The Nun

If it weren't for the luminous face of Belgian actress Pauline Etienne ("Restless"), this plodding adaptation of Diderot's anti-clerical novel would be a snoozefest of epic proportions.

With: Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Louise Bourgoin, Martina Gedeck, Francoise Lebrun, Agathe Bonitzer, Alice de Lencquesaing, Gilles Cohen, Marc Barbe, Francois Negret, Lou Castel, Pierre Nisse. (French dialogue)

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.

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.

The Nun


Production: A Le Pacte (in France)/Camino (in Germany)/O'Brother (in Belgium) release of a Les Films du Worso presentation of a Les Films du Worso, Belle Epoque Films, Versus production, in association with Gifted Films, France 3 Cinema, Cinefeel, Herodiade, RTBF, with the participation of France Televisions, Canal Plus, Cine Plus, Le Pacte. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon. Co-producers, Nicole Ringhut, Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart. Directed by Guillaume Nicloux. Screenplay, Nicloux, Jerome Beaujour, based on the novel by Denis Diderot.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Yves Cape; editor, Guy Lecorne; music, Max Richter; production designer, Olivier Radot; set decorator, Christophe Offret; sound (Dolby SRD), Olivier Do Huu, Julie Brenta, Christian Monheim; associate producer, Gilles Sitbon; assistant director, Guy-William Adoh; casting, Brigitte Moidon. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Jan. 10, 2013. (In Rendez-Vous With French Cinema, New York.) Running time: 111 MIN.

Cast: With: Pauline Etienne, Isabelle Huppert, Louise Bourgoin, Martina Gedeck, Francoise Lebrun, Agathe Bonitzer, Alice de Lencquesaing, Gilles Cohen, Marc Barbe, Francois Negret, Lou Castel, Pierre Nisse. (French dialogue)

More Scene

  • David Crosby

    David Crosby Says New Documentary 'Remember My Name' Is Like 'Being Naked in Public’

    “It’s not easy. It’s hard being naked in public,” David Crosby, the legendary troubadour of classic rock, reflected at Tuesday night’s New York City premiere of “David Crosby: Remember My Name.” “I don’t know what to do here. There’s no guitars, no drums,” he laughed. Directed by newcomer A.J. Eaton and produced by the legendary [...]

  • The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con

    The Ultimate Guide to 2019 Comic-Con Parties and Activations

    Hollywood is heading down the California coast to San Diego because It’s time for 2019 Comic-Con International. The annual cosplay celebration officially kicks off tomorrow, July 18, with a preview happening tonight. Here, Variety gives you a guide to this year’s parties and activations. Make sure to check back for updates. Wednesday, July 17Amazon Prime [...]

  • Sir Elton John, David Furnish. Sir

    New Elton John AIDS Foundation Gala to be Held in the South of France

    Elton John and David Furnish are launching a new gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The two will host the inaugural A Midsummer Party benefit on July 24 in the south of France at the Johnny Pigozzi’s private estate, Villa Dorane, in Cap d’Antibes. A cocktail reception will be followed by dinner, a live [...]

  • Dwayne Johnson Idris Elba

    Dwayne Johnson: Idris Elba Nixed 'Black James Bond' Joke in 'Hobbs & Shaw'

    In the “Fast & Furious Presents Hobbs & Shaw,” the movie’s villain Brixton, played by Idris Elba, spreads his arms out wide and declares “I’m black Superman.” It turns out that might not have been the original line. Dwayne Johnson tells Variety that Elba was first asked to proclaim he’s “black James Bond,” but the [...]

  • Matteo BocelliAmerican Icon Awards Gala, Inside,

    Top Music Manager Calls Out American Icon Awards for Failing to Pay Talent

    The centuries-old adage no good deed goes unpunished is a common refrain for star music manager Scott Rodger of late. Rodger, who represents Paul McCartney and Andrea Bocelli at Maverick, says his client Matteo Bocelli, the son of the opera star, was stiffed out of promised expense reimbursement by the American Icon Awards. The event, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content