanne, a young woman struggling to cope with a life dedicated to religion. Diderot’s tale is acknowledged as a world classic, and has been adapted before on both stage and screen. This is director Guillaume Nicloux’s adaptation, and with its setting in 18th century France it remains true to the original book.
At the beginning of the film, sixteen-year-old Suzanne is a bright and happy child with a passion for music and a deep love for God. Taking advantage of her faith, Suzanne’s parents coerce her into becoming a nun to spare themselves the expense of marrying her off and also to hide her mother’s shameful secret – Suzanne is the illegitimate result of a previous affair. Realizing there is no longer a place for her among her family Suzanne agrees to join the convent, but quickly grows unhappy in her cloistered existence. Her distaste for clerical life irks her religious sisters, and her experiences in the convent quickly turn from miserable to life-threatening.
With such revered source material, a human rights element and an openly passionate director, The Nun should arguably have all the makings of a classic. Unfortunately, the film falls short of this. The movie’s depressing storyline drags, making the runtime of just less than two hours seem infinitely longer. The dark tone is unrelenting: brief moments of happiness or hope are greeted cautiously by Suzanne, and then suddenly ruined. Ultimately this means that even the film’s climactic scenes are a disappointment.
Having said all this, The Nun is not entirely devoid of promise. The film is aesthetically beautiful thanks to the cinematography of Yves Cape, who captures the tone of each scene perfectly, with flickering candlelight for moments of secrecy and empty, cold wide-shots to imply loneliness. Meanwhile, Pauline Etienne gives a wonderful performance as Suzanne, admirably portraying the growing spirit of a headstrong young girl who strives for freedom.
Fans of French cinema may enjoy The Nun for Etienne’s performance alone, but many others will find themselves gloomy and dazed by the closing credits.
The Nun is released nationwide in November 2013.
Watch the trailer for The Nun here: