Sister Smile is based on the true story of Jeanine Deckers, a Nun hit wonder who fell into obscurity after recording the hit single Dominique in 1963. While her appearances on the Ed Sullivan show might have ended soon after, her story certainly did not not as her outspoken views on birth control put her at odds with the catholic church and left her in financial ruin. A failed attempt to reinvent herself as a disco star was unsuccessful and she committed suicide with her partner in 1985.
The story has been well documented with various books and off broadway productions released over the years as well as a 1966 film adaptation starring Debbie Reynolds. Her success might even have been the inspiration for the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore Leaping nun sketch in 1966.
Growing up in a bakery run by her stern mother, Jeanine decides to defy her parents and run off to the nunnery. Unable to fit in to the non-expressive rigidity of austere convent life, Jeanine is permitted the return of her guitar on which she plays her original song, Dominique, the song that propels her to dizzying heights of fame.
After her decision to leave the church to pursue a career as a singer, her life begins a slow decline as she ends up rejected by church and family for her advocacy of contraception and for living with her lesbian lover. It’s no surprise that songs like Glory be to God for the Golden Pill left her in a cultural no mans land; too radical for the church, too churchy for the radicals
Jeanine is played exceptionally well by Cecile de France who showcases strength and ability in the role and perfectly captures her characters strong will and rebellious nature.
Unfortunately the story adapts a softly softly approach and fails to point the finger at the Catholic Church who, along with the record company Phillips, kept the majority of her royalties and left her financially broken. While the film had the opportunity to present this story in a much more confronting light, perhaps it was the fear of exactly what had happened to Jeanine, that caused director Stijn Coninx to shy away, leaving us robbed of some substantial drama and to wonder the point.
I can’t help thinking that if this film were directed by a woman we may have been led to look less romantically at her beauty and breasts and more at the angst she must have been experiencing as victim of the church’s greed and her own desperate ache for love, an emotion she “didn’t know how to do”. The whole aspect of her suicide was glossed over as a romantic act devoid of any underlying reasons.
Beverly Callow and Gram Morris( who hasn’t actually seen the film but likes stories about Nuns who put out disco records)