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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State