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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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge