The Portuguese Nun
Directed by Eugene Green
The films of the American-born Frenchman Eugène Green are challenging in a pleasant, un-bullying way. Certain to earn eye-rolls from viewers for whom the dumb, useless term "artsy" is some kind of putdown, they call attention to themselves with symmetrically framed shots, rampant staring into the lens, stilted direct address, and unblushing references to obscure and classical art, to name just a few of their idiosyncrasies. Instead of distancing you, Green's affectations have a guilelessness that is warm and welcoming. His films are invitations to gateless new lands, strange but dotted with familiar landmarks of art appreciation and reflections of humanity. His pretentious streak is countered with an equal, noncondescending reverence for innocence.
Anthology, who ran a Green series in 2006, continues to do its part to bolster the filmmaker's undersung stateside reputation with this weeklong run of his latest film, his most ambitious (he's made several that are under an hour) along with 2004's masterful Le pont des Arts. The Portuguese Nun follows a French actress, Julie (Leonor Baldaque, herself Portuguese), and her wanderings in Lisbon, where she is starring in an adaptation of Guilleragues' Letters of a Portuguese Nun. Green (looking well) plays the film-in-film's director Denis, and Julie's encounters vaguely parallel those in the famous epistolary novel, but as in the best moviemaking movies (8 1/2, Contempt, Day for Night), self-reflexive inquiries and winks are only part of the concern. When she's not on set, Julie, who speaks the language but has never been, receptively explores Lisbon, meeting a motherless boy, a seemingly constantly praying nun, and a strange man whom she declares the reincarnated King D. Sebastião. She takes in two fado performances (mesmerizingly sung by Camané and Aldina Duarte), presented uninterrupted and marked by Green's usual direct address reactions by both performer and hearer. She even finds time for a "brief passion" (the only kind she's known, she says blankly) with her married costar (Green regular Adrien Michaux).
Not small-thinking, The Portuguese Nun, like Le pont des Arts before it, is concerned with no less than the quest for being and wholeness, redemptive empathy, and the bond between the living and dead. Though heavier, it is similarly funny, shelvable in an alternate universe Comedy section. A date tells Julie he would have shot himself "like in a Russian novel" had she not called. She reminds him that they're in Portugal, so his romantic plan was faulty. Discussing the movie she's in, Julie tells the hair and makeup woman that it's unconventional and gets back, "Boring, you mean?" Wanting to "paint Lisbon red," the director Denis winds up at a disco, which means we get to see Green boogie (it doesn't go over well - he's soon sipping alone at the bar). These jokes and admissions of self-awareness only add to the exploratory artifice that is Green's trademark.
Opens October 22