Sister Smile

Original title or aka: Soeur Sourie

Director: Stijn Coninx
Starring: Cécile de France, Sandrine Blancke, Chris Lomme, Marie Kremer
Distributor: Independent
Runtime: 119 mins. Reviewed in Nov 2011
| JustWatch |
Rating notes: Mild themes, brief nudity and infrequent coarse language

In 1963, the pop music world was swept by a Belgian Dominican nun’s recording of a song she had written about the founder of her order. You couldn’t turn on the radio in Australia (and probably most other countries worldwide) without hearing the Singing Nun’s jaunty, happy tribute to “Dominique-nique–nique”. The nun’s identity was at first kept secret — after all, she was a member of a cloistered order — so she was given the name Sœur Sourire by an executive of the record company. Now, I could whistle the tune but I knew next to nothing about Sœur Sourire, and I confess I was expecting some sugary, goody-goody biopic. Sister Smile is anything but.

Jeannine Deckers, aka Sister Luc Gabriel, was beset by problems throughout a relatively short life that came to a tragic end, and this Belgian-French coproduction, written by 52-year-old Belgian Stijn Coninx (who also directed), Chris Vander Stappen and Ariane Fert, is a heartfelt and compassionate account of her ups and downs, with plenty of conflict to make compelling drama.

The advertising poster calls her “nun, singer, rebel, feminist and lover”, but the film is never quite so blunt. At its centre is a marvellous performance by Cécile de France. Playing Jeannine from a tomboy teenager to a sadly disillusioned woman, she imbues the character with great warmth, vibrancy and sensitivity.

The Jeannine she shows us had difficulties coping with life from her youth. She did not get on with her parents, who owned a patisserie and hoped she would run it one day. But that was not for Jeannine. She loved music and art, and when she walked out of home to join the convent, hoping to be a missionary in Africa, her mother rejected her totally, telling her never to darken their door again.

As a novice with the Benedictines at Fichermont, she did not respond well to discipline. She could not see how being made to stand out in the rain for some infraction of what she considered silly rules made any sense. The one thing that saved her was the Reverend Mother relenting and giving back her guitar, which had been confiscated when she entered. She blossomed then and seemed content with the religious life, and her cheery singing of songs with religious themes, as well as Be-Bop a Lula and Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel, was popular in the convent. Sister Luc Gabriel had a genuine love for her religion and was excited by the reforms promised by the Second Vatican Council.

Her life changed when the church chose her to appear in a television documentary, and arranged for her to make a record of her Dominique ditty. In one of those quirks of popular culture, it went straight to the top of the charts (proceeds going to the church). But the convent and the hierarchy closed ranks around her and did not tell her that half-a-million copies of her disc had been sold. When she found out she was furious, even more so when she realised the convent was prepared to fast-track her passage to Africa to put the lid on her burgeoning music career. She believed her music was a way to get the Lord’s message to a wider audience.

She quit the convent, intent on making a career as an entertainer on her own, only to find herself forbidden to use the name Sœur Sourire. The church owned it. When an impresario managed to get her bookings in Canada, she offended most of her fans in Catholic Quebec by a song that thanked the Lord for the contraceptive pill, and major venues cancelled her bookings.

With her parents, her church, her record company and her management withdrawing their support, her life spun out of control. She became addicted to alcohol and pills and sought out the only friend who had remained true. Annie (Sandrine Blancke) had had a crush on her from schooldays, and she and Jeannine entered into a lesbian relationship until their deaths in a suicide pact in 1985.

The film suggests that Jeannine was a victim of a repressive family environment and the strictures of the religious life, which robbed her of the ability to love. But it also seems clear that she was seduced by her brief celebrity status and could not handle the collapse of a singing career that never went much beyond one hit record. Either way, the life of Belgium’s Singing Nun is a sad story, effectively dramatised in a balanced, even-handed film.

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