La Religieuse: Failure to Excommunicate, by David Bax
It may be difficult for most of us to imagine any reason to become a nun other than religious devotion and the belief in a higher calling. But in Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film La Religieuse (based on a novel by Denis Diderot published in 1796 and recently restored), Suzanne (Anna Karina) is forced at the age of sixteen into a convent by her family, ostensibly because they cannot afford the dowry it would cost to marry her off, though the real reasons are more sinister. This sort of thing was far from uncommon, especially in medieval times. But Rivette uses the case to examine the differences between personal and performative faith as well as the effect an unwilling cog has on the institution into which she is shoved, and vice versa.
La Religieuse traces Suzanne’s journey through the sisterhood. She goes from an initial refusal to take her vows to a friendship with her Mother Superior that changes her mind to a combative relationship with that Mother’s successor to a new convent that seems freer but hides secrets of its own. Through it all, Suzanne never wavers from her belief in Christianity but also never falters in her insistence that she is not meant to be a nun.
In many ways, La Religieuse anticipates a number of American films that would show up over the next decade. Cool Hand Luke and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example, similarly place anti-authoritarian protagonists in the midst of institutions they can’t change but won’t conform to. Suzanne is different, though, far less sure of herself and unwilling to stand in lone defiance of any system.
That’s exactly why she’s so vulnerable to being ground down by the unfair, unyielding order of things. Those who are willing to abuse the power of an institution (in this case, the Catholic church) and those who are willing to yield to it will both wield supremacy over Suzanne. Rivette suggests that these institutions, even when their stated purposes are humble and charitable, exist first and foremost to prop each other up and form a monolith against individuals. Suzanne’s second Mother Superior is found by the bishops to be cruel and unfit for her position yet they demur at doing anything about it because she comes from an influential family. The reputations of the church and the aristocracy are more important than the welfare of one young nun.
Like so much of Rivette’s work, La Religieuse seems simultaneously to have been built meticulously with great forethought and to have suddenly emerged from whole cloth. Despite the cold rooms of the convent, spare both in décor and in number, there’s an enveloping visual depth to the movie. Karina’s warm and expressive face helps ground us anew in each scene among the endless repetition of corridors, cells and chapels. We see little of the outdoors, especially in the lengthy section at Suzanne’s first convent, but Rivette uses sound to not only remind us of the world outside but to comment on Suzanne’s indoor life. In addition to the loudly clanging church bells over which the sisters often must practically shout, there’s a piercing, almost squeaking, bird repeatedly heard but never seen. When Suzanne is moved to the seemingly freer, happier convent, it suddenly goes away, replaced by another bird’s pleasant cooing. Yet, as the reality of Suzanne’s new situation begins to sink in, the old bird gradually returns to the soundtrack.
Suzanne’s tragedy is that, unlike Paul Newman’s Luke or Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy, she’s not one to rage against the gears grinding her down. She is no immovable object. La Religieuse argues, though, that her doubts are the product of her honesty with herself. It makes her a better person (and, arguably, a better nun) than those around her but it will do little to save her in the face of the blind sanctimoniousness they wield like a righteous cudgel.