Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Jacques Rivette's The Nun, his second film, is one of the director's most inscrutable works for the perverse reason that it's one of his most straightforward. On the surface, The Nun is a remarkably austere film, a harrowing tale simply told, with little of the theatrical games and self-consciousness of Rivette's debut, Paris nous appartient, released a long six years earlier. The film follows the hapless Suzanne (Anna Karina in one of her most stunning performances) as her unloving family thrusts her forcefully into a convent after telling her that she is an illegitimate child and a drain on their resources. With no desire to commit herself to religion, Suzanne flounders, and after a brief respite while under the tutelage of a friendly, sympathetic Mother Superior, she is brutally oppressed, tortured, and ridiculed once this kindly maternal surrogate dies. In fact, in short order Suzanne's mother dies, she learns that she has a real father only to learn that he is also dead, and then she loses her one friend and mentor at the convent. The remainder of the film, and of her life, is misery of the worst sort, leavened only by her faint hopes for freedom and her enduring faith in God despite the certainty that she is not meant to be giving her life to him.
God is an unfathomable presence in Rivette's film. When Suzanne arrives at her first convent, the Mother Superior tells her in sympathy, "Our God is a hidden God. He comes like a thief, without announcing his presence." If God ever steals silently in and out of the scene within this film, it happens without anyone noticing. There is a great deal of prayer, but no answers, least of all for poor Suzanne, who maintains her faith through even the most cruel treatments. Rivette treats this scenario, adapted from a novel by Denis Diderot, with a stark, sparing hand, giving the film a minimalist atmosphere that's very much in keeping with the spartan accommodations of the nunnery. The film opens, before the credits, with an acknowledgment of Diderot's novel, and a brief summary of the conditions in 18th Century France, in which the story is set, and especially the nature of convent life and its various faces. This academic, historical introduction sets the stage for a kind of exposé of life in a religious order, and that's exactly what Rivette delivers, even if he is a few centuries too late to be current.
To the extent that Rivette submerges himself in the mechanics of this story, The Nun is simply what it appears to be: the sad account of a young girl whose life is snatched from her hands again and again. It's a story about the loss of control, the ways in which societal forces, both economic and religious, conspire to maintain a dictatorship over the individual and to suppress free will. Suzanne is never able to truly make a choice on her own, a point that is underscored in the denouement, in which "freedom" proves to be a bitter triumph for Suzanne, who is still tossed from one fate to the next with no control over her own destiny, not until her very final moment. The film questions the very notion of free will, not only in a religious context, but in society as a whole Suzanne has no greater freedom in secular life than she did locked within the convent walls. Even the look of the film is circumscribed, and Rivette loves to film scenes with wooden screens dividing characters from one another, breaking up the screen into tiny boxes just as the nuns' "cells" divide them from one another. Human contact is suppressed at every turn, as is human feeling, which Suzanne seems almost unaware of, her naivete so complete that she doesn't even grasp what's going on when those around her make sexual advances on her, as several supposedly chaste characters do.
Suzanne's long and painful journey offers several different varieties of the lack of freedom. At first, at the Longchamps convent under the kind eye of Madame de Moni (Micheline Presle), Suzanne's lack of freedom is simply the unavailability of other options, the constriction of movement to within the convent's walls. With this benefactor's death, Suzanne's confinement becomes more extreme, as the tormenting of the jealous other nuns becomes more and more ferocious, culminating in a lengthy sequence in which Suzanne, starved, barefoot, filthy, her clothes in tatters, is locked in her room and driven to near-madness. This is a profound loss of freedom, but even when she is rescued and sent to a new convent, she pushes up against new types of boundaries, as she is slowly woven into a web of sexual predation and jealousy by the charming, worldly Madame de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver), who seems to be presiding over a harem of lesbian nuns. Finally, even Suzanne's true freedom from the habit altogether, following her moonlit escape with a similarly discontented monk, leads her to realize just how unprepared she is for the world. Her innocence thrusts her into one unwelcome circumstance after another, and ultimately she has no more control over what happens then she did in the cloister. Throughout all this, Karina delivers the performance of a lifetime, a true classical star turn that ranges freely across the emotional gamut.
If Rivette largely allows the story to stand on its own merits (and on the strength of Karina's portrayal), his directorial hand can nevertheless be glimpsed in more subtle ways. Foremost among these is the deployment of the soundtrack, which in many ways plays off the stark minimalism of the sets, design, and storytelling. The score itself, composed by Jean-Claude Éloy, is perhaps the only modernist touch in a film otherwise committed to the historical reality of the mid-1700s. Éloy's dissonant, percussive score is used sparingly, but its clanging rhythms and sharp atonal strings create acute tension when rubbing against the period settings and costumes. Whenever it crops up, usually with an abruptness and randomness that never fails to disrupt the scene, this score provides a reminder of the artificiality of the film's construction, pointing towards the artifice in a way that a more traditional score never could, even though all scores are equally artificial contrivances. Rivette also uses the sound of church bells, more naturalistic and intrinsic to the story, in a similar way by amplifying their dissonant, clanging qualities, layering on thick swaths of chiming noise. These bells even appear when they seemingly have no physical source, further undermining the realistic nature of the soundtrack. In an early scene where Suzanne confronts her mother in their home, the bells abruptly begin ringing at an extreme volume, causing the two women to shout at each other simply in order to be heard; but where are these bells coming from, if the women are in an upper-class home rather than a church? It's in moments like this that Rivette uses the soundtrack to nudge at the placid surface of his period recreation, and his attention to sound design points all the way forward to his latest film, Don't Touch the Axe, which represents the full flowering of his ideas about the deconstructive potential of noise.
Rivette's touch can also be felt, even more subtly, in the judicious use of some very disorienting and unusual cuts, using editing to further disrupt and interrogate the conventions of the historical drama. For the most part, the film's visual aesthetic is as smooth as its settings are minimal. The camerawork is fluid whenever it's not static, and the film is characterized by its slow forward and backward tracking shots, zooming slowly into a scene or slowly out of it to encompass a larger space. But in other places, Rivette's editing and his treatment of space and movement are more angular, as dissonant and jarring as Éloy's score. There are small touches of the characteristic Nouvelle Vague editing techniques, most famously pioneered by Godard in his first feature Breathless but largely absent from this film despite Rivette's close association with those filmmakers. Only in brief flashes does Rivette use his cuts to purposefully break traditional cinematic rules about line of sight, cutting on motion, and matching the angles on cuts. But the sparing use of the technique only makes its application all the more bracing in those scenes where it does occur, like a late scene where Suzanne spends a fretful afternoon in her chambers praying and thinking. Rivette chops this scene up into fragments, cutting in the middle of Suzanne's movements, switching angles unexpectedly, banking on audience expectations of the next shot and purposefully subverting them. As a result, Suzanne seems to jump around the room as though teleporting, the severe disjunctions in her motion and position creating a very unusual sense of space and time. Limited to select scenes rather than spread out across a whole feature, the technique is even more revolutionary and jarring than it is in Godard's films, where after a time it comes to seem like the norm.
The Nun is a remarkable second feature for Rivette, a film that, as with all of his work, functions on multiple strata: as a historical drama; as a deconstruction of historical dramas; as a treatise on religion, freedom, and individuality; as a literary adaptation; as a commentary on the process of adaptation; as a simple story and as the layers of association and meaning hidden within it. For Rivette, there is no such thing as a truly straightforward story, even when he's playing it straight on the surface. It's this multiplicity of approaches and ideas, all contained within a deceptively simple and minimalist framework, that characterizes Rivette as a filmmaker, and it's what makes The Nun such a thoroughly satisfying masterwork.