"Five 'Lost' French Films" series has begun at the Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica with a once-banned Jacques Rivette masterpiece, "The Nun" ("La Religeuse"), which last had a Los Angeles run in 1972. It is so harrowing, so overwhelming, that it leaves an indelible impression. The intensity of its spirituality ranks it alongside the finest achievements of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer.
Adapted from the 18th-Century Diderot classic "La Religeuse," which in turn was based on actual incidents, it is the story of Suzanne Simonin (Anna Karina), a young, beautiful but impoverished aristocrat forced by her family into a convent. Her plight is pertinent as long as there exists any institution of any kind that can exercise such arbitrary power over the individual.
What emerges in the excruciating course of this film is a portrait of a society so detached from nature that it destroys life itself. Paradoxically, it is also the kind of environment that produces saints.
Initially resisting her cruel fate but eventually resigned to it, Suzanne has at least the comfort of her mother superior (Micheline Presle), who sees her unhappy self in the young woman. But when this kindly individual dies, Suzanne falls prey to two vastly different successors, an arch-sadist (Francine Berger) intent upon convincing the other nuns that Suzanne is truly possessed by the devil and by a luxury-loving lesbian (Liselotte Pulver) intent upon seducing her.
Rivette confronts these utterly bizarre twists of fate--there are even more in store for Suzanne--with a matter-of-fact austerity that makes them totally credible. His cool detachment makes the church's staggering hypocrisies and monstrous perversion of religion all the more outrageous, yet he extends unfailing compassion to all of Suzanne's tormentors no less than to herself.
Under Rivette's inspired direction, Karina seems sublime and her co-stars flawless. Especially remarkable is Pulver, who seems initially frivolous, then calculating and finally tragic.
"The Nun" will be followed on Sunday by Jacques Demy's romantic debut film "Lola" (1961), with Anouk Aimee in the title role as a Nantes cabaret dancer. Alain Resnais' elegant and complex 1974 "Stavisky," with Jean-Paul Belmondo in the title role as the famous con man of the '30s (plus a Stephen Sondheim score), screens Sept. 19-22, and the series concludes with Jacques Doniol-Valcroze's romantic comedy "Games for Six Lovers" and Maurice Tourneur's "Volpone" (1939).
Information: (213) 394-9741.
G.W. Pabst's "Pandora's Box" (1928), the film that made Louise Brooks a legend, and Fritz Lang's last silent, "Woman in the Moon" (1929), screens tonight at 8 at the Silent Movie.
If ever there was a case to be made for the contention that a director, armed with a thorough understanding of human nature and the talent to express it, can transform the most lurid of melodramas into the highest art, then "Pandora's Box"--and the subsequent Pabst-Brooks collaboration, "Diary of a Lost Girl"--are the best argument ever.
In her totally amoral, casual way, Brooks' Lulu leads a newspaper publisher (Fritz Kortner), whose mistress she is, to his destruction and then does the same to his son (Francis Lederer). Neither these men nor a costume-designing countess (Belgian actress Alice Roberts, playing the screen's first lesbian) can possess so free a creature as Lulu, thus inciting what Brooks herself has described as "sexual hatred." This evocation of the ultimate femme fatale was derived from two Frank Wedekind plays.
So prophetically accurate and technically dazzling was "Woman in the Moon" that in 1937 the Gestapo confiscated not only all models of its spaceship but also all foreign prints of the film.
Lang always gave the major credit to his key adviser, pioneer rocket enthusiast Willy Ley, who collaborated with Hermann Oberth (later a rocket designer for the Nazis) in designing a two-step rocket model for the film along with other elaborate paraphernalia for space travel.
Apart from its stunning visuals, the film is a typically exaggerated silent melodrama, a kind of vintage "Star Wars" played straight and involving two men (Willy Fritsch, Gustav von Wagenheim) and a woman (Gerda Maurus) caught up in the eternal triangle.
It unfolds like a documentary and features Lang's characteristic bravura mastery of light and shadow and powerful imagery in full play. The rocket launcher is particularly awesome with its vast sense of scale, and the moonscapes are eerily beautiful.
And even if the characters seem one-dimensional, some of "Woman in the Moon's" themes seem timelier than ever--most notably, the role of women in space exploration and the potentially evil profit motive in a space program.
Information: (213) 653-2389.