Long before current pop culture defined the disposable allure of the 'celebrity', Jeannine Deckers was a high-profile victim of the fame a hit record can bring.
The Belgian-born daughter of a patisserie owner, she would conquer the world with her 1963 self-penned ode to the saint that inspired her, 'Dominique'. She is now the subject of director Stijn Coninx's Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile), the latest biopic of an extraordinary personality for whom the global acclaim associated with the acceptance of her talent meant greater hardship than gain. Dare I say, 'Walk The Stijn'...
“The moment you are a little bit well known, the people around you become crazy”, says the filmmaker, speaking to SBS from his production base in Brussels – and gracefully ignoring the Johnny Cash-inspired pun. “And the path that leads them to drugs and alcohol is very short and the drama is very big.”
Coninx relates moments on the set when Cecile de France, his lead actress and a major star in France thanks to such hits as The Spanish Apartment (2002), High Tension (2003) and The Singer (2006), was deep in character and had to deal with the scourge of the modern film set – paparazzi. “She is just a woman, an artist, trying to play a character (deeply), with huge talent. But she loses control when someone is on set trying to take pictures at the moment she doesn't expect it.” The destructive impact of such a moment on Deckers is captured in the film, when a tabloid photographer surprises her whilst holding hands with her lifelong friend and her last lover, Annie Pescher.
The script was first presented to Coninx after the international success of his 1993 film, Daens, a historical drama that took a critical view of the hunger for profit rife within the Catholic Church (a theme central to Jeannine Decker's conflicted life, particularly after she left the Dominican convent 'Firchemont' in Waterloo, Belgium). But the director did not immediately recognise a strong angle from which to approach the life of The Singing Nun. “I had seen the 1966 film, with Debbie Reynolds, but that had been made at the height of her fame. (To me), it was just a film about someone who had financial problems and whose life ended in a double suicide.”
When a savvy producer arranged a meeting between the director and the actress who would be his leading lady, the focus of the film fell into place. “I didn't know Cecile, so we met in Paris and had a very good conversation. From that moment, she said 'Well, if you direct then I'll do it.' And I said 'If you play the role I will change my mind', so we started the script again from zero and last year, we did the movie.”
The script that Coninx and de France ultimately shot focussed on the essence of Decker's life – an unshakable belief in human goodness. “For me, the thing to follow from the beginning was the love story. It is the most important thing in anyone's life.” The journey that took Deckers from her troubled home life to the Firchemont convent then to the giddying highs and dark lows of worldwide fame was inspired by her search for love and acceptance. “She did not go to the convent because she was in love with God; she was trying to run away from home. Without love in her childhood, and (ultimately) having both a boyfriend and a girlfriend and not knowing what to do...well, that was the essence of her drama.”
The legacy left by Jeannine Deckers has played a significant role in the ongoing life of her surviving family members, most notably her sister. “I had the chance to meet (Decker's) sister, but only for one minute”, recalls Coninx. “She was very protective of the memory of her sister and very protective of her life now, living in Brussels. Nobody knows now she is the sister of Jeannine Deckers.”
Despite the brief encounter, it proved a deeply moving one for the filmmaker. “I had a feeling, deep in her eyes, that she wanted to talk more with me about it.” So moved by the meeting with Decker's only remaining relative, Coninx altered his script out of respect for the elderly woman. “We changed in the script, the character of the sister and the cousin, and it reflects one of the very positive lines of the story.”
Coninx remembers the worldwide hit song vividly from his childhood. (“We didn't know who Dominique was,” he admits. “We used to sing it as 'Yeah Yeah Yeah' from The Beatles”). And he certainly had no idea, until he walked amongst the celebrity elite that now populate his life as an internationally-recognised filmmaker, just how destructive fame could be. “There is huge pressure on stars. Stars exist in the dark sky, not amongst us all, and I think that is the problem. We are all human beings and stars are not treated as human beings.” When the very essence of a star is their humanity, as in the case of 'The Singing Nun' Jeannine Deckers, the collision of two opposing realities can be devastating.