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Gilbey on Film: second to nun

Once you’ve seen Eugène Green’s latest, ordinary movies will never seem the same again.

Eugène Green has been making films for ten years now, most of them attracting admirers on the festival circuit rather than general distribution. The Portuguese Nun (which opens at the ICA cinema in London on 21 January) is the first of Green's pictures that I've seen, and it should be praise enough to say that it's made me impatient to seek out the others.

It's set in Lisbon, where the young French actress Julie (Leonor Baldaque) has come to make a film of a 17th-century novel concerning the romance between a nun and a naval officer. When Julie checks in to her hotel, we get our first taste of Green's idiosyncratic writing style, which is enigmatic and self-deprecating. The hotel receptionist disdains the idea of French films – "They're for intellectuals," he says blankly – just as the on-set make-up artist will later respond to Julie's assertion that the film she's making is "unconventional" with the choice put-down: "Boring, you mean."

Doubtless there are people who will feel the same way about The Portuguese Nun, with its leisurely pace and intentionally over-deliberate line readings, and you can't help feeling that Green is making mischief with that imagined response. This is elegant art-house cinema of a kind rarely seen these days outside the work of Jacques Rivette and Manoel de Oliveira – or Abbas Kiarostami, whose recent film Certified Copy tried very hard to generate the mysteries that Green seems able to conjure in a simple cut or close-up.

The Portuguese Nun is often obtuse, maybe even rarefied, yet it sparkles with a playfulness that manifests itself in some delightful ways; I liked it that Green casts himself as the frazzle-haired director-within-the-film, hanging out at the local nightclub and trying to dance with an unreceptive young woman, only to conclude that "hipness can be pretty depressing".

And the fairy-tale rhythm of the narrative, reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut or Rivette's Céline and Julie Go Boating, is spellbinding. Julie encounters various men who make some claim on her – including one whom she decides, seemingly on a whim but with utter conviction, is the reincarnation of the 16th-century Portuguese king Dom Sebastião. She progresses through each encounter as if completing the tasks on a quest; awaiting her near the end of the film is a relationship that will be fully transformative.

One of the most striking elements of the picture is Green's use of the frontal close-up, where a character addresses the other person in a scene while staring straight into the camera. Rather than being witnesses or bystanders, as we are in the conventional shot/reverse-shot style of film-making, the audience is made part of the scene itself.

It's a potentially disruptive piece of film grammar because it breaks the fourth wall and challenges the comforting illusion that we are voyeurs. That said, it has a long history (Hitchcock, Ozu and Jonathan Demme are among the directors to have used it) and Green clearly knows the potency it holds; he keeps his actors staring out at us for as long as possible, as though daring us to throw in the towel in a blinking contest.

The viewer becomes a vessel for the characters' emotions, a go-between inserted into the middle of a private conversation. Going back to standard film-making vocabulary after watching The Portuguese Nun might feel a little like returning home after a holiday of uncommon adventure and exoticism.