"Carnal to the point of scandal": on the affair of La Religieuse
Kevin Jackson

Improbable as it may now seem, Jacques Rivette's La Religieuse [The Nun] -- an all but forgotten work (1) by a director who has neither sought nor attained any great measure of international celebrity (1b) -- was once the most notorious film in France. Banned by the French Ministry of Information on April Fool's Day, 1966 (an unusual display of self-deprecating wit?), Rivette's version of Diderot's novel gave rise to a blizzard of impassioned articles in the national press. Le Monde actually ran a special daily feature, l'Affaire de La Religieuse, to which readers would regularly turn for the latest developments. Filmmakers, writers, religious leaders, and politicians clubbed together for protests and counter-protests; there were petitions, declarations, denunciations, public meetings, and angry open letters on all sides, though no broadcasts -- the director of French television and radio had strictly forbidden any mention of the affaire on his airwaves. The arguments dragged on for months, until finally, on May 30, 1967, the ban was lifted and the adult public was allowed to see Rivette's film, distributed under the title Suzanne Simonin, La Religieuse de Diderot. Naturally, the box office was healthy.

Like D. H. Lawrence after the triumph of Penguin Books in the Chatterley trial in England a few years earlier, Denis Diderot had suddenly and unexpectedly become a best-selling author. New editions of La Religieuse, some of them so hastily printed that they had barely been proofread, were selling out almost as quickly as the bookshops could display them. The gloomy prediction of the Benedictine Superior Marie-Yvonne had come true: "How many people will now read Diderot's book, which is even more noxious than the film!" (2) But prurient cinemagoers, tempted by the prospect of frenzied naked nuns and lesbian romps, (3) were doomed to disappointment. (Ken Russell's lurid vision of erotic frenzies within convent walls, The Devils, was still four years away.) La Religieuse proved to be -- as a contemporary British reviewer justly put it -- "a quiet, classically austere work. . . rigorously self-effacing." (4) The scandal soon faded from popular memory, and Rivette returned to comparative, if productive, anonymity. His next film, L'amour fou [Mad Love] (1968) was not much shown outside France, and the number of people who have sat through the full twelve and a half hours of its successor Out One: Noli Me Tangere (1971) can probably still be measured in the dozens. Nor is it solely among the ranks of the unconverted that Suzanne Simonin, La Religieuse de Diderot has fallen into oblivion: even Rivette's coteries of admirers have by and large tended to consider the film as something of an aberration -- the most conventional and, in the pejorative sense, "literary" work of an auteur who has otherwise been committed to restless experimentation with the narrative possibilities of cinema. Today, the most obvious trace left by the whole affaire is the cover of the GF-Flammarion paperback edition of Diderot's novel, which continues to feature a black-and-white shot of Anna Karina in the role of Suzanne.

There are a number of good reasons for regretting this state of collective amnesia. Despite the limited circulation of his films outside France, Rivette has been seriously proposed, by those critics who have addressed his work with sympathy, as one of the cinema's greatest living talents, (5) and though he has expressed his own dissatisfactions with La Religieuse, Rivette evidently does not subscribe to the orthodoxy that the feature has little connection with his other work:

La Religieuse may appear to be an uncharacteristic work, but it isn't one for me. . . Toutes proportions gardees ["all things in due proportion"; that is, in a spirit of appropriate humility], it was my idea to make a film in the spirit of Mizoguchi . . . There was an attempt to make a film with extended takes or even one-shot sequences, with a flexible camera and rather stylized performances. (6)

Another sound reason for reconsidering La Religieuse is that it is a work of such manifest seriousness, not to say earnestness, as well as "simply the most telling portrayal of eighteenth-century society ever to appear in French cinema," in the words of a contemporary journalist. (7) Finally, and not least, there is the consideration implicit in the bitter open letter addressed by Jean-Luc Godard to Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, in the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur: "If it were not prodigiously sinister, it would be prodigiously beautiful and moving to see a UNR minister of 1966 fear the spirit of an encyclopaedist of 1789." (8) This is well-aimed and suitably high-flown rhetoric, but it is more than simply rhetoric. For many of the pious objectors to La Religieuse, Rivette's offense was not so much in launching his personal "noxious" attack on the honor of French nunhood as in restoring currency to a still more noxious text; he was not charged with distorting a classic French author (who, by piquant coincidence, was the subject for that year's concours general [general certificate of education] examination in the nation's lycees), but with perpetuating that author's outrage to decent Christian feeling in a peculiarly dangerous manner.

It was a remarkable achievement: in the middle of the 1960s, Rivette provoked his fellow countrymen to reenact an ideological battle worthy of the Enlightenment. Plainly, for all that there have been several thoughtful and searching accounts of the film, (9) La Religieuse deserves more detailed critical attention than it has so far received. Rather than take on that worthwhile task myself, however, I'd like instead to examine here a few of the pertinent facts in the case of La Religieuse, the book and the film, suspecting that there are aspects of its tangled history which are of greater moment than might be immediately apparent.

In the three or four decades following its publication, Diderot's novel became so well known in France that by 1844, when Baudelaire composed his early verses "Epitre a Sainte-Beuve" ["Epistle to Sainte-Beuve"], the poet could take it for granted that "everyone" would be aware of what would now be called its "adult" content:

L'oeil plus noir et plus bleu que La Religieuse Dont chacun sait l'histoire obscene et douloureuse . . . [An eye more dark and more blue than the Nun Whose melancholy, obscene tale is known to everyone. . . ] (10)

Yet the novel's reputation for salacious detail was in many ways ill deserved. Rather than being one of those gleeful exercises in pornography with which eminent French men of letters, from Beroalde de Verville to Georges Bataille, have titillated or shocked their readers, La Religieuse was mischief of a more innocent order. The fiction which culminated in a cinematic scandal had began two centuries earlier with an entirely good-natured hoax. (11) Towards the end of the 1750s, the Marquis de Croismaire -- a devout Christian who nonetheless maintained cordial relations with the skeptical Diderot and his fellow Encyclopaedists -- became keenly interested in a case of clerical injustice. A few years earlier, in 1752, a nun named Marguerite Delamarre had begun proceedings to have her vows anulled, but was eventually turned down by the ecclesiastical court of Paris. She protested, and went to the higher authority of the appeals court of the Parlement de Paris. Despite the Marquis de Croismare's attempts at influencing the outcome, in 1758 her second plea was also refused. She was forced to remain a nun for another three decades, until convents were dissolved during the Revolution. Following the failure of his efforts, the marquis retired to his estate near Caen. He was sadly missed by Diderot and company, who therefore dreamed up a plot to bring him back. Early in 1760, they set about composing a series of pleading letters which purported to come from a young nun who had fled her convent and was now living in hiding in Versailles, at the home of a friend of the pranksters, Madame Moureau-Madin.

The hoax worked. The compassionate marquis declared himself deeply moved by the plight of "Suzanne Simonin," as the letters were signed, and offered her a position in his household. This was not precisely the outcome the hoaxers had looked for, and Diderot had to stall by inventing all sorts of reasons why Suzanne was incapable of travelling to Caen. These worked for a while, but the joke was clearly getting out of hand, so Diderot hardened his heart, "killed" Suzanne, and on May 10 sent a letter, ostensibly from Mme Madin, detailing the agonies of the young refugee's passage from this world to the next. It was not until 1768, when Croismare came back to Paris and tried to discuss the whole sad business with a baffled Mme Madin, that the deception came to light.

This collaborative spoof had unforeseen consequences for the history of literature, for the "dead" Suzanne refused to lie down quietly. Diderot, intrigued by the implications of the tragic yarn he had spun and then cut short, spent the months after May 1760 working on a longer account of Suzanne's life. He kept the manuscript more or less private until 1770, when his co-conspirator Friedrich Grimm published a memoir of what they had done in the pages of the Correspondance litteraire, together with the texts of the letters and a hint that further "revelations" about Suzanne might be forthcoming. It took another ten years before those details were made public: a subsequent editor of the Correspondance persuaded Diderot to let him have the text of his novel, which he duly published in 1780. This was the only version of La Religieuse circulated in Diderot's lifetime -- a discreet publication, since the Correspondance was read by only a small circle of subscribers. Sixteen further years passed before the first proper edition was available to a wider public. The same revolutionary Directory which finally released the unfortunate Marguerite Delamarre from her pious incarceration also granted liberty of the press to Suzanne Simonin. But by that time, Diderot had been dead for a dozen years.

The novel bore many marks of its improvised origins. Its very first sentence -- "The Marquis de Croismare's reply, if he does reply, will serve as the opening lines of this tale" (11) -- must always be mildly puzzling to readers unaware of the Encyclopaedist's game with the soft-hearted aristocrat. And though Diderot played freely with his historical sources, the bones of the real-life case of Marguerite Delamarre are frequently to be discerned beneath the fictional flesh he put upon them. Since Baudelaire's assumption that "everyone" knows the Nun's story now seems somewhat old-fashioned, a brief summary is in order here.

Written almost entirely in the first person singular, La Religieuse tells the story of Suzanne Simonin, one of three daughters of an advocate who married late in life. Though, by her own modest admission, both more beautiful and more gifted than her conceited siblings, she was always treated coolly by her parents. As the three girls reach nubile age, the parents grow alarmed that potential suitors always gravitate towards the charms of Suzanne, so they pack her off to a convent until her sisters are safely wed. Suzanne is reasonably contented with her lot, expecting an early release, but is shocked to find that her parents, having spent a fortune in dowries, now expect her to take orders and remain a nun for life. She resists, but is eventually browbeaten into joining the novitiate. From this point on, La Religieuse is essentially the tale of Suzanne's rebellions, persecutions, and despairs.

Suzanne completes her novitiate, but as a result of her rebelliousness is transferred to the convent at Longchamp. At first, life here is not so bad: she is tutored by the relatively humane Madame de Moni. But her protector soon dies, and is succeeded by the fanatical Sister Sainte-Christine, who, seeking to crush Suzanne's spirit, enforces a brutal regime of abuse. Though strongly tempted by suicide, Suzanne continues to fight for her freedom and eventually wins a transfer to the liberal convent of Saint -Eutrope. The place seems like a well-lit paradise of sisterly affection, and Suzanne is doted on by the Mother Superior, Madame***. For alert readers, those coy asterisks tell their own tale. Madame***'s motives are not altogether holy; nor are her kisses and hugs altogether maternal, though Suzanne (for all her meekly vaunted intelligence) is far slower than the reader to grasp what is going on.

The hand she had rested on my knee wandered all over my clothing from my feet to my girdle, pressing here and there, and she gasped as she urged me in a strange, low voice to redouble my caresses, which I did. Eventually a moment came, whether of pleasure or of pain I cannot say, when she went as pale as death, closed her eyes, and her whole body tautened violently, her lips were first pressed together and moistened with a sort of foam, then they parted and she seemed to expire with a deep sigh. I jumped up, thinking she had fainted, and was about to go and call for help. (137-8)

Sexual exploitation is no joke, but a sexually naive narrator can be. (12) Though Diderot is in the main compassionate towards his sorrowing creature, he is far from uncritical, and it is not only her inability to rec-ognize a female orgasm when she sees one that makes Suzanne seem just a shade dim-witted. (Rivette's film, recounting this event in the conventional third-person form of film narrative, shreds it of nearly all of its comic tone.) Suzanne is compliant when her confessor, Father Lemoine, urges her to shun Madame... completely. The Mother Superior grows sad, then morbid, then frenzied. The other nuns, blaming Suzanne for the demise of their beloved leader, organize a fresh campaign of persecution. A new confessor, Dom Morel, comes to investigate the case, and thanks to his investigations, our less than perspicacious heroine finally realizes her Superior's true motives.

The ten or so remaining pages of Suzanne's confessions grow increasingly fragmentary: a previously invisible "editor" comes forward to comment on the scrappy state of the available documents. Suzanne flees the convent one night with the help of a young Benedictine, who promptly tries to rape her. She is taken to a brothel and held there for two weeks before making a second escape, suffers various additional humiliations and then manages to secure a menial job in a laundry. The novel ends with a final appeal to the marquis, hinting at the possibility of suicide if she is forced back into the convent.

Such is the principal content of Diderot's novel, and, since the director remained uncommonly faithful to his source, such is the plot of Rivette's film. Rivette makes just one substantial change. His film concludes with Suzanne in a brothel, powdered and primped and clearly more desperate than ever. Where the action of Diderot's novel is left hanging, Rivette has Suzanne fall -- she jumps from an upper-storey window and is last seen lying dead, spread out on paving stones in an attitude which echoes that of a penitent before the altar. (13) Some scholars have objected strongly to Rivette's act of licence here, but it cannot be said to have added greatly to the potential offensiveness of the film as far as the pious were concerned, as a review of the scandal will show. (14)

It was as early as 1962 that Rivette first took Jean Gruault's scenario to the board responsible for issuing production visas. He was rejected. Despite being rewritten and trimmed of its offending material, the script was turned down three times in all, and eventually passed in a bowdlerized version on the understanding that it would also be retitled as Suzanne Simonin, La Religieuse de Diderot and furnished, by the producer Georges de Beauregard, with a disclaimer pointing out that it was a work of fiction and not a comment on modern-day convent life. These laborious negotiations took the better part of three years, and it was not until September 1965 that Rivette was at last able to begin shooting.

In the meantime, religious groups had been alerted. The president of the Union des Superieures Majeures wrote to the Minister of Information, one M. Peyrefitte, demanding his intervention "in the name of the 120,000 nuns of France." Peyrefitte replied that he would do everything in his power to prevent the film's release, but appears to have made no move before being succeeded in his ministerial post by Yvon Bourges: our villain, as it were. Before long, Bourges's office was being flooded with angry petitions -- so many that he phoned the local archbishop to request that a team of nuns be despatched to help him sort the mail. What had happened was that children in Catholic schools were being required to write down dictated letters of complaint, take them home to be signed by their parents, and post them to the Ministry. One of these petitions, drawn up by the APEL (Association des parents des ecoles libres ["Parents' association of free schools"]), declared:

This film, which defames and travesties the life of religious orders, injures

-the dignity of woman;

-the honour of nuns;

-wounds the moral sense;

-draws a distorted picture of nuns, former educators of our mothers and our wives; most often at present still the educators of our children.

On all these grounds, we firmly protest against this project -- however advanced that it may be in its realization -- and we urgently appeal for the total banning of its projection. (15)

Surprisingly, perhaps, the twenty-three members of the Censorship Board, having viewed Rivette's completed film, declared on March 22, 1966 that it was quite suitable for public exhibition. Bourges was not happy. A week later, on March 29, he "invited" the members of the board to view the film again, and reconsider their verdict. This time, one of the Censors brought along a Mother Superior, who -- it is pleasant to record -- thought that the film was perfectly realistic and nothing to be upset about: "All that's happened hundreds of times in convents," was her phlegmatic response. Unfortunately, Bourges had also sent along his own expert -- Maurice Grimaud, the director of the Surete Nationale, who warned the board of the riots which would surely break out if La Religieuse were to be distributed.

Votes were cast and, once again, the Censors passed La Religieuse by a large majority. They did, however, restrict the film to viewers over the age of eighteen, and recommended that it should not be exported to any part of Africa or to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Lebanon, Syria or Madagascar -- that is, to countries in which there were French missions, where the locals might not fully appreciate that the film was set in the bad old pre-Revolutionary days, and where they might form a false impression of modern nuns, "whose cultural activities participate in the world-wide radiance of France." Unappeased, Bourges decided to overrule his own Censors, and announced a total ban on Rivette's film. Le Monde reported the wording of the Minister's objections:

This decision is motivated by the fact that this film, because of the behavior of some characters, as of certain situations, and similarly because of the audience and the range of a commercially distributed film, is of a nature to affront gravely the feelings and the consciences of a large part of the population. (16)

To arms, Citizens! Intellectuals, filmmakers, writers and even sympathetic priests hastened to the defense. The 200,000 members of the federation of cine-clubs volunteered for any form of protest Rivette's group saw fit; Rivette and his fellow film director Claude Chabrol went on a "Free the Nun" tour of French campuses ("Censors belong in convents," Chabrol told their supporters); Beauregard began a legal action against Bourges, accusing him of "misappropriation of power," and began a petition of his own, aiming for the symbolic total of 1,789 signatures; Paris Presse leaked a rumor that the members of the Censorship Board were planning to resign as a body, believing that Bourges had made them look like "clowns"; and the editorial columns fired salvo after salvo. The Abbe Lenfantin wrote to Cahiers du Cinema with "tears in my eyes," and rose to a pitch of truly splendid disgust:

Oh, how I should like to have M. Bourges in the secrecy of the confessional! I will tell him, that ignoble servant of a totalitarian State, some home truths. That such men, such fools that one is flabbergasted, exist still and govern us! I say out loud to M. Bourges and to his masters that they will remain in the memory of history on the same grounds as the judges of Flaubert and of Baudelaire -- as those powerless curs who cling with all their teeth to the skirts of Beauty! (17)

Jean-Luc Godard composed and published two blazing open letters: one in Le Monde, in which he sarcastically offered his thanks to Yvon Bourges who, by banning "one of the most celebrated classics of freedom," had shown him the true face of contemporary Fascism; and a still more intemperate one in Le Nouvel Observateur to his one-time supporter Andre Malraux, Minister of Culture, who had not long since rescued his own film Une Femme mariee [A Married Woman] from "the axe of Peyrefitte."

Being a cineaste [filmmaker] as others are Jews or blacks, I was beginning to be bored with going every time to see you and with asking for you to intercede with your friends Roger Frey and Georges Pompidou to obtain mercy for a film condemned to death by censorship, that gestapo of the spirit. But God in heaven, I did not really think I should have to do so for your brother, Diderot, a journalist and a writer like you, and his Religieuse, my sister, that is to say, a French citizen who prays simply to our Father to protect his independence.

Blind man that I was! I should have remembered that letter for which Denis had been put in the Bastille. (18)

For their part, the opponents of La Religieuse were equally intemperate. In Le Figaro Litteraire, Francois Mauriac complained that "It would never occur to those who chose to film Diderot's poisoned book to make a film against the Jews -- whereas against the Catholics, anything goes!" while the conservative weekly Carrefour thundered that "if, in the name of freedom, we let this film be shown, we might as well open the doors of France to all the dirty hairy beatniks of the earth." The plot thickened when the ever-shrewd Malraux gave permission for La Religieuse to be screened at Cannes, thereby sparing the French government the embarrassment of seeing the nation's most famous film festival boycotted by each and every one of the French directors whose films had already been submitted for exhibition.

Eventually, Bourges was himself succeeded as Minister of Information by a M. Gorse, and the ban was lifted some thirteen months after its first imposition. In practical terms, it had done Rivette's career no harm at all. Beauregard had been quick to trade on the film's notoriety and sold it to distributors from eight countries, so that "La Religieuse became [Rivette's] only solid financial success." (19) On balance, critics around the world treated the film intelligently and with respect, but it is fair to suspect that the majority of audiences were "rather bored" by its uncompromising severity and its remarkable lack of features that any save the most prickly could find offensive. (20) It swiftly became obvious to all who saw the film that outraging the sensibilities of the devout had never been among Rivette's ambitions for the film. So what, then, had the director been hoping to achieve by bringing La Religieuse to the screen?

Rivette's involvement with La Religieuse began with work on a stage adaptation. While he was still editing his first full-length film, Paris nous appartient [Paris Belongs to Us] (1960), the director was approached by that film's co-screenwriter, his actor friend Jean Gruault, who had composed the draft of a stage play of Diderot's novel in hotel rooms while on a theatrical tour in Brussels and Switzerland. Since Rivette's various accounts of his own motives in tackling Diderot tend towards the gnomic, not to say cryptic, (21) it is Gruault's recent book of memoirs, Ce que dit l'autre [What the Other One Says], which offers the clearest and most substantial statement of what the filmmakers found appealing in La Religieuse. A man who had spent the better part of three years of his youth in a seminary himself, Gruault introduces the possibility that he was working out some autobiographical themes in his screenplay, only to dismiss it. No, Gruault says, what really appealed to him was the chance to write dialogue rather more elegant and sparkling than the ponderous ruminations and sibylline apophthegms which had filled Paris nous appartient. Besides which, he continues, he found himself moved by the plight of a hunted, persecuted young woman who, rather than submitting passively to her fate, fights back with an energy which reminded him of Lillian Gish in Orphans of the Storm. (22)

Gruault's completed play had its initial staging in 1960 by the Theatre Quotidien in Marseille, with Betty Schneider in the title role, and was a great success. In 1963, Rivette directed a new production at the Theatre du Studio des Champs-Elysees, with Anna Karina as Suzanne; finance was provided by Karina's husband, Jean-Luc Godard, and the producer was Antoine Boursellier. In later years, Rivette was diffident about this staging: "La Religieuse was an opportunity that presented itself, and it wasn't very successful. Luckily, there was Anna Karina, who wanted to play the main part. She gave an interest to the play, which was otherwise quite unsuccessful." (23) The show ran for less than a month, from February 6 to March 5. Critical response to the production appears to have been at best lukewarm, though Cahiers du Cinema was appropriately loyal: its reviewer, Jean-Louis Comolli, enthused that it "restored to the theatre a simplicity, an efficacy and a freedom which it has long been lacking." (24) Unabashed by the comparative failure of his first venture onto the stage, Rivette pressed on with plans for a feature film version. When he was interviewed in 1968 about the place of this film between its predecessor Paris nous appartient and its successor, L'amour fou, Rivette was modest and frank: He saw La Religieuse, he said:

as a seductive error. At first, I felt like doing it only as an adaptation, in order to get people to know the book; then there was directing the play, and I felt like filming the play and sometimes wanted to see passages of it become a film while still remaining within a theatrical performance. . . for me it remains a very theatrical film. I wanted to play on the fact that there were some very theatrical passages, which were intentionally played for a theatrical effect, and that sometimes it became more just physical actions and therefore became cinematic. (25)

Rivette's interest in bringing some of the qualities of the theatre to his film work was not, it should be stressed, an accidental byproduct of his brief career digression onto the stage. The theatre -- and, particularly, the process of staging -- was the ruling obsession of Rivette's early work. "All films are about the theatre, there is no other subject," ran his memorable declaration to a group of interviewers from Cahiers du Cinema. (26) Thus, Paris nous appartient is the story of a young woman (Betty Schneider) who becomes involved in rehearsals for a production of Shakespeare's Pericles which never reaches the stage. For l'Amour fou, Rivette asked the theatrical producer Jean-Pierre Kalfon to form a company to rehearse Racine's Andromaque: part of the film follows their rehearsals to the brink of the first night, while the other part concerns a TV crew who are themselves making a documentary about the performers. Rivette's gargantuan, all but unseen film Out One: Noli Me Tangere and its slightly more available shortened (four hours and twenty minutes) version Out One: Spectre also depict, among various other matters, the efforts of two rival theatrical troupes as they prepare, but never stage, productions of Aeschylus's Prometheus and Seven Against Thebes.

In the light of this fascination, La Religieuse appears not so much a contradiction of Rivette's usual procedures as a logical complement to them. Where Paris nous appartient, L'Amour fou, and the Out One films show the process of bringing (or failing to bring) a play to the stage, La Religieuse displays the end product. In fact, Rivette goes out of his way to signal the theatricality of the enterprise: before the opening credits roll, the soundtrack is filled with the noise of an audience shuffling and murmuring, to be silenced by the traditional trois coups [three knocks] which announce that a play is about to begin. The film's first shot also drops a strong hint about the nature of what is to come. Rivette pans to the right over a seated gathering of spectators -- our on-screen surrogates -- before coming to rest on the image of Suzanne, dressed as a Bride of Christ, being led to her vows behind the grille which separates the sacred world from the profane. Screaming "I have no vocation," she rebels, is dragged away howling, and the tragedy begins to unfold. The religious ceremony, in other words, is regarded as a species of staged performance. Rivette later revealed that he had wanted to sustain the analogy between ritual and performance throughout the film, but had been hampered by the production budget; above all, he regretted that "I couldn't show the ceremonies, the paraphernalia of the offices." (27)

Well and good, and no doubt an accurate account of his aims and errors. But what is odd, almost bizarre about Rivette's repeated emphasis on the essential theatricality of the film is that it so blithely disregards all the qualities which made La Religieuse scandalous. He never seems to have abandoned this puzzling reticence. When asked about his rea-sons for making the film, Rivette gave any number of different accounts, but the property common to all his responses is that they refer exclusively to formal ambitions: questions of tempo, rhythm, cinematic allusion (Mizoguchi), decor and space, even linguistic conceits. At one point, he suggested that "The original idea of La Religieuse was a play on words: making a 'cellular' film, because it was about cells full of nuns." Seconds earlier, however, he had told the very same interviewers that "The origin of La Religieuse was mainly music, the ideas of [the avant-garde composer and conductor, Pierre] Boulez -- though very badly assimilated. The idea was that each shot had its own duration, its tempo, its 'color' (that is, its tone), its intensity and its level of play." (28)

Now, contradictory statements, to paraphrase Johnson's Imlac in Rasselas, cannot both be true, but they may both be honest, and when Rivette insists that he started La Religieuse with an idea about music, or with a pun, or with a desire to investigate theatricality, or with the ambition to imitate Mizoguchi or what have you, what he is presumably saying is that his mind was teeming with all sorts of ideas about his film, some of which found their way into the finished product, some of which became compromised en route, and some of which were simply forgotten or dropped. But not once does he let slip any indiscretion about wanting to attack nuns. In fact, Rivette's words are so thoroughly sober in tone, so guilelessly unruffled by La Religieuse's (still very recent) standing as the greatest popular scandal of French cultural life, that it is almost tempting to see him here as a hapless victim of other people's malign intentions -- as a sort of holy innocent, albeit a highly thoughtful innocent, who had simply stepped into a trap built for him by the Church and its fellow travelers. Suzanne Simonin, c'est lui? ["For Suzanne Simonin, read Jacques Rivette?"] Well, not quite.

In other words, perhaps the most baffling aspect of the affair of La Religieuse is the yawning gap between the way in which the film was conceived by its creators and that in which it was perceived by the pious. On the one side, we have Rivette and Gruault, the director wholly preoccupied with austere questions of cinematic form, the writer full of imaginative sympathy for Diderot's Lillian Gish-like heroine and her fight for freedom; on the other, the irate protestors and their belief that France was threatened by indecency, blasphemy, and sedition. One need not be particularly soft on censorship matters to feel that the splenetic reaction was excessive, especially since it is by no means self-evident that either the novel or the film need be construed as even remotely irreligious. To make this point is not (or not necessarily) to play the rhetorical card which is often brought out when liberal secularists rush to defend works which have outraged the faithful, from Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ to Rushdie's Satanic Verses -- that is, to argue, however implausibly, for the deep if paradoxical underlying piety of the offending piece. This somewhat embarrassing ploy tends to satisfy neither the faithful (who remain unconvinced) nor the secularists (who do not much care for questions of dogma).

Still, the records imply -- more than imply -- that both Diderot and Rivette had quite other things on their minds than besmirching the good name of the Catholic Church. It is an enlightening fact that the Church, though it certainly put many of Diderot's works on the Index of prohibited books side by side with the entire oeuvre of Voltaire, chose to let La Religieuse go free; that decision indicated greater powers of discrimination than the Index's tarnished reputation would suggest. By and large, modern critics seem to agree with the verdict of the novel's English translator, Leonard Tancock: "It is not an attack upon Christianity, or even the Catholic Church.. . The tone throughout is respectful of sincere religion. The attack is against misconceived Christianity, applied by ignorant, warped and unnatural people in a social system where the civil law protects the persecutor and penalises the victim." (29) In similar vein, Peter France observes that "unlike Voltaire in his campaign against the infame [that is, the 'infamous' Church] ... Diderot does not seem to have pursued the religion of his fathers with great venom," and proposes that Diderot's "attitude to nuns is like his attitude to the blind: they can tell him something new about humanity. Thinking about monasteries and convents, he asks: What happens to normal human beings in such (to him) unnatural surroundings? The novel is like the account of a scientific experiment." (30) While Diderot, then, was happy enough to associate himself with such fervent atheists as Holbach, his unbelief was of the serene rather than the militant order. In so far as La Religieuse may legitimately be regarded as a satire -- and it remains debatable how much real crusading intent can be ascribed to a work deliberately kept private for so many years -- it is a satire on the ways in which human beings are driven to cruelty, fanaticism, and despair by their own institutions.

Rivette's private views on Christianity may come as a still greater surprise. Far from sharing the derisive or dismissive atheism of so many young intellectuals of his generation, he seems to have been a startlingly ardent believer, and his youthful critical writings bear witness to his wish to bear Christian witness. Take his extraordinary essay on Rosselini's film Voyage to Italy, a magnificent and anguished portrait of a marriage in crisis which ends, or appears to end, with the couple being reconciled by the action of Divine Grace. (31) Rivette declares in his review that "Rossellini's genius is possible only within Christianity"; that Rossellini's burden (of which Rivette manifestly approves in the strongest terms) is "that only a life in God, in his love and his sacraments, only the communion of saints can enable us to meet, to know, to possess another being than ourselves alone; and that one can only know and possess oneself in God"; and -- a disconcerting maxim -- that Rossellini "is not merely Christian, but Catholic; in other words, carnal to the point of scandal." Out of that Catholic carnality, the young Rivette believed, a new form of cinema was about to emerge -- "our cinema, those of us who are in our turn preparing to make films." (32) He continues:

A fig for the skeptics, the rational, the judicious; irony and sarcasm have had their day; now it is time to love the cinema so much that one has little taste left for what presently passes by that name, and wants to impose a more exacting image of it. (33)

There is not a single sequence in La Religieuse which suggests that Rivette had, a decade later, come to rue his fervent expressions of Catholic belief, or his hopes for the cinema he thought adumbrated in Rosselini's great film. As in the novel, the genuinely pious characters of Rivette's work are treated with due respect, and Suzanne's own yearnings towards the comforts of faith -- her prayers and claspings of the cross -- are never made to seem hypocritical, hysterical, or grotesque. To an agnostic viewer, the film will appear either to be dispassionately neutral towards Christian faith or, possibly, to be exercised with distinctions between sincere religion and the corrupt exploitation of religious institutions by their senior members. It will also -- recall the words of Gruault's memoir and Godard's protest to Malraux -- appear to be a film greatly preoccupied with the question of freedom, and not only the freedom of the cloistered. (34) For all that, it would be wrong to conclude that Rivette's detractors were simply making a fuss about nothing.

"The cinema," Rivette once maintained, "is necessarily fascination and rape": a strong contender for his most arresting policy statement ever, though it has many worthy competitors elsewhere in his writings and interviews. (35) The enemies of La Religieuse might not have put their case in quite those pungent terms, and certainly not in a spirit of approval, and yet their very outrage at Rivette's work hints a curious kind of intuitive acquiescence in its essential accuracy. With the hindsight of three decades, it becomes clearer than ever that those who opposed La Religieuse were frequently objecting not so much to any particular repugnant aspect of the film -- loyal as it demonstrably was to Diderot's readily available novel -- as to its having been made as a film at all. The wording of Bourges's original complaint repays attention: what he has in mind as a censor, what alarms him most, is "the audience and the range of a commercially distributed film." Bourges's assumption here is surely that film is a massively more potent and dangerous medium than print -- a view that mayor may not stand up to serious scrutiny, but which has often been at the heart of debates on cinema censorship. (36) Film, so the Bourgesoisie of the world has long assumed, can inflame the passions of the young, the irresponsible and the illiterate -- both at home and in our colonial possessions -- as the chillier and more elite medium of the printed word can never do; it bypasses the critical faculties even of the supposedly educated mind; it shouts to the mob in darkened rooms, where literature murmurs to the discerning, solitary individual. All highly dubious assumptions, all ripe for vigorous rebuttal; and yet the young Rivette who said that the cinema is "necessarily fascination and rape" was conceding that the powers of his adopted medium are indeed peculiarly overwhelming. To take this article of faith as seriously as Rivette did may involve the surrender of at least one patch of the moral high ground to those driven by the urge to keep cinema safely under wraps. In short, at a deeper, quieter level than the rowdy to-and-fro of public debate, Rivette and his censors were in a surprising degree of accord.

To be sure, the affair of La Religieuse was, like the Chatterley trial and other highly publicized censorship cases, something of a media circus and a five minutes' wonder, but -- again, like other such cases -- it also touched on issues of policy and aesthetics which have yet to be settled at all satisfactorily. The fight to free La Religieuse can easily be presented as nothing more than an all-too-familiar conflict between faith and secularism, conservatives and progressives, censors and libertarians. In another light, though, while it was indeed a battle over issues of faith, the contesting beliefs were not only those of Christianity and Enlightenment humanism. They included the convictions held by those puritans who instinctively dread the power of moving images to stir unruly emotions, and those held by all the filmmakers and viewers who are -- at least at times -- willing to invoke and relish that potentially hazardous power.

  1. Of the first half dozen histories of French cinema I consulted by way of putting this assumption to the test, only one so much as mentioned the film in passing. (1b.) We, the webmasters of this site, should acknowledge that we disagree with this assessment.

  2. Elliot Stein, "Suzanne Simonin, Diderot's Nun," Sight and Sound (Summer 1966), 133.

  3. For a sympathetic general treatment of this topic, see Sara Gwenllian Jones, "Sexing the Soul: Nuns and Lesbianism in Mainstream Film," Perversions I (1994-95),41-59. I owe this reference to Peter Swaab.

  4. Tom Milne, untitled review of La Religieuse, Sight and Sound (Winter 1967/8), 38-9.

  5. David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (London: Andre Deutsch, 1994), p. 636.

  6. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Lauren Sedofsky, and Gilbert Adair, "Interview with Jacques Rivette," Film Comment (September 1974), 24. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  7. Stein, "Suzanne Simonin," 131.

  8. Jacques Bontemps, "Jottings from Other Publications," Cahiers du Cinema in English, 7 (January 1967), 6-7, 64.

  9. A short list of criticism in English should include Milne (see note 4); Peter Lloyd, "Jacques Rivette and L'amour Fou," in Monogram 2 (Summer 1971), 12; and James Monaco, The New Wave (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), pp. 315-18.

  10. Charles Baudelaire, Baudelaire, introduced and edited by Francis Scarfe (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 33.

  11. I owe the details of this account mainly to the relevant sections of Denis Diderot, The Nun, intro. and trans., Leonard Tancock (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974); Peter France, Diderot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); Vivienne Mylne, Diderot: La Religieuse (London: Grant and Cutler, 1981); and Christine Clark-Evans, Diderot 's La Religieuse: A Philosophical Novel (Montreal: CERES, 1995). Reference to Diderot's novel will be to the 1974 Penguin edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

  12. The question of Suzanne's precise degree of sexual ignorance is considered at great length in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, "Privilege of Unknowing," in Tendencies (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 23-51. Sedgwick considers the narrator "unmistakably a pain in the neck" (28).

  13. In an interesting essay "Genie de la Melancholie" ["Genius of Melancholy"], in which she proposes that Rivette's body of work as a whole may be regarded as belonging to an allegorical tradition of Melancholy (that discussed by certain art historians, notably Panofsky and Saxl), Suzanne Liandrat-Guiges suggests that this terminal shot is crucial to Rivette's melancholic intentions. Suzanne Liandrat-Guiges, Jacques Rivette, critique et cineaste (Etudes cinematographiques Vol. 63) (Paris-Caen: Minard, 1998), 38.

  14. Tancock, introduction to The Nun, pp. 7-8.

  15. Bontemps, "Jottings," 6.

  16. Bontemps, "Jottings," 7.

  17. Bontemps, "Jottings," 7.

  18. Bontemps, "Jottings," 7.

  19. Monaco, New wave, p. 306.

  20. Thomson, Biographical Dictionary, p. 636.

  21. And since, I am obliged to confess, he made no reply to my requests for an interview.

  22. Jean Gruault, Ce que dit l'autre (Paris: Julliard, 1992), p. 19.

  23. Rosenbaum et al., "Interview with Rivette," 23. It seems only fair to add that Anna Karina's memories of the run are quite different. When I interviewed her in July 2001, she recalled a considerable hit -- houses packed with profusely weeping spectators of the most fashionable and glamorous kind. Brigitte Bardot, she stressed, had been spotted in the audience. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  24. Jean-Louis Comolli, "Theatre" (Review of the stage production of La Religieuse), Cahiers du Cinema 142 (April 1963), 38.

  25. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jacques Rivette: Texts and Interviews (London: British Film Institute, 1977), p. 29. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  26. Rosenbaum, Rivette, pp. 36-7. This remark seems even stranger when taken out of context. A partial explanation of what Rivette meant by the assertion that films have "no other subject" but the theatre follows a few lines later: "Because that is the subject of truth and lies, and there is no other in the cinema: it is necessarily a questioning about truth, with means that are necessarily untruthful. Performance as the subject." Rosenbaum, Rivette, p. 27. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  27. Monaco, New Wave, p. 316.

  28. Rosenbaum, Rivette, p. 30. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  29. Tancock, introduction to The Nun, p. 11.

  30. France, Diderot, pp. 37, 38.

  31. Rosenbaum, Rivette, pp. 54-64; the Rossellini essay was first published in Cahiers du Cinema 46 (April 1955). [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  32. Rosenbaum, Rivette, pp. 58, 62, 63, 64. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  33. Rosenbaum, Rivette, pp. 64. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  34. Rivette's film has notable formal similarities to many prison movies, and above all -- though in interviews, the director was anxious to play down any suggestion of direct influence by Robert Bresson -- of Un condamne a mort s'est echappe.

  35. Rosenbaum, Rivette, p. 37. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  36. Compare, for example, the highly publicized debates and wrangles between producers and censors over the film versions of A Clockwork Orange, The Last Temptation of Christ, J. G. Ballard's Crash, or even - in some parts of the world -- The Canterbury Tales.

Originally appeared in Eighteenth-century fiction on screen. ed. Robert Mayor. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2002. p. 139-56.