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Berlin Diary #4

By Giovanni Marchini Camia on February 12, 2013

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The Nun Guillaume Nicloux

The Nun

With his Competition entry The Nun, Guillaume Nicloux has followed in the footsteps of Jacques Rivette and tried his hand at adapting Denis Diderot’s 18th century novel. Despite offering an aesthetically gorgeous period piece that exhibits the impressive talent of its young lead Pauline Etienne, this new adaptation pales in comparison to the French New Wave master’s 1966 version.

The film’s downfall is primarily structural. Nicloux tells the story of Suzanne, a 16-year-old forced to take the veil by her family only to be cast into a life of heinous abuse, through a nobleman reading a manuscript of her trials given to him by his ailing father. This invented framing device (which allows for a more hopeful ending) makes no sense: the autobiographical letters that comprise her account were sent from Suzanne’s first convent; once she flees to a second convent two-thirds through the film, how we are able to continue following her actions? More detrimental, however, is the fact that the two segments fail to coalesce. The licentious advances Suzanne receives from her new mother superior are so tame, anyone would have shrugged them off as a trifling nuisance after the imprisonment, starvation and torture she suffered at the hands of the first, thus completely eroding her developmental trajectory. This is only aggravated by the fact that these advances are so badly written and staged that they are rendered unintentionally farcical instead of eliciting the necessary empathy and discomfort. Even Isabelle Huppert in the role of the wanton mother superior is unable to salvage these scenes.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear Denis Côté

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear

A weak script and unconvincing homosexual dynamics are certainly not a problem in Denis Côté’s Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, so far the most outstanding film in this year’s Competition. Released from prison after serving a life sentence for crimes that are never revealed, Vic just wants to retreat to her family’s shack in the woods and live out her days away from civilization with her lover and former prison mate Flo. However, just as the much younger Flo’s love for Vic was born more from the harsh realities of prison life than true attraction, so too her reuniting with her is spurred by ulterior motives. Once Flo’s past comes to claim its dues, Vic has no choice but to watch helplessly as her yearned-for idyll turns into a chimera. 

The sumptuous 35mm cinematography is as gritty as its subject matter and Côté displays a very keen eye for mise-en-scène, constructing unobtrusive yet carefully composed shots that inject beauty even in the bleakest of scenarios. The film’s greatest accomplishment, however, is its characterizations. Equal credit goes to Côté’s writing and to the performances of Pierrette Robitaille (mostly known for light-hearted comedies) and Romane Bohringer as Vic and Flo for realizing such complex and convincing characters, imbuing these women with depth and humanity that fully invests us in their relationship regardless of how dislikeable and unappealing they may be on the surface. Their fate’s vertiginous downward spiral ensnares the viewer, leading to an extraordinary dialectic finale that leaves one traumatized, uplifted and utterly breathless.

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