The finest film I saw at the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York City was “The Nun” (“La Religieuse”, a deeply emotional and compelling adaptation of the novel by French philosopher Denis Diderot. The book was published in 1796.
Suzanne (Pauline Etienne) is distressed when her parents send her to a convent to become a nun. After the revelation that she is illegitimate, Suzanne finds that she will be forced to remain. The Mother Superior (Francoise Lebrun, a warm presence) is kind to Suzanne and sympathetic to her reservations on convent life.
The Mother Superior dies and is replaced by the younger and strikingly beautiful Sister Christine (Louise Bourgoin) who restores some of the harsh measures, like wearing hair shirts, that had been eliiminated by her predecessor. When Suzanne rebels, she is faced with sadistic retribution and scorn by her fellow nuns. Director Guillaume Nicloux has staged vivid scenes of Suzanne’s torment in the religious order. Etienne gives a superb performance, showing the depth of Suzanne’s pain as well as her inner strength to endure.
Suzanne is transferred to another convent where the Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert) becomes disturbingly attached to her. Huppert gives another fearless performance as her character slips into hysteria. “The Nun” is a powerful film on resistance against oppression.
After the screening, director Guillaume Nicloux, who co-wrote the screenplay, said he was fifteen when he read the Diderot novel which stayed with him for decades. Nicloux believes Diederot was not anticlerical, but against excess in religion. He believes the true essence of the book was an ode to freedom and destiny. He described Diederot as an atheist wanted people to think for themselves.
For the leading role, Nicloux was looking for a combination of strength and vulnerability. As director he doesn’t talk much about a character. Nicloux feels the actor is the character. He wants to allow space for accidents to happen. This freedom makes it interesting for him.
In casting, what matters to Nicloux is what happens during a meeting with the actor. He does not have to have seen the actor’s previous work