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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496