The Nun
by Jeff Reichert

The Complete Jacques Rivette
Now Touring Nationwide

The common line on Jacques Rivette’s long-gestating first feature Paris Belongs to Us is that it’s somewhat lacking in accomplishment when set against early works from the other members of the Nouvelle Vague “Gang of Four”: Godard, Rohmer, and Truffaut. I’ll buy that, but with a huge caveat: Paris Belongs to Us isn’t as whole a film as The 400 Blows, as wild as Breathless or Vivre sa vie, or as emotionally satisfying My Night at Maud’s or La Collectioneuse, but I think what’s been well overlooked on this one is how, despite the distended, hand-to-mouth production, it immediately establishes a concrete, fairly radical philosophical and aesthetic worldview, and the ongoing widespread influence this vision has had on later French cinema. Even amidst Paris’ wild inconsistencies of dramaturgy, it’s probably the most intellectually rigorous Nouvelle Vague debut, and its paranoid tendrils stretch from Jean Eustache and Chantal Akerman through to Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis (who would assist on Noroit and go on to make a documentary about Rivette), and most obviously, the films of Arnaud Desplechin. Always hard to gauge such things, but I left my first viewing flush with the belief that it was the necessary Rosetta stone for fully deciphering the course French filmmaking has taken from the Seventies to the present day. Of course, it’s always easy to lob grand claims at movies no one’s seen, so hopefully the currently touring Rivette retrospective will allow Paris Belongs to Us, and Rivette’s later masterpieces the chance to assume through wider consensus their deserved stature in cinema history.

By his second film, The Nun (also delayed, this time held up by censors), Rivette had easily surmounted the problems of his first feature, and delivered not only the first of many great works but one of the most seminal films of the Sixties. Where Paris Belongs to Us meandered, at times riffing off of Pericles’ episodic structure, at others just spinning off from the filmmaker’s fevered, spooky imagination, The Nun is marked by an extreme clarity of purpose and the forward momentum of a running back. His source material probably helps here: Based on the satirical 18th-century novel by Denis Diderot, which deals with the plight of beautiful Suzanne Simonin, an illegitimate daughter forced into taking vows by an ashamed mother and stepfather uninterested in bearing the cost of marrying her off, Rivette’s used his stab at adaptation as a cloak for a dramatic reconsideration of historical filmmaking. This is period done on the sly where research-accurate crockery and linens take a backseat to minimal settings, ferocious performances, and all is very directly framed as a cinematic event instead of bourgeoisie pageantry that just happens to play out in front of a camera. (Rivette cues us with his usual scene-setting curtain-raiser, here voiceover and a series of stills that draws attention directly to the artificiality of the project.) If you’ve seen films like Manoel de Oliveira’s Benilde or the Virgin Mother, Rohmer’s La Marquise d’O, or even Desplechin’s Esther Kahn, you’ll recognize the modus operandi—characters in passable period garb playing on minimal-to-threadbare sets that give off a whiff of age but could just as easily be the house next door. That Rivette’s working from within the drab, minimal confines of a convent only furthers the charade, and it’s obvious from the opening scene, an artfully composed tableau which finds Suzanne onstage forcibly rejecting her vows in front of a seated audience of onlookers (as usual in Rivette we find the theatrical impinging on the cinematic) that this isn’t the Cinema of Quality. By taking the Nouvelle Vague’s revisionist impulses and interest in critiquing dominant repressive strictures and applying his own nearly-flowered aesthetic to period filmmaking, The Nun easily vaults to the head of the class of 1966.

If that were all The Nun accomplished, it’d still be a masterwork, but then there’s the matter of its star, Anna Karina. Karina, perhaps never better or lovelier, plays Suzanne, and seems somehow freed in this context—even though The Nun’s a more meticulously constructed film than contemporaneous Jean-Luc Godard outings, it’s easy to image more room for interpretive, intuitive performance under the gaze of one of the gentlest and least obtrusive cameras in cinema. The first half of the film details her dreadful opening stint in the Longchamps convent, which unexpectedly plays out not unlike the average teen movie scenario (think Mean Girls with habits). After the death of the kindly, devout Mother Superior, Suzanne’s stay at the convent is marred by rumors and innuendos stemming from the new Mother Superior and her clique, all near Suzanne’s own age and jealous of her beauty and close relationship with the deceased nun. After Suzanne retains a lawyer to fight for her transfer in civil courts, tension boils over into physical punishment and deprivation, which pushes her near to madness, but also a strange kind of grace.

Her civil lawyer effects a transfer to another convent, but where the first was punishingly ascetic, here the aspect is more like a bordello presided over by voluptuous Mother Superior with a taste for finery and a lascivious interest in Suzanne. Rivette milks as much gentle comedy as he can from Suzanne’s naiveté of her predicament, but the situation grows more dire as the Mother Superior’s obsession blossoms into frenzied desperation. With little choice left, Suzanne escapes the convent with the aid of a priest questioning his own status within the church, a decision that leads to her eventual downfall. The grand irony of The Nun is that even though Suzanne has little interest in wearing the habit, and spends most of the film working to find a way back into secular society, she turns out to be the most devout, least corruptible character in the film. Where Rivette could have delivered a scathing critique of the idea of religion, he instead looks for the ways in which belief can elevate in the face of untenable circumstances.

Rivette’s third film, L’Amour fou, with its improvisations, extended duration, and mixture of film formats and styles seems to be generally accepted as a break with the Rivette in chrysalis of Paris Belongs to Us and The Nun, but even though that work is radically different, and presages most directly his notorious Out 1, a look at later films like Duelle, Wuthering Heights, and The Story of Marie and Julien shows how his career has trafficked less in breaks than in a gradual sublimation of the various impulses of his early films into the kind of literate, radically freeform classicism that’s held from the mid-Seventies onward. When I first saw The Nun a few years back at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Cinematek, the print had been misassembled and several reels were shown out of order. It’s to the credit of Rivette’s newfound control over narrative (with a little help from a lucky reassemblage that basically reversed the film’s two convents) that the gaffe was almost unnoticeable. Imperfectly rendered in Paris Belongs to Us, Rivette’s conception of narratives in “cells” resembling wholly conceived insulated blocks of information strung along as if in a chain works successfully here, and even more so in later extended works. Largely unconcerned with a narrativity that stitches sequences of import together to provide some semblance of realism, Rivette jumps fluidly and easily around time and place, no more so than in the film’s final bits, which skip through what seem to be the last years and locations of Suzanne’s life in the span of just a few minutes.

Up until now, Rivette’s films have been legendary for all the wrong reasons: unavailability, length, unavailability due to length—the usual benchmarks that draw the cinephile like vultures to carrion. (A recent screening at the Harvard Film Archive of Duelle found two nattily turned-out audience members praising each other’s highbrow sensibilities—the kind of nauseating spectacle that makes one ashamed to honestly love films.) Arguing that with Jacques Rivette we, at last, find a place where hyperbolic descriptions are most definitely earned is something of a zero-sum game, but I’ll go ahead and do it anyway—if any part of this retrospective happens to make it within miles of you, don’t miss a beat of it. The Nun is a terrific entry point into Rivette—its length is a manageable 140 minutes, Karina’s a friendly face, and the period settings, for all they’ve been deconstructed still offer some purchase. To fully grasp the course of his career (a feat I’m still struggling to accomplish with about a dozen of his films of under my belt), catch this and follow it closely with L’Amour fou. After seeing those two, you’ll be like Rivette—pretty much free to go anywhere you choose.