What’s in a name? With a title like The Student Nurses, one conjures up lavish images of scantily clad nurses in what is ostensibly a soft-core adult film posing as a camp-filled ‘70s exploitation picture. Think Candy Stripe Nurses with all of its “keep abreast of the medical world” tagline glory. However, while you wouldn’t be totally wrong about the amount of nudity the picture offers, director Stephanie Rothman turns what could be just another Roger Corman-produced T-and-A fest into a drama of shocking depth and nuance.
Newly restored by the Academy Film Archives as well as the Women’s Film Preservation Fund and Cinema Conservancy, Rothman’s film is in a week-long run at the Metrograph Theater in New York City, and is one of the most entrancing exploitation picture you’ll ever see. The film sounds like your standard exploitation picture based on its premise. Four students on their way to becoming nurses share a house. Hell, in the first handful of minutes, one nurse who is in love with a doctor, Jim, accidentally seduces his coworker and roommate, with another nurse, Priscilla, making the first thing we really know about her the fact that she doesn’t wear a bra. Another falls in love with a terminally ill patient with Lynn, the fourth, leaving her hospital to open up a clinic with her revolutionary beau. However, what follows is not only a briskly paced micro-budget drama akin to the exploitation films of this cycle, but one that’s far more intellectually stimulating and narratively engrossing.
Within the story itself, a handful of major narrative beats are played. First, in the case of the free-wheeling, bra-free Priscilla, she becomes pregnant through a relationship with a drugged-out biker, and seeks access to have a safe and legal abortion. Vietnam comes into play after the death of Sharon’s terminally-ill lover, and the aforementioned revolutionary shoots a cop, forever changing Lynn’s future. With the tagline “they’re learning fast” and posters that show off more skin than the film’s narrative substance, it would be easy to mistake this film as a forgettable piece of titillation. However, Rothman’s film is decidedly something more. Intellectually, the film finds freedom in its low budget. Be it the discussion of women’s rights with regards to the above-mentioned abortion, or class issues through the subplot involving Lynn and her free clinic, the film is decidedly more nuanced than the title might make one imagine, with it feeling more akin to the New Hollywood tradition than the exploitation films it has often been compared to. No single narrative feels completely fleshed out, but in roughly 80 minutes, to convey stimulating ideas across four singular stories is an absolute feat and one even the most experienced filmmakers would find difficult.
That being said, the film is still quite stiff and wooden. One of the earliest films in Corman’s New World Pictures, the performances here aren’t great. The film itself has a superb sense of humor, and the narrative surrounding Priscilla is strikingly emotional, but the performances are of a very distinct style, fitting of the exploitation genre. However, Rothman’s direction is on an entirely different level. Gorgeously composed with distinctly high production value for this type of feature, Rothman’s camera is decidedly more tender and nuanced than her hedonistic male counterparts, with her style jumping from maudlin melodrama (a terminally ill patient beginning to cry as his nurse undresses) to almost Polanski-esque nightmare (a few dream-like sequences involving Priscilla) all without missing a beat. A decidedly inventive meditation on the sociological politics at the start of the 1970s, The Student Nurses is an absolute gem of a film, that will hopefully find a new life with this new restoration.