Many contemporary European art films (e.g. Hadewijch and Beyond the Hills) have examined the lives of young nuns, but few have used such historic source material as the latest from Guillaume Nicloux. Based on the late-18th-century novel by Denis Diderot previously adapted for the screen in 1966 by Jacques Rivette (with Anna Karina in the lead role), The Nun is a timeless story about a girl who’s sent against her will to a convent as a tenuous, quick fix to her precarious place in life. Marie-Suzanne (Pauline Etienne) seems like the type of daughter—thoughtful, calm, and honest—that any parent would want around the house until we learn that she’s the illegitimate fruit of a love affair her mother (Martina Gedeck) had while travelling in Germany. Unlikely, thus, to find her a spouse within their aristocratic circle, her parents insist on her becoming a nun. “You reason too much,” says her father when she asserts that, as a dispassionate Catholic, she would be as out of place within the convent’s walls as the family’s.
Indeed, her knack for reasoning will pose a problem to the hypocritical ways of the church. Administering her rite of induction into the convent, the priest asks her if she has come here by her own free will. “No” isn’t really an option here, but as she declares, God does not forgive liars. She wakes up a day or two after the ceremony in an infirmary. Set apart from her fellow patients by drapes, her bed resembles a prison cell and serves as a harbinger of her suffering to come. The head nuns at the convent wrongfully punish Suzanne, and so she’s whisked to another, where the Mother Superior (Isabelle Huppert) also takes a disproportionate interest in Suzanne, though of a sexual nature. Seemingly born to play a horny nun, Huppert brings to her role an emotional weight without which the comedy of her preying would feel misplaced in such a straitlaced baroque drama. The earnestness of The Nun and its starlet, though, is the source of its great charm.
Jacques Doillon throws us into his new film, Love Battles, head first. A bearded, lackadaisical man tends to his garden as a leggy young blonde, in sunglasses and a dress short enough to show she’s up to no good, approaches. As unclear as their relationship to one other is whether they’re actually flirting or not. These two ambiguities become rich territory for a violent romance that ensues. He (James Thiérrée) seems to be trying to tie up an unconsummated night he shared with her in the past, and she (Sara Forestier) seems to be working out daddy issues in her father’s wake. The French title literally translates as My Wrestling Sessions, which foregrounds the duo’s penchant for erotic rough-housing over lovemaking and, perhaps more importantly, adds an economic dimension to their affair. After the first session, she asks him how much she owes him. The joke, of course, is that he’s prostituting himself, but what viewers might miss is that he’s essentially her family’s caretaker. Doillon nimbly explores the lines between passion and cruelty, regret and contempt, the carnal and the feral.
Berlinale runs from February 7—13.