It’s “get thee to a nunnery” for the protagonist of “The Nun,” Guillaume Nicloux’s plodding adaptation of Diderot’s anti-clerical novel. If it weren’t for the luminous face of Belgian actress Pauline Etienne (“Restless”), who plays Suzanne, the girl locked up in an 18th-century convent against her explicit will, the pic would be a snoozefest of epic proportions. Isabelle Huppert, as a lesbian mother superior, and Martina Gedeck, as Suzanne’s not-so-superior actual mother, will no doubt be showcased in marketing materials in Gaul and co-producing Germany, but neither actress is actually in the movie much. “Nun” bows locally March 20.
The main problem isn’t that there exists a perfectly fine adaptation of the material, directed by Jacques Rivette in 1966 with Anna Karina in one of her best roles, but rather that Nicloux is unable to instill the material with any tension. The young woman’s desire to leave her cloisted confines, which should become more insistent the more she’s mistreated by her captors, instead remains largely in the background, like a bad toothache that won’t go away but isn’t so annoying that it needs to be dealt with forcefully and immediately.
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After a short prologue, the pic rewinds two years to 1763 France, where Suzanne (Etienne), a girl of about 17 from a well-off family, confesses to her mother (Gedeck) that she’s not much into any man except Jesus. She’s promptly dispatched to the nearest convent, run by the kind but firm Madame de Moni (vet Francoise Lebrun).
Told that her family has run into financial troubles after the marriage of her two elder sisters, Suzanne is forced to stay longer than planned and ultimately groomed to take her monastic vows, something she finally refuses during the actual service. Even here, there’s no real tension or psychology — will she finally speak up for herself? — though the ceremony is otherwise handsomely staged.
Back home, Suzanne learns she’s an illegitimate child, and the real reason she’s destined for nundom is that her mother hopes that giving the person who represents “her only sin” to God will atone for her wrongdoing. The obedient daughter thus returns to her monastic life, where things get worse, as she’s degraded by the new mother superior, Christine (Louise Bourgoin, effectively cast against type). But strangely enough, Nicloux doesn’t dwell on scenes of physical and psychological torture, staging everything in such muted fashion that, in the end, Suzanne seems to be worrying about a single glass shard in her foot and having to wear dirty undergarments.
Via an intermediary (Francois Negret), the unwilling sister petitions the pope, in vain, in the hope of annulling her vows, but she does succeed in getting transferred to another monastery, where another mother superior (Huppert, appearing some 75 minutes in) takes her under wing. But she turns out to be a lesbian who can’t resist Suzanne’s lovely, white-framed face — and who can blame her, as Etienne looks absolutely gorgeous, with exactly the right balance of innocence and introversion. A shame, then, that she’s given so little to work with.
Technically, “The Nun” is slickly assembled, with Nicloux (“The Stone Council”) using all the mise-en-scene tricks in the book in a very academic manner, including countless painting-like frontal tableaux and low-horizon shots with abundant light to make the malicious superiors tower over Suzanne. Costumes and production design look neat, while Max Richter’s diegetic score hits all the right notes.