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Of Love and Other Demons: ‘La Religieuse’ (Jacques Rivette, 1966)

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“If the prison gates were open to one victim,” reads Monsieur Hébert, “the mob would force its way into them.” In La Religieuse, Monsieur Hébert (Jean Martin), a man charged with determining if Sister Suzanne (Anna Karina) should be free from her religious vocation, reads the solemn reasoning of philosophers as a defence for her entrapment. To free Suzanne would mean admitting that the structures of religion have been used to imprison and oppress young women. It no longer mattered that Suzanne had committed her promise to God under duress, and now her fellow sisters — enraged by her dissent — torture and spit on her. As she begs for her escape, Suzanne’s sheet-white skin, torn habit and uncombed hair makes it easier to side against her. Reduce any of us to a fight for our survival, desperate and hungry, we will appear mad. The systematic destruction of Suzanne becomes a way to silence her right to freedom.

“The robe is now a part of my flesh and bone.”

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The rituals of costuming help maintain social order within the walls of the convent. The uncomfortable shoes, well-manicured pleats and stiff habit maintain the appearance of rigid devotion. The elegance of clean lines of their modest uniform works towards the obliteration of desire, and with it — identity. Costume maintains the illusion of personal will and freedom. Even when Suzanne changes to a more progressive convent, where the women freely modify their costumes (or else, don’t wear them at all), the attitude towards clothing is all in the maintenance of false autonomy. Suzanne, though more liberated to laugh and live in this new environment, still feels the shackles of her imprisoned life. She prefers to wear her full habit, while the mother superior dons a beautifully tailored version of the same costume, with a corseted waist and lace accents. Through costume, Suzanne emphasizes that while her leash has been extended, she remains a prisoner, trapped within the walls of the convent against her will. Her need for freedom almost theoretical, as she has little experience in the outside world. Men and women try to take advantage of her, and she innocently circumnavigates their appetites, mistaking their sexual hunger for mere affection. It becomes increasingly clear that should Suzanne find freedom, she will not survive.

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Piercing sounds of church bells drown out several passages within the film. The ringing — purposefully captured at an uncomfortably loud octave — encompasses our ears. The dialogue may be lost in the process, but the impact is heightened. The sound design of La Religieuse contributes strongly in empathizing with Suzanne, as it clearly translates her anxiety and loneliness. Crickets chirp loudly and wind echoes through empty chambers. The soundtrack itself, distractingly modern, clamours rather than sings. Tinted with the beats and rhythms of horror cinema, it contributes anxiety and triggers a strong impulse to escape. Echoing wordlessly in the hushed life of the convents, that empty noise fills with the silent screams of Suzanne’s desires. Having lived her life hidden away, she has no sense of what she is missing but yearns for it nonetheless.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.

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