Jeanine Deckers—Sister Sourire—became a Dominican nun, had an international pop hit, appeared on Ed Sullivan, became the subject of an imaginative Hollywood biopic, left the convent, worked with autistic children, became briefly involved with the Catholic Charismatic movement, advocated birth control, and eventually committed suicide with her partner, Annie Pécher. That should be more than enough for a tragic film—and one finally got made, in her Belgian homeland. Released in 2009, Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile) features a fine lead performance by Cécile de France and, despite its flaws, would be worth watching even by those who have no memory of the 1960s' famed Singing Nun.
The film begins with Deckers in her late teens / early twenties. She works in her parents' bakery and shares space with an orphaned cousin. She has a friendship with a young man who wants to marry her, and another with an art-school friend, Annie Pécher, who also has romantic designs towards her. In what may be an act of rebellion, Jeanine leaves her family to join a Dominican convent. As Sister Luc Gabriel, she finds solitude from the world, but she chafes against the disciplined lifestyle of the nuns. The Mother Superior sees the young woman's need for an outlet, and returns her guitar. She quickly becomes popular, playing both original, religious-based songs and tongue-in-cheek pop covers. A priest sees the promotional potential in her songs, and she soon records an album, backed up by some of her fellow sisters. Fame follows and proves a double-edged sword. The increasingly worldly "Sister Sourire" finds herself uncomfortable with fame, but at odds with the convent life and church doctrine.
These events have been effectively framed by director Stijn Coninx, who has worked with both dramatic and documentary subjects in the past. Coninx understands how to frame scenes for maximum visual effect, but the camera never lingers needlessly on the set details. The film takes us through various stops in Deckers' journey, including an amusing, if predictable, visit to a university pub where she surprises both fans and detractors.
Only the shots in Quebec fall short. The film creates a strong sense of the individual (and increasingly seedy) venues, but little sense of place. These scenes were almost certainly shot in Europe, with the director using the most North Americanesque locations available.
The central performer receives strong support from a talented cast of fine character actors. In particular, Jan Decleir and Marie Kremer play her father and her cousin with fascinating ambivalence, uncertain what to make of the woman's various transformations. Jo Deseure as her mother creates the sense of emotional distance that contributes to Jeanine’s desperate need for love and approbation.
The film's concluding act proves the most problematic part of the film. Sister Sourire deviates most significantly from the facts here and, while the motive for doing so seems clear enough, the results cheat the conclusion.1 In reality, Deckers and Pécher lived together until 1985. Those years saw several unsuccessful attempts by Deckers to revive her career, ongoing and groundbreaking work with autistic children, and constant attempts by the Belgian government to collect back taxes on money Deckers hadn't made—because the Church and the recording company shared the profits from "Dominique." Deckers had been abusing alcohol and prescription drugs, but their desperate financial situation received most prominent mention in their suicide note.
The film compresses time in the interest of getting to a tragic conclusion. We see Deckers' disastrous, post-convent tour of Quebec as a frightening descent into an entertainment netherworld, but learn nothing more about her attempts to revive her career. We hear brief mention of Pécher's educational work and little more about the couple's financial problems. Even the style of clothing and models of cars suggest that a short time has passed between the pinnacle of Deckers' success and the desperation of their final act. Unfortunately, this compression gives us too little sense of why the women kill themselves. We cannot really appreciate the reality of their years together, nor the full tragedy of their demise. Their conclusion, indeed, plays as suspiciously celebratory.
At present, this is the best film made about its subject (the 1966 Hollywood fantasy starring Debbie Reynolds and Ricardo Montalban makes few concessions to the facts, and does not even rate mention in this movie). Sister Sourire has much to recommend it, but its conclusion loses sight of the lives being depicted.
Sister Smile / Souer Sourire
Director: Stijn Coninx
Writers: Stijn Connix, Ariane Fert, Chris Vander Stappen
Cécile De France as Jeannine Deckers
Sandrine Blancke as Annie Pécher
Filip Peeters as Antoine Brusson
Chris Lomme as La mère supérieure
Marie Kremer as Françoise
Jo Deseure as Gabrielle Deckers
Jan Decleir as Lucien Deckers
Filip Peeters as Antoine Brusson
Christelle Cornil as Soeur Christine
Johan Leysen as Père Jean
Bernard Eylenbosch as Père Dubois
Ted Fletcher as Tod Peterson
1. The script, predictably enough, deviates from the facts in other ways. In an attempt to impose some structure, the film presents Annie Pécher as an old friend and early potential love interest to whom Jeanine Deckers returns. In reality, Deckers met Pécher, who was eleven years younger, when they were adults.