Marie-Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina) has a dilemma to struggle with, but one which has no way out for her as far as she can perceive. It is the eighteenth century, and there is a social issue that nobody wants to address pressing down on the women of France, and beyond: exiling them to convents when their families have no money to support them, or when nobody will marry them, or when they are simply an inconvenience best forgotten about. Suzanne is one of those, and fits all three categories, so is brought to the nearest convent for admittance, yet when she is asked whether she will take the vows, she loudly protests and implores her mother to prevent this from happening...
The Nun, or La Religieuse as it was known in its native France, was mightily controversial in those immediately pre-1968 times, and found itself banned thanks to religious pressure until objections were raised prominently enough for it to receive a proper release, as in the meantime the original book it was drawn from, by Denis Diderot, hit the bestseller charts in the country. Once the riots of '68 occurred, it was forgotten about as major upheavals appeared to be on the horizon, you can debate whether they happened or not, but director Jacques Rivette's film was intermittently revived to bring in fresh audiences, though it was never going to be his most famous work.
If you could call any of Rivette's work famous in the celebrity showbiz sense, but here he did have the services of a proper star, the most prominent actress of the Nouvelle Vague, Anna Karina. She was so closely identified with this movement that many called into question the former model's acting talent, the suspicion being that she was merely ordered around by the male directors and any ability was as a conduit for their instructions. This was completely unfair, of course, as while she was able to be delightful and adorable as the role demanded, she was also capable of more resonance in her performance beyond the superficial, and here, as Suzanne, you could detect that style.
The irony being that Suzanne was largely symbolic as a role, as symbolic as Karina had been for the French New Wave, only here she was representing the victims of religious oppression. There was a mealy-mouthed disclaimer added to the beginning, before the opening credits, that said of course this is purely fiction and all this behaviour was in the past, hey, it might not even have happened this way, so don't be offended, please. It would have been preferable if Rivette (or his producers) had stuck to their guns and put "These pious maniacs have tried to ban us! Don't listen to them or anyone like them! They'd lock people up for not agreeing with them!" since that was the impression the following two hours and twenty minutes of anguish for the lead character conveyed, no matter that even as it stood in the eighteenth century, parts were exaggerated.
Thus The Nun could be regarded as one of the inception points of the so-called nunsploitation "boom" of the seventies and after where the merest mention of the holy sisters in a movie context would, pre-Sister Act, be determined to make you think of religious young ladies living together and letting their sexual frustrations get the better of them, lifting their habits for pleasures of the flesh instead. Suzanne gets caught up in the love that dare not speak its name as she is preyed on by her Mothers Superior, though Rivette was bound by taste, funnily enough, not to depict what it was that they were getting up to behind cloister doors, all the while depicting his heroine as a rebel who may believe in God, but believes in her right to freedom more as the nunnery effectively becomes her prison, and for the crime of not fitting in with the wider society. Karina's soulful eyes spoke volumes, though she did get to freak out occasionally, yet while Rivette was scathing, you had the impression a talent with less restraint would have really grabbed this tale by the scruff of the neck. Which is why Ken Russell existed. Music by Jean-Claude Eloy.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray has a featurette on the film's controversy and the trailer as an extra. Nothing wrong with the restored picture and sound. Released in UK cinemas 27th June 2018, and on Blu-ray, DVD and digital on 17th September 2018.]