The Nun (1966)

17 07 2008

It may sound a little bit too harsh, but I have a feeling Rivette didn’t quite know what he was doing with this project. That’s not to say that The Nun is an embarrassingly bad effort, but it is at its most interesting when one takes it into account within the context of Rivette’s career. To his credit, he does obtain a very spontaneous style that echoes throughout most of his future and there doesn’t seem to be signs of over-bearing symbolism. With that said, this is also, by far, his least cinematic film. Perhaps the sterile and bland visuals underscore the boredom of convent life, but the absence of Rivette’s usual visual wizardry is great step back. If one takes this as simply a filmed theatrical production, than it would probably be easier to enjoy.

At the age of 18, Suzanne, is forced by her parents to enter into convent life. Her siblings have all had successful marriages, at least in the eyes of their parents. But it turns out that Suzanne is not really part of the family and that her inception came from an affair her mother had. Life in the congregation is not easy for Suzanne, but she learns to adapt, mostly thanks to her superior, Madame de Moni. However, Suzanne soon becomes the responsibility of Sister Sainte-Christine, who treats her poorly, to say the least. As a result, Suzanne transfers to a different congregation, where Madame de Chelles is her superior. Their relationship begins to take on a more lustful route as Chelles’ desire for Suzanne grows.

Seeing as how I’ve never read the source material, I’m not sure how much is Rivette’s and how much is Diderot’s but many scenes have a very improvised sensibility to them, which is no question, the best thing the film seems to have going for it. It’s not even that Anna Karina pulls off a particularly great performance, but rather, just what seems to be a lack of editing on Rivette’s part. This could be read as a criticism, but I see it as one of his more endearing cinematic quirks and it is probably what saves a film like this from just being a simple, straight-forward drama. It’s enjoyable enough as simply that, but indeed, nothing special.

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10 responses

18 07 2008
Allison Almodovar

Ooh, I liked this film. I agree that it may not be very cinematic, but I liked Karina in this nonetheless. One of my favorites from Rivettes, after Joan of Arc, then Up, Down, and Fragile.

18 07 2008
Jake Savage

How’d you find a subbed version of Up, Down, and Fragile? That’s probably the Rivette I want to see the most.

18 07 2008
Ed Howard

I think it’s way off to call this uncinematic. In some ways it’s a more straightforward film than Rivette usually undertakes — it was only his second feature — but it also contains many of his usual aesthetic tropes. The spartan surroundings and deliberately minimalist sets may call to mind the theater, but they seem just as related to the pared-down scenery of Dreyer. Rivette also does some very interesting things with disjunctive editing in this film. It may not be as obvious as Godard’s famous jump cuts from Breathless, but in its own way what Rivette does with the sporadic bursts of jittery editing in this film is just as revolutionary. In some scenes, Karina seems to be shifting around her room from one frame to the next, an effect that’s even more jarring when juxtaposed against the graceful fluidity of Rivette’s camera in the rest of the film. Incidentally, the fluid camera movements are very Rivettian themselves, tracking around a scene to frame and reframe the characters in relation to each other — this is not at all the static, theatrical film you make it sound like. And of course, the sound design is wonderful, from the arch-modernist score to the non-naturalistic use of church bells even in scenes where they would seem to have no logical source. This last is again reminiscent of Godard, although curiously enough it predicts the Godard of 20 years later; it reminds me of the way the seagull caws recur throughout Prenom: Carmen as a symbolic element rather than a natural sound.

My own review is here.

18 07 2008
Jake Savage

I agree about the fluid camera. I’d say the film is like any Rivette film, except with the beautiful visauls taken out. In all honesty, I probably would have preferred for it to be more “static and theatrical” as you say, because at least that would give something defiant about the film. That’s sort of my problem with Rivette in general, though I can easily overlook this in other films because of the visuals. Perhaps I simply prefer the long static shots of say, Tsai Ming-Liang, to the floaty camera that just glides along with Rivette’s characters. The former is more “minimalistic” while the latter is coming close to approaching blandness.

On a similar note, I thought the sound design was rather unremarkable, though maybe just because of all the great sound in the modern German films I’ve been watching lately. There was one scene with birds filling the soundtrack that just sounded completely fake and silly. Then again, I’m not interested in “symbolism.” Your theory makes sense, though, as Rivette seems to be a fan of symbolism, which is another one of my small problems with him. It’s no coincidence that my favorite film of his, Merry-Go-Round has a lot less of that stuff than his other films.

I did enjoy your review, though. I read it before and after my viewing, but it (unfortunately) didn’t really change my opinion.

18 07 2008
Ed Howard

I fail to see any blandness in Rivette’s camerawork, though “floaty” is a great word for it. I see his camera as being very much in sympathy with the spirit of improvisation he encourages in his actors. The camera is constantly on the prowl for interesting compositions, moving to keep the actors in frame and to track their shifting relationships to one another. This is especially obvious in the scene where Karina’s character breaks down while in conversation with the oppressive mother superior from the first convent. Karina remains in the background, drifting in and out of focus, with a closeup of the nun’s face in the foreground for much of the shot. It’s a stunning scene as much for the way that the camera’s angle and movement delineates the relationship between the two figures as for the quality of Karina’s performance itself.

I noticed the bird scene too, but I tend to love artificiality in sound design; I have no inherent bias towards realism. Rivette, much like his obvious ancestor David Lynch, seems to love exaggerated sounds that call attention to themselves. His understanding of sound wasn’t quite as refined here as it has become, but it’s still very sophisticated and original, and contains the germs of the sublime Don’t Touch the Axe, which has possibly his best use of sound yet. The echoing thumps of Depardieu’s footsteps in that film seem like a logical extension of the artificially exaggerated sounds that Rivette includes in The Nun.

It sounds to me like you mostly respond to Rivette for his striking images and use of color, which aren’t much apparent here — this is a deliberately limited palette that’s biased towards browns, with simple sets and monochrome walls everywhere. That’s fine, though I’d say his best films merit watching for far more than his admittedly wonderful pictorial sensibility.

18 07 2008
Jake Savage

It’s not so much that Rivette’s camera work itself is bland, but the fact that it is limited. Again, I’ll mention Tsai Ming-Liang, though I’m not sure if you’ve seen his films because he never moves his camera at all and yet he shoots at about the same distance from his characters as Rivette. But the difference is, I find that his static shots, when composed all together create a sort of rhythm, and thus, a new way to approach the subsequent images. Rivette does sort of the opposite by being more loose. That’s how I see it in my book, though, of course, there are positives to Rivette’s approach as well.

Hmm, well the sound design in Don’t Touch the Axe is sort of a perfect idea for what I like to see sound designs achieve, or at the very least, attempt to achieve. I don’t really see echoing footsteps as a “logical extension of the artificially exaggerated sounds” but maybe I approach films on a much more visceral level? For that matter, I also don’t care much for the usual symbolism and metaphysics Rivette plugs into his films. Going into why would probably make me sound like Ray Carney so I’d rather not…Indeed, most of what I like about Rivette lies in the technical, but I’d still say that my appreciation for his films (specifically Merry-Go-Round and Histoire de Marie et Julien) is beyond (or below) the surface.

19 07 2008
Ed Howard

Limited? Any aesthetic choice is limited to the extent that it excludes different choices that could’ve been made. I haven’t seen any Tsai, so I don’t know if there’s a particular reason you relate him to Rivette, but I’m not sure I get the argument you’re making in opposing his static shots to Rivette’s moving ones. Are you saying that static images are inherently preferable to fluid ones? Or do you just not like the way that Rivette moves the camera? I love the films of Ozu, whose camera almost never moves in his sound films, and I think Roy Andersson’s Songs From the Second Floor, which is composed almost entirely in static tableaux, is a modern masterpiece. But I wouldn’t really think to compare either filmmaker to Rivette, who is simply in different aesthetic territory.

All I meant by “logical extension” is that Don’t Touch the Axe is a pinnacle of non-naturalistic sound design. The film is full of heavily amplified sounds — the footsteps, the creaking and popping of floors, the sounds of a fireplace, the shuffling feet of a maid in socks. As with the birds or the bells in The Nun, these sounds have a natural origin, but they are purposefully exaggerated; Rivette is constantly calling attention to the sounds. In the scene at the ballroom, the string music of the band is competing with the incredibly loud sounds that the floor makes whenever someone moves on it — in a room full of people dancing, the resulting cacophony is hilarious. I’d agree with you that Rivette’s use of this kind of sound is more sophisticated here than in the earlier film, but it’s nevertheless a similar treatment of sound in both films.

19 07 2008
Jake Savage

I think I just went to the length of comparing Rivette to Tsai because they are both pegged as “minimalistic” artists, even though they are ultimately, a lot different. What I’m meaning to say is that Rivette’s camera seems slightly indecisive as in it is not entirely still, but also not completely active either. It seems to be the midpoint between something outrightly kinetic and something entirely static, if that makes sense. His fluid tracking shots are sometimes extraordinary and sometimes, such as the case with this film, very basic.

The sound design in Don’t Touch the Axe might simply be just far more believable to me. It sounds natural, if only slightly exaggerated and/or amplified. I may have been okay with the sounds used in The Nun if they seemed to underscore the rhythm of the film a bit more, which sounds kind of vague, but then again, technical film elements are always sort of vague. Maybe I should just say that Rivette’s camera movements didn’t work for me with this film as they did in his others, but that may sound like I’m trying to get my way out of this argument!

19 07 2008
Ed Howard

This has been an interesting back-and-forth, but it looks like we’re starting to peter out into the territory of “agreeing to disagree.” I just have a few more comments. I wouldn’t really consider Rivette a minimalist. There are elements in his work, like the set design in The Nun and other films, or his general approach to plot, that could be considered minimalist. But in most other ways Rivette is pretty far from minimalism, and his visual aesthetics and philosophy of performance are certainly not conducive to minimalist interpretations.

I like your description of Rivette’s camerawork as being a middle ground between stasis and movement; I just don’t see that as a negative. What you call indecisive, I call thoughtful, in the sense that it almost seems as though you can see the camera’s “thought process” within the film. What do you think of the camera in, say, Cassavetes? They’re very different filmmakers, of course, except that they both favor, in broad terms, freedom for the actor and a camera that is directed to follow the performances rather than the other way around.

As for the believability of Rivette’s sound design, I think it works on both levels. Yes, it’s “realistic” because the sounds you hear correspond to things onscreen. And yet, you noticed it, didn’t you? Probably in ways you wouldn’t necessarily notice a truly naturalistic soundtrack. To me, naturalistic sound is intended to be subconscious, to provide an aura of realism by simply capturing the sounds of the film in a completely flat way. Rivette does not aim to be unobtrusive with his soundtrack, he wants the audience to notice the sounds. He emphasizes certain sounds only; it’s not that the whole of Don’t Touch the Axe is deafeningly loud, but that a few particular sounds are subtly pumped up so that they stand out. Ask yourself, what sounds from the film do you remember? The thumping footsteps, the creaking floors, the various pops and cracks and pounds, I’d wager. Marie et Julien works in a similar way. When I think of that film, I think of the constant ticking of the clocks, which give the film such an acutely felt sense of time, and the tinkling bell of the cat, who wafts around the set, ghost-like, with as much freedom as Rivette’s camera. Rivette’s sound design always tends to favor a few particular sounds in each film, which help give each work its individual character. Perhaps, as you say about his camera movements, he is suspended between two different philosophies of thinking about sound: realistic and stylized.

19 07 2008
Jake Savage

I wouldn’t argue that Rivette is a minimalist, either, especially since such a broad categorization would be misrepresenting many filmmakers like Rivette.

Your theory of the camera work as “thinking” as it moves is a very accurate one, but may emphasize my overall problems. It’s actually different from Cassavets, at least to me, because someone like Cassavetes is a bit more active. With Rivette, there seems to be a boundary between the characters and the camera (like in Tsai’s work – perhaps where my inital comparison came from) but he still tries to capture these moments of improvistion. It’s like Cassavetes’ camera but more observational and less energetic and thus, less eager to “get in on the action” so to speak. Perhaps it is because directors like Tsai and Cassavetes have been in my bloodstream for awhile, but I find both styles fascinating, despite the fact that they are polar opposites. Rivette falls in the middle, sometimes and that’s why I referred to him as the midpoint. Sometimes I wishes he was more eager and physical with the camera, while other times I wish he were less. On the other hand, it could be argued that, at least in some of his films, that the camera inhabits the best of both worlds.

Back to sound: I agree with what you wrote about the subtle pumping in Rivette’s later films but that is sort of exactly why the sounds in The Nun didn’t resonate with me at all. They seemed to come out of nowhere and then, disappear for extremely long stretches. Maybe you mean it is the same thing but the silence is filled in with more subtle noises in the later films, and the few noises present in The Nun are made louder to be more apparent then the other sounds? Does that last sentence make sense at all? If not, I’ll rephrase it. Personally, this stuff is all a bit difficult to remember. I can definitely feel a marathon of Rivette re-watches coming on…

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