Behind the cloistered walls of a Paris convent in 1757, a young woman named Suzanne (Anna Karina), the sole remaining unmarried daughter of a prominent attorney named Simonin (Charles Millot) and his wife (Christiane Lénier), is reluctantly brought before the priest in order to take her monastic vows before creating a scandal by willfully (and unexpectedly) refusing to take them and instead, pleading hysterically to her inexpressive parents to be set free before being forcibly silenced by attending nuns who abruptly conclude the ceremony by drawing the curtains before a group of stunned, invited guests in the adjoining vestibule. Spared from the seeming indignity of having to learn a practical vocation in order to maintain the bourgeois family’s appearance of privilege, but having reached adulthood without a suitable dowry for marriage, Suzanne has little recourse but to comply with the selfish, unrelenting demands of her callous parents, a coercion that is further ingrained into the tormented young woman’s psyche when her mother reveals the incidental details of her nebulous paternity. Sublimating her own desire for freedom, Suzanne comes under the protection of the gentle and nurturing abbess of Longchamp, Mme de Moni (Micheline Presle) who advises her to accept God’s will, and becomes resigned to her fate. However, when the abbess passes away, Suzanne immediately finds herself in the disfavor of Mme de Moni’s successor, the stern and uncompromising Mother of Novices, Soeur Sainte-Christine (Francine Bergé), as she institutes an intolerant and oppressive policy of asceticism, self-abnegation, and rigorous discipline. Foundering in her resolve without the moral support of her trusted confidant, Suzanne becomes increasingly desperate and maniacal in her quest to recant her insincere vows, regain her freedom, and escape to the outside world.
Based on the Jean Gruault play, an adaptation of the 1760 novel by Age of Enlightenment philosopher, enyclopedist, and novelist Denis Diderot (posthumously published in 1796), La Religieuse is a spare, elegantly taut, and indelibly haunting exposition on the rigidity of class, institutional repression, and the consequences of a patriarchal society. Jacques Rivette illustrates his familiar preoccupation with the interrelation between theatrical performance and real life (note the conventional use of stage tapping to indicate the commencement of the drama), not only thematically, through the incorporation of historical fiction that, nevertheless, retains a cultural periodicity in its realism and social relevance, but also visually, in the somber, insular staging of the convent rooms, iron-barred vestibules, corridors, and even outside (walled) grounds that conveys a pervasive sense of claustrophobia, entrapment, and forced intimacy. Evoking the austerity and unrelenting demoralization of the titular heroine in Kenji Mizoguchi’s seminal film Life of Oharu, Suzanne’s plight is similarly a tragic consequence of an entrenched, repressive class structure that subjugates individuality, personal conscience, and human will for the illusion of privilege, order, and conformity: a codification of social behavior that arbitrarily relegates cloistered, religious service as an alternative vocation rather than as a conscientious (and deeply personal) spiritual calling. In essence, it is society’s intractable adherence to doctrine, regimentation, and procedure over humanity and conscience that is symptomatically echoed in the cruelty, barbarism, pettiness, and self-indulgent excess within the walls of the cloisters: a pervasive moral bankruptcy that infects even the most hermetic – and powerful – of institutions. It is through this oppressive and inescapable reality that the recurring image of a humbled, prostrate Suzanne becomes, not an expiational gesture by a broken-willed communicant, but a graceful, figurative act of flight, bearing of burden, and irrevocable transcendence.
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