TELEVISION / The smiling nun with a miserable habit

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The Independent Culture
'The patron saint of one-hit wonders' was how 'Kicking the Habit' (C 4) introduced its film about Jeanine Deckers, the Singing Nun. It was a neat line but by the end of Peter Stewart's film, when it was used again, you felt a little uncomfortable with it. It was too flippant, too indifferent to the pain that it had described in the preceding half-hour. The problem persisted throughout this intriguing Without Walls film, which mixed a camp glee at the incongruity of a chart-topping Dominican nun with the occasional realisation that maybe we shouldn't be sniggering - after all, the woman ended up committing suicide, beleaguered by disappointment, debts and tranquilliser addiction.

I don't think the problem was solvable. As cultural history it was mild farce, a bizarre collision between a maddeningly catchy tune and the promiscuous rapacity of the Sixties pop industry (So it's a song about the conversion of French heretics in the 11th century? What the hell, we're shifting units here). As personal history, though, it was tragedy, a worldly temptation failed. In France she was marketed as Soeur Sourire, the Smiling Nun, a name she hated but which was written on the doorbell of the flat in which she was found dead years later. In any case, nuns are never innocent. There was black-and- white footage here of Dominican sisters playing volleyball, a sweetly comic image which summed up the strange freight of feeling they carry for secular viewers.

Indeed, as soon as Deckers had left the convent her career started to decline. As a nun she was exotically removed from the world of style and fashion; as a lay person she was, in Sara Maitland's blunt words, just 'a middle-aged women with bad dress sense'. And if her repertoire guidance was coming from God, he shouldn't give up his day job - her follow-up songs were 'The Smiling Nun Is Dead' and 'The Golden Pill', a folky hymn of praise for the newly invented contraceptive pill. She sent a copy of this to the Pope, for him to play on the Vatican Dansette, but received no acknowledgement.

Neither song did well, which didn't help when she got a huge bill from the Belgian tax men, demanding back-payment on the royalties for her original hit. She had given all the money to the convent and they, they said, had given it all to missions in Africa. In the end she committed suicide with her companion Annie, sending a tear-stained letter to her lawyer and solicitously marking up all the belongings she left behind. Her own epitaph was two mawkish lines from 'The Smiling Nun Is Dead' but that was better than the film's, a giggly threat by a Belgian producer to issue a techno version of 'Dominique'.

In 40 Minutes (BBC 2) Mitzi explained that she was 'narrow' before she met Gail. Gail opened her up because she was 'really herself . . . she was really laid- back'. On the evidence of the film, an ambiguous portrait of female sexual liberty, Gail is rarely in any other position. Both girls have an uncomplicated attitude to sex, feeding the appetite when it occurs and comparing notes carefully after a meal. They flash passers-by on a coach outing, drag mildly bemused men off for a quick bonk, get raucous with their girlfriends. Longer relationships end up in a box under the bed as an assortment of spavined toothbrushes, photographs and old letters.

It wasn't really very startling and, but for the efforts of the director, wouldn't have made it to the finishing line. But Marc Munden has a fine eye. The film would go on the razzle, all motion and blur and woozy swaying, then sober up for long passages of confiding chat, pushing the two girls to the edge of an empty frame. In one lovely shot you could only see their feet, protruding into a composition of sand and umbrellas, wriggling pinkly as they talked. His patience meant he caught subtle details - Gail's humiliation on a double date with Gail, the violence with which both women pounded a deflated plastic man. These were lives of crowded loneliness and Munden made pictures that told you so.