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Case Number 20774: Small Claims Court

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Sister Smile

MVD Visual // 2009 // 95 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // February 24th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Bryan Byun is nun too happy with this film.

The Charge

Dominique, nique, nique
S'en allait tout simplement,
Routier, pauvre et chantant
En tous chemins, en tous lieux,
Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu,
Il ne parle que du Bon Dieu.

The Case

In 1963, a sprightly little French-language ditty called "Dominique" became a surprise worldwide hit, toppling Elvis off the top of the charts and making an unlikely overnight star out of its singer-composer, a Belgian nun named Jeanine Deckers, better known as The Singing Nun. Deckers, who performed as Sœur Sourire (Sister Smile), became an international celebrity, appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show and being portrayed by Debbie Reynolds in the semi-biographical film The Singing Nun.

"Dominique" proved to be the beginning and end of Sister Smile's moment in the spotlight. One of the more tragic one-hit wonders of musical history, Deckers never duplicated her early success, making two more quickly-forgotten albums before fading into obscurity and spending the rest of her life buried under tax issues and other financial difficulties. In 1985, at the age of 51, Deckers, along with her longtime partner Anna Pécher, committed suicide by an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol.

Sister Smile, Roger Deutsch's largely fictional, unapologetically lurid biopic, dispenses quickly with the Singing Nun's brief musical career, and dwells at agonizing leisure on her subsequent downward spiral into madness and debasement. With the success of "Dominique" (which, thanks to unscrupulous management, she sees almost no money from), Sister Smile, introduced to us from the outset as a damaged, emotionally unstable young woman, flees the convent, and soon meets and falls in love with Pécher (called "Clara" in the film), a former nun like herself. As dysfunctional as Deckers is, she finds a worthy counterpart in Clara. Feeding (and feeding off of) each other's psychological torment and self-loathing, the pair are quickly engulfed in an abyss of drug addiction and sexual depravity.

While it's interesting enough as a piece of experimental filmmaking—Sister Smile employs a number of art-cinema touches, including nonlinear narrative, the deliberate use of anachronisms, a disjointed style that veers wildly from fairy tale to ironic satire to dream imagery and psychosexual melodrama, even incorporating animation. The film wallows in tawdry voyeurism, reducing the story to little more than a Bad Lieutenant-style descent into hell, with a generous helping of romantic mutual assured destruction by way of Sid and Nancy.

Ginerva Colonna, in the title role, possesses a commanding presence and disheveled beauty as the doomed nun-turned-songstress, but her character is so thoroughly unpleasant…an unhinged narcissist who seems to alienate or emotionally scar everyone she encounters (with the exception of her father, with whom she shares a disturbingly intense relationship)…that there's very little reason to sympathize with her misfortunes. We can only stare in detached, fascinated horror as Sister Smile corrupts her body and spirit beyond any hope of repair or redemption.

Sister Smile was made in 2001, but you wouldn't know it from the DVD transfer, which is so aggressively shoddy that I suspect it's an intentional choice. The muddy, blurred image looks like a video recording of a 16mm film that's been projected on a wall; it's so indistinct some text that opens the film (a quotation?) is completely illegible. Audio, presented in Dolby stereo, is similarly muddy and harsh. However, Sister Smile deliberately mimics the look and sound of a long lost 1960s New Wave art film, so a legitimate, if highly unlikely, argument could be made that the slapdash transfer was in fact an artistic gesture. In any event, it's easily the worst-looking DVD I've seen since Kiss Daddy Goodnight.

Extra features on the disc include two short films by Deutsch. Dead People (2005) is a rambling, impressionistic portrait of "Frank Butler," an elderly black man living in a nondescript small American town, and who may or may not be an actual figure from Deutsch's childhood. Shot in foggy black and white, Dead People is a melancholy, elegaic study of our sense of ourselves in relation to our mortality. The other short, Mario Makes a Movie, is a odd little gem, cobbled together from both found and shot footage, that purports to be a class filmmaking project by the filmmaker's developmentally disabled students. Both short films effectively communicate Deutsch's stylistically loose, factually ambiguious approach to film…he doesn't blur the line between fact and fiction so much as deny any distinction between the two in determining the truth of his characters.

Deutsch's deeply ironic, unreliable perspective makes Sister Smile intriguing as an art piece, but exceedingly shallow and uninvolving as a character study. Taken in earnest, its speculative fabrications render it irrelevant as an even remotely credible biography of Jeanine Deckers. Taken as pure fiction, the characters are too opaque, the film too indifferent to psychological coherence, to lend this sordid tale any recognizable humanity. We're ultimately left with a disturbing, profoundly anti-human spectacle, with a veneer of halfhearted motions towards deeper meaning—jabs at the Catholic church, vague notions regarding the psychologically destabilizing effects of fame—lending weight but little substance to a film that seems to exist for little else but darkness for its own sake.

The Verdict

The court finds Sister Smile guilty on all charges, with the mitigating circumstance that "Dominique" really is uncannily catchy.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 45

Perp Profile

Studio: MVD Visual
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Italian)
Subtitles:
• English
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Bad
• Biographical
• Concerts and Musicals
• Drama
• Foreign

Distinguishing Marks

• Short Films

Accomplices

• IMDb








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