Remembering Anna Karina in one of her most notable non-Godard films, Jacques Rivette’s The Nun
Anna Karina was most famous for her work with Jean-Luc Godard, but there were other films too, like Jacques Rivette’s The Nun.
Anna Karina died last Saturday on 14 December. That the star was most famous for her work with one particular French New Wave filmmaker was evident from the obituaries.
Here's Agence France-Presse: “Karina was best known for the string of films she made with Jean-Luc Godard, including A Woman Is a Woman and Pierrot le Fou”. Here’s the first paragraph of the New York Times tribute: “Anna Karina, the Danish-born actress who became a symbol of the French New Wave – or Nouvelle Vague – in Jean Luc Godard’s 1960s films, died on Saturday in Paris. She was 79.” This is true to an extent. Think of Karina, and you think of those Godard movies: Pierrot le fou, A Woman is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie. They were married for a while. They made seven features together.
But there were other films, too – most notably Jacques Rivette’s The Nun, based on a novel by Denis Diderot. It’s a horrifying premise. In the 18th century, many bourgeois and aristocrats – for a boarding fee – shut their girls up in convents until they wed. Diderot took inspiration from real characters: Suzanne Simonin, the nun played by Anna Karina, is based on Marguerite Delamarre, who was sent to a convent at the age of three. In 1752, she appealed against her forced orders. She lost, and remained cloistered until her death in the Abbey of Longchamp.
In the film, all this context is set up for us via blocks of text, and the first visual we see is that of Suzanne behind bars, which could well be prison bars. She is clad in a bridal dress, about to be wedded to Jesus. She kneels on a chair set before a priest, who asks if she promises to speak the truth. She nods. “Are you here of your own free will?” “Yes.” “Marie-Suzanne Simonin, do you promise poverty, chastity and obedience to God?” “No, Monsieur.” (You may be reminded of a woman being forced into prostitution, which would put a whole new spin on the Madonna/Whore dichotomy.)
Suzanne turns to the audience viewing the ceremony on the other side of the bars. “Ladies and gentlemen, and especially you, my parents, you are my witnesses. I am here under duress. I pretended to go along with my parents’ will, in order to protest publicly against the violence done to me. I have no vocation. I do not wish to obey my parents. Dear parents, do whatever you will with me, anything... except a nun! I don’t want to be one and I won’t!” Suzanne is sent back home with her mother, who has little patience for her tears. She calls her an ungrateful child.
“Your sisters are in trouble; marrying them off ruined us. Your father is a good lawyer, but not a banker. We cannot give you a decent dowry. You took the veil; you entering the convent was more expense. Everyone heard about your profession of faith. Your public refusal caused a scandal.” Suzanne is locked up in her room. She loses track of time. One day, a priest visits her, and she narrates an incident. She is prettier than her sisters, and it distressed her parents. A man who was courting one of her sisters fell for Suzanne. She told her mother about this man, and four days later, she was sent to the convent. The story has just turned into a grim fairy tale.
But the priest convinces her. He says she will get a small allowance. “Your days will be, if not happy, at least bearable.” All this happens within the first 15 minutes. We see how Suzanne is manipulated into becoming a nun, and the rest of the film revolves around her statement to her mother: “But if I do not find a husband, must I shut myself up in a convent?” After a while in the convent, when Suzanne expresses her desire to renounce her vows, a lawyer explains why it is so difficult. For one, while the process is still in progress, Suzanne will have to endure the cruelty of the other sisters.
Then, her sisters could protest, because Suzanne could claim her right to their father’s fortune. When Suzanne offers to renounce this, too, the lawyer says that an act of withdrawal made while she is still in the convent would be invalid when she is free. And slowly, what appeared to be a wholly human drama acquires the sheen of a legal thriller. Will Suzanne’s lawyer be able to get her out of this “prison”? Look at the other nuns’ treatment of Suzanne, and you get psychological horror: Suzanne is possessed by the Devil and needs to be exorcised. Finally, Suzanne transferred to another convent, where the Mother Superior keeps touching her a little too freely. We’re now in the realm of Gothic melodrama, with a lesbian “villain”.
Little wonder, then, that upon Rivette’s passing, in 2016, Martin Scorsese said, “I vividly remember the shock of seeing his first two films, Paris Belongs To Us and The Nun. Two very different experiences, both uniquely troubling and powerful, quite unlike anything else around.” Rivette staged the material as a play, first. Then, he made the film, which he tried to make look like the play. He said in Film Comment, “There was an attempt to make a film with extended takes or even one-shot sequences, with a flexible camera and rather stylized performances.” Rivette was attempting a deliberately theatrical film, with a very frontal mise-en-scène in relation to the camera. But he was not happy with the result.
But today, the film is a fine testament to both Rivette and Karina, who is the opposite of the free spirit she is in the Godard films – in the sense that, even if her character’s mind and spirit are free, she is entombed in religious robes, and we often only see her famous face. (Even her hands are sometimes hidden, folded into her robes.)
In her later years, Karina commented that if you were a woman in the 1960s, you didn’t really have a voice. The attitude was essentially: “Be beautiful and shut up.” The Nun is a superb corrective. Karina, as always, is extraordinarily beautiful. But as Suzanne, she keeps fighting for both inner peace and her place in the world. She won’t shut up.
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion (South).
All images from YouTube.
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