At the end of the 50s on the outskirts of Brussels, Jeannine Deckers (Cécile de France) longs for adventure. Her parents (Jo Deseure, Jan Decleir) only want her to get married and take over the family bakery, but Jeannine craves freedom. She is drawn to art-student Annie (Sandrine Blancke), but when she decides to enter a convent hoping to find the meaning of life, finds the reality of being a Dominican nun rather tough. Despite her isolation, when Mother Superior (Chris Lomme) encourages her to pursue her dream, Jeannine writes the song Dominique, which becomes a big hit around the world. Now known as Sister Smile or The Singing Nun, Jeannine struggles to reconcile her faith and newfound fame, and decides to leave the convent.
Review by Louise Keller:
It was quite a few years ago that as a 16 year old schoolgirl, I got my first break singing, which led to a 16 year professional singing career. That break was on a national TV talent quest called Showcase, produced by the formidable Hector Crawford and compered by the debonair English singing star Gordon Boyd. Accompanied by my guitar, the song I sang in French and English was Dominique - the one made famous by the subject of this biopic.
So it is with special interest that I watched Cécile de France as Sister Smile, the Belgian Nun whose hit song Dominique outsold Elvis and the Beatles. Forget Debbie Reynold's 1966 star turn as The Singing Sun, which was a saccharine, soap opera version,; Stijn Coninx's film is an engrossing and moving tale that delves deep below the surface. It's a hard-hitting portrait of an outspoken and impatient woman unsure of what she really wants, except to be free. Follow your intuition is the moral of this intriguing and surprising story that takes us from the confines and disciplines of a Dominican convent to the uncertain world of showbusiness.
'Girls afraid of life and men go into a convent,' Jeannine's brittle mother Gabrielle (Jo Deseure) tells her daughter, when it is clear she is not interested in her parents' priority of marrying and working in the family bakery. There's little affection in the family unit; Jeannine's affection lies with her cousin Françoise (Marie Kremer), with whom she dreams of going to Africa to make a difference. Although she doesn't realise it at the time, Jeannine's Achilles heel is her inability to love. There are no sparks with boyfriend Pierre (Raphaël Charlier) and when art-student Annie (Sandrine Blancke, a standout) makes advances, Jeannine, estranged from her family, packs her bag and joins the convent in nearby Fichermont. Like Jeannine (or Sister Luc-Gabrielle as she is called), we quickly discover life as a Dominican nun is no picnic either. The first rule is silence, which means no guitar, no singing, no talking. There's no snacking when hungry, either. Rebellion, punishment and isolation results. It is when the Mother Superior (Chris Lomme) returns her guitar that Jeannine starts to sing; her first penned song is Dominique, whose lyrics she completes over potato peel at the kitchen table.
De France is extraordinary (and almost unrecognisable) as Jeannine, who becomes known as Soeur Sourire (or Sister Smile), when a documentary to promote the convent leads to an audition and then a recording contract, the (considerable) royalties going to the Church. Although her identity is kept a secret (the photo only shows the back of the nun's habit), the phenomenal success of the record Dominique (selling 500,000 units) changes everything. Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the final 45 minutes, which deals with Jeannine's emotional and sexual vulnerabilities. Her first live performance in Montréal in 1967 is a key moment, before a professional and personal downward spiral; her troubled relationships all go through rocky times.
This is a unique story, beautifully told and guaranteed to leave a lasting impression. As for me, the Belgian context (with references of the then Belgian Congo, where I went to school) plays a big role in my personal appreciation of this outstanding film.
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SISTER SMILE (PG)
CAST: Cécile De France, Sandrine Blancke, Chris Lomme, Marie Kremer, Jo Deseure, Jan Decleir, Filip Peeters
PRODUCER: Eric Heumann, Marc Sillam
DIRECTOR: Stijn Coninx
SCRIPT: Stijn Coninx, Ariane Fert, Chris Vander Stappen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Not credited
EDITOR: Julie Brenta, Philippe Ravoet
MUSIC: Bruno Fontaine
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Arnaud de Moleron
RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Potential
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 12, 2009