The Portuguese Nun Review

The strange cinema of Eugène Green moves to the land of Manoel de Oliviera for the director’s fourth feature.

While the stiff formality of Eugène Green’s filming style can seem rather bizarre and unsettling to anyone unfamiliar with his work (or indeed the techniques of Robert Bresson), the simplicity of his style does seem wholly appropriate for the direct questions that he puts forward for consideration in his work. This is particularly the case in his latest film The Portuguese Nun (A Religiosa Portuguesa, where the principal character Julie – a French actress making a film in Lisbon – is faced with a number of choices to make that on the surface seem simple enough, but the choices she has made in the past have not always been the ones to bring her lasting love and happiness.

In the film she is making in Lisbon – an adaptation of a 17th century novel Les lettres de la religieuse portugaise which is being directed by Denis Verde (Eugène Green himself) – Julie plays a Portuguese nun who succumbs to the attentions of a French officer (Green regular Adrien Michaux), giving up the one eternal love of her life dedicated to God for an ephemeral but passionate affair. The actress recognises something of herself in the character she is playing, but at the same time is unable to understand what drives her to make the decisions she makes.

Julie’s identification with the role and the situation extends out into the life in Lisbon during the time of the shoot there, the young woman’s encounters with several people of differing classes and personalities – as well as a romantic encounter with her leading man – all presenting her with choices to make. The choices aren’t always simple ones, and it can be easy to deceive oneself that one’s reasoning is to do something good when the opposite is actually the case. The actor, a man in a deep relationship with the one woman in his life, Marlène, justifies his occasional flings, including the one with Julie, as being necessary to express the passion that is absent from his relationship – a lack of passion that he tells himself is perhaps what keeps it alive.

This is a similar kind of self-deception that Julie has applied throughout her life and her relationships in the past, and it’s one that she applies to her meeting with a mysterious aristocratic gentleman she meets one night, but sometimes those actions, regardless of the original intentions, can have unexpectedly positive outcomes. There are however several other encounters in the film – including a significant one with a genuine Portuguese nun, and another with a young man who she believes is the reincarnation of Dom Sebastião, but it’s Julie’s encounter with a young six year-old boy Vasco that presents her with the opportunity to change her life.

As wonderfully rich as the film is in the various encounters and conversations, in the humour and the deep philosophical, cross-cultural questions that it raises and the connections it makes between the past and the present, there is much also to delight in the almost naïve filmmaking technique that Eugène Green characteristically employs to present the almost baroque nature of the story and its classical subject matter (a similar unconventional approach is adopted by José Luis Guerín in the medieval leanings of his film In The City of Sylvia). The style adopted by Green in A Religiosa Portuguesa evokes both Bresson and Ozu, but goes even further, taking the stiff formality of delivery of Bresson models a step further into inexpressiveness, the two-shot conversations often delivered face-on to the camera even more directly than Ozu. There’s a sense also that the director, an American by birth, moving away from the Bresson-influenced style and content of his first three films made in France, is appropriately adapting his style towards Manoel de Oliveira when making a film in Portugal, but it would be hard not to evoke the Portuguese director when filming as he does here with Leonor Baldaque in Lisbon.

While its lack of anything approaching naturalism is likely to distance some viewers, the effect can be powerful, the characters offering themselves up directly and openly to the camera and the viewer’s gaze in tight close-up in a manner that is enchanting and revealing, working on a level beyond conventional dialogue and staging. Ultimately, even this question about filmmaking choices and the right way to represent them on film is considered in the film itself, or in the film within the film. In her last shot, the actress goes against the very precise instructions of the director to deliver a gesture that she believes to be true – true for both her character and herself.


Updated: Jan 22, 2011

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