Director Guillaume Nicloux is a devotee of Denis Diderot’s novel La Religieuse (The Nun), which was post-humously published in 1796, yet this visually impressive adaptation is far from faithful to the original text.
Suzanne (Pauline Etienne), a young girl born into a French, bourgeois family in the mid-1700s, is sent to a convent by her parents. Initially Suzanne refuses to take her vows, but when she learns she is an illegitimate child she agrees to return to the convent. Regrettably, some of Suzanne’s superiors are of a sadistic disposition, ultimately prompting her to rebel once again.
The atmosphere is perhaps the film’s most striking feature; pallid hues, clinical textures and sharp echoes reverberating on unforgiving surfaces contribute to a general undertone of alienation and emptiness. Moreover, the camera constantly pores over every inch of Etienne; she is not given one moment of privacy, which both underlines her brutal treatment and urges empathy with her many humiliations.
Despite The Nun’s distinctive mood, however, it ultimately fails to say anything new or meaningful about the abuse of power in religious institutions, and not even the sensitive performances of this piece can counterbalance this flaw. The director’s amendments, not only to the essence of the protagonist but also to the conclusion and overall message of the novel seem to have little rationale.