Jacques Rivette's La Religieuse is like the romanesque capitals of the Cistercian abbeys of France: pure, austere, and hard to reach. The story relates the fate of Suzanne Simonin, the third daughter of a rich family, who is forced into a convent where she tries and fails to have her vows annulled. Written by Diderot in 1760, the story was an exercise in compassion in the true case of Suzanne Saulier, a bitter pamphlet against monastic life, and a subtle attack on the religious life of his times. But when Rivette transcribes it faithfully to the screen in 1965, what becomes of it?
Suzanne's mother has managed to keep it secret that she is not her father's child. For this, the only fact of life she can neither change nor undo, Suzanne has to pay by the negation of her freedom. Her prison is not so much physical as it is moral: wherever she turns, there is no exit. The bars are replaced by the columns of the cloisters. If she would comply with the fakery of pious gestures and actions required of her, she could live undisturbed, protected by the religious costume, eat, sleep, and be forgotten. But she is logical and lucid and her lack of religious commitment does not permit her to live in that false situation. The rope strangling her is not her rebellion but her honesty: "I know not the life of the world but I do not cherish this one to which I was not called." Her superiors, her judges, humiliate her but she keeps such pride and such assurance of the rightfulness of her actions that, instead of becoming the desperate underdog, she remains erect, trapped and wounded. The only remedy to her birth is death -- and damnation. Rivette completes Diderot's unfinished novel with her suicide, the only possible way out but the most horrid for one who has kept her faith in God. This foredoomed dramatic destiny gives Suzanne Simonin the dimensions of a Greek heroine. Suzanne is heroic because there never is in her a trace of depravity or degeneracy, a pinch of abandon or yielding. Chained more tightly than Prometheus, faced with more hopelessness than Sisyphus, Suzanne goes irrevocably toward her destruction.
The curve of the nun's destiny gives its shape to the film and explains its dramatic rigor. Actually, it is not a curve but a vector. It cannot but rush stubbornly toward Suzanne's annihilation, with no ascending summits of hope, no descending moments either since she is already doomed when the film opens, no development possible in any direction other than straight ahead. This is why it is wrong to say that La Religieuse is a static film -- it moves forward, irresistibly.
Rivette allows but one breathing spell in the 140 tense minutes of the film. The nun has been transferred from the harsh, sadistic convent of Longchamp to the frivolous, libertine one of Arpajon. We relax, we smile, for we are exchanging the solitary cell, the hair shirt and the whip for lace, cakes, cushions, and caresses. As spectators, we think we are going to satisfy an old curiosity about the scandalous lesbian mores of eighteenth-century nuns and, in return for all we have suffered with Suzanne so far, we are ready to be entertained. It is a breath of air given to the condemned in the courtyard of a prison. At this very moment of the tragedy, Diderot and Rivette make their most pessimistic comment. For as soon as Suzanne is chosen by her new mother superior Mme. de Chelles (Liselotte Pulver) as the object of her passion, we know that Suzanne, because of her innocence and her virginity, will be able neither to share nor to stop the passion, and our laughter freezes on our lips. The hands held out to Suzanne by the bouncy sisters and Mme. de Chelles's kisses are far more treacherous than the disciplinary tortures of Longchamp. It is not because of hatred that Suzanne will reach the bottom but because of affection. Love is the ultimate deathtrap.
For a while, Rivette's camera had left the bare corridors of Longchamp for the gilded outdoor autumn of Arpajon. A warm gold bas replaced the blues, but flowers and rosy cheeks will not smile at Suzanne for long. Liselotte Pulver's blond hair, at first a symbol of femininity and sensousness, reflects now the red glow of her sexual insanity. Rivette has chosen a particular color for each of Suzanne's circles of Hell: blue for the sadistic period of her first convent, dark yellow for the double lust of Mme. de Chelles and Dom Morel (Francisco Rabal) and pink, the most obscene of all colors, for the last circle, the maison close where the tension between the prostitutes' erotic venality and Suzanne's virtue must inescapably propel her to her death.
Music is, along with color, the other concession Rivette made to brilliance and to the twentieth century. Jean-Claude Eloy's dissonant score does more than give a modern date to the film. Eloy's music seems to be Rivette's voice, the narrator's comment. For instance, in a scene where Suzanne, walking with Sister Sainte-Christine under the arches of the cloisters, asserts her irrevocable decision to appeal, the strident chords create and predict the break between the two women and ultimately the tortures Suzanne will have to endure. In Diderot's letter-novel, written in the first person singular, we see everything through Suzanne's eyes: events, people and sufferings. If she does not complain, we don't either. In her innocence she first sees in Mme. de Chelles tenderness and beauty. Rivette has "objectivized" La Religieuse without trying, either by choice of cast or by camera angles, to color a character good or evil, to incline our judgment. In fact, Suzanne's three superiors are equally beautiful: Micheline Presle (Mme. de Moni) perhaps more angelic, Francine Berge (Sister Sainte-Christine) slightly more severe, and Liselotte Pulver juicier and plumper. It is not Rivette's translation but Anna Karina's intense and sober acting which accelerates our identification with her. It is undoubtedly Karina's most profound and best performance to date. Paradoxically Jean-Luc Godard's love never did for her what Diderot's tight script and Rivette's rigid direction accomplished.
Because of the subject of La Religieuse, it might appear that a discussion of the aesthetics of the film should come second, after the ethics. More than ever, they are here inseparable. The iconoclastic bearing of the picture comes out more forceful1y because of the restraint of the form. Rivette must have been aware that by starting the film in a stagy Comedie-Francaise fashion and by having the dramaturgie slowly roll toward its fateful completion, he was inviting violent Church criticism. What we conclude on the sadomasochism, the venality, and the licentiousness of eighteenth-century convents arises from much minute and objectively presented evidence. But Rivette, unlike many French intellectuals, is not obsessed with anti-clericalism. The bitter attack on religion stems from the subject itself, not from personal embellishments by the director.
Unfortunately, the banning of La Religieuse and the subsequent uproar have predisposed many people in such a way that they anticipate a scandalous and flamboyant film, which blinds them to the real one. Ironically, the nuns, the Catholic right wing and the archbishops of France understood the implications in Jacques Rivette's classicism far more clearly; they recognized in it the long French tradition of polemics hidden beneath "style" -- that of Pascal, Crebillon fils, Voltaire, and Diderot himself.
Judging by its reception at the San Francisco Film Festival, it seems that in matters of "religion in film," moviegoers are readier for the gothic metaphysical anxieties of Ingmar Bergman, the rustic Evangelical reenactments of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Lutheran frigidity of Jean-Marie Straub and the baroque swipes at Catholicism of Luis Bunuel than for the subtle self-critical Christianity of La Religieuse. Maybe it is reassuring for them to know that Bergman is an atheist, Pasolini a Marxist, and Bunuel a former Catholic turned unbeliever. Faced with what Claude Mauriac called a "truly Christian film," they murmur their disappointment. The real achievement of Jacques Rivette is to have made a film which is both spiritual and "anti-religious." To return to the comparison with the romanesque capitals, those who miss the beauty of La Religieuse resemble the American tourists in France who admire the gothic exuberance of Chartres and Reims but overlook the muted denudation of the Abbey du Tholonet.