“Sister Smile” film tells sad story of the Singing Nun

April 29, 2009

singing-nun-posterRemember the Singing Nun? If you’re old enough to recall the song “Dominique”, you might want to see a new Belgian film“Soeur Sourire” (“Sister Smile”) about the nun whose hit song topped the charts in Europe and North America in 1963. Then again, you might not … The song was far more upbeat than the sad story behind it.

Jeanine Deckers, or Sister Luc Gabrielle — better known by her pseudonyms Singing Nun in English and Soeur Sourire in French — was a Belgian Dominican sister who scored a one-hit wonder with “Dominique” in 1963. The record was released under her pseudonym. But the song became such an international hit that she finally went public and even appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the United States She never had another hit and the 1966 film “The Singing Nun” starring Debbie Reynolds ended with her giving up music to work in Africa. Deckers later described that film as “fiction”. “Soeur Sourire” sticks closer to the facts

(Photo: film poster for Soeur Sourire/Ocean Films)

As the film depicts it, the rebellious Deckers enters the convent to find refuge from her heartless mother and her youthful confusion at advances by male and female admirers. She has trouble adjusting to convent life but her singing catches the attention of Belgium’s Catholic television and her mother superior is persuaded to let her record “Dominique.” Celebrity goes to her head, she leaves the convent and moves in with Annie, the female admirer. When she tries to launch a new career, she cannot not use the pseudonym Soeur Sourire because it belongs to her order.

Things go downhill from there, with pill popping and binge drinking becoming more frequent. During a disastrous tour of Canada, the local Catholic hierarchy gets a Montreal concert series stopped because she sings a song in praise of contraception, “Glory be to God for the Golden Pill”. The final straw comes back in Belgium, where the authorities demand back taxes due on her royalties from “Dominique”. She had handed them all over to the order, but has no receipt. Overwhelmed, she and her partner Annie commit suicide. Director Stijn Coninx has found a way to put a soft spin on the ending, but it still ends tragically.

nuns-singingThe film is mostly in line with the facts. It starts off well, recreating the atmosphere of late 1950s Belgium, but takes too many shortcuts once Deckers’s life starts going downhill. There are some strange Church-related scenes (for example, a bishop who scrambles to don his zucchetto when a phone call wakes him in bed in the middle of the night) and the cars all seem to date from the late 1950s and early 1960s despite the passing years. Deckers lived until 1985.

(Photo: Cécile de France as the Singing Nun/Ocean Films)

The film has already won two awards at a film festival in Valenciennes, a French city just across the border from Belgium. It opened on Wednesday in Paris in a multiplex at the Forum des Halles, one of the ugliest places in this beautiful city. It was a midday showing, so it was difficult to say if the nearly empty cinemreflected its box office prospects. Most of the moviegoers were, like me, old enough to remember the Singing Nun and wonder what became of her.

Could a film like this cross the Channel and the Atlantic as easily as “Dominique” did?

Here’s a trailer for the film “Soeur Sourire”:

2 comments

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This is a truly tragic tale. Her appearance on the music scene pre-dates Vatican II, yet she seemed in tune with what was to come. I believe it had an effect on the Church in much the same way Sidney Portier’s performance in “Lilies of the Field” opened up the windows for a dialogue about race and the Church. As a young Catholic, seeing her perform on Ed Sullivan and watching this simple song edge it’s way “to the toppermost of the poppermost” (John Lennon), was truly an inspiration.
This looks like a film I would like to see.

Posted by Pat Bianculli | Report as abusive

please compare the movie with my novel, on which the film is based.It focusses much more on the downhill period of the life of Soeur Sourire and Annie.

Leen van den Berg. Soeur Sourire. Journal d’une tragédie. Editions Luc Pire.

Posted by leen van den berg | Report as abusive