The Nun (2013) is a French film set in 1765, and tells the story of Suzanne Simonin, a bourgeois girl who is forced to become a nun by her parents. It’s based on an 18th-century novel by Denis Diderot (author of the famous Encyclopedie) that was pointedly anti-clerical — Diderot was very pro-personal choice and felt that many in religious orders were there against their will. Either way, he worried that the orders cultivated idleness and promiscuity and contributed to insanity and suicide.
The film follows Suzanne from her parents’ house into conventional convent schooling. There, she begins receiving extreme emotional pressure from her family and her priest to take the veil. The impressive thing is that while it appears that initially Suzanne is into this whole convent thing (she’s 16 and so hardly able to make a permanent decision about the rest of her life), she very quickly begins articulating that she doesn’t have the calling necessary to being a nun. Even when things go VERY downhill for her at the convent, she continues to be honest when everyone is basically pressuring her to lie (then take oaths that basically say “If I say I want to dedicate my life to god, but I don’t really mean it, I’ll be damned.” Great, thanks pops/moms).
Over time, we learn more backstory about why her family is pressuring her, but I don’t want to spoil anything for the few people who will watch this. I will just say that the performances are strong, and while the film (and original story) certainly have a position on convent life, it opened up a whole new world to me. Really, anyone interested in women’s lives in 18th-century France should watch this, as most well-to-do young women were sent to convents for education. While the storyline is different, this is the life that Cécile from Dangerous Liaisons leaves at the beginning of that novel/film.
Costumes in The Nun
Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I thought it too — do I really want to spend 2+ hours looking at nuns’ habits? They were actually more interesting to look at than I initially assumed, and you can do what I did, which is contemplate their medieval origins and appreciate the delicate hems on fine linen. Also, while about 90% of the film is set in the convent, about 10% isn’t, so you get to see some nice 1760s costumes. And whenever the male priests show up, that’s a chance to look at some mighty fine wigs!
But let’s get to the good stuff, eh?
So if you’re nerdy about the 18th century like me, or interested in religious life, check out The Nun!