Follows the life of Belgian nun Jeanine Deckers (1933-1985) who rose to fame as The Singing Nun aka Sister Smile after scoring a chart-topping hit song entitled 'Dominique' in 1963. Her life came spiralling down after the hit and although she tried to pursue an alternative career, her financial woes lead her and her partner to commit suicide in the early 80s.
Certainly the best thing about this biopic about Jeannine Deckers, who won fame in the early 60s as the Singing Nun for a little ditty called 'Dominique', is the performance by Cecile de France in the title role. It may sound a little distasteful to say so but she is sexy, beautiful and radiant – but then again, perhaps that’s the point.
Stijn Coninx's film is a story of repression and liberation. It charts the late adolescence of Belgian girl Jeannine through to her succes as a pop singer and then her sudden and dramatic plunge back into obscurity. As a teen Jeannine is uncertain and fearful of her sexuality she packs herself off to the covent (much to the displeasure of her parents), where she raises a special kind of 'hell’ with the other novices. Jeannine loves to smoke, drink, listen to records (she’s a big Elvis fan) and defy the rigid formality of a life devoted to self-sacrifice and devotion to God. When she pens a song which rates a 10 on the if I can’t get this song out of my head I will shoot myself' scale, Jeannine is launched into the world of the flesh and the dollar and Ego"¦and finds (like most of us non-religious types) that she is unprepared and scared.
Coninx isn’t much interested in liberation theology or seemingly any kind of theology at all; what drives the film is a kind of rosy, 'let it all hang out' view of the 1960s. In the film Deckers' rise and fall and struggle for autonomy is used as a kind of index for what happened to women in the 1960s. He suggests that the 60’s, with its promise of a freer, richer, deeper society even penetrated convent walls! That’s all very well and its certainly sweet, but somehow it doesn’t ring true. Perhaps its because the film's structure doesn’t really allow much entrée to the cloistered (or at least limited) world outside of its central character's experience. Still, what drives the film is Deckers' agony. She remains for most of the film, firmly and deeply in the closet. Her long suffering romantic interest Annie (Sandrine Blancke), proudly lesbian, has to put up with a platonic relationship, tantrums and confusion for most of the film.
Shot in a string of close ups and structured like a standard biopic (with all the stodgy, plodding plotting that that implies) Sister Smile works at about the level of a good telemovie. Given that the most intriguing thing about the movie (and the story) is Jeannine’s struggle with her sexuality, it’s a pity that the structure doesn’t put that at the centre of the action; instead Sister Smile is like a conventional rock pic – sudden fame; rotten music biz types and rip off artists; sudden crash"¦ Still, de France is so riveting that you hardly notice how ordinary the film is until you try and remember one stand out shot, or moment or plot point. What hangs in the mind is the song (God help us!) and the truly lovely smile of de France who convinces, utterly that, here was a person who believed that God was working through her.