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.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear