Posted April 6, 2012 by Jonathan McCalmont in DVD/Blu-ray
 
 

The Portuguese Nun


European art house cinema has a venerable tradition of producing achingly beautiful films in which very little actually happens.

European art house cinema has a venerable tradition of producing achingly
beautiful films in which very little actually happens.
This tradition arguably
dates back to the 1960s when Michelangelo
Antonioni
’s L’Avventura and Alain Renais’s Last Year in Marienbad had film directors taking notes and audiences
scratching their heads in bewilderment. Though much parodied in the intervening
years, the European art house aesthetic has proved remarkably robust and its
influence is evident even in such recent films as Terrence Malick’s Tree of
Life
and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. The reason these films
can often seem impenetrable is that their directors deliberately turn their
backs upon traditional forms of narrative in order to explore aspects of the
human condition that have been overlooked by more conventional forms of
storytelling. While the look and feel of an art house film are easy enough to
replicate, the sad truth remains that it takes a certain kind of artist to
deploy these techniques in a manner that produces genuine insight. Indeed, we
praise the likes of Malick, Antonioni and Reichardt not because they have the
nerve to film people wandering about but because they are precisely the kind of
artist who can capture our imagination with images of people walking through
deserts and fields of grass. We praise them because they have transcended
traditional narrative and escaped from cinematic conceit. We praise them
because they are a certain kind of artist, the kind of artist that is
constitutionally incapable of producing a film as boring and pretentious as Eugene Green’s The Portuguese Nun.

Set in contemporary Lisbon, The
Portuguese Nun follows a French actress named Julie (Leonor Baldaque) who is playing the lead in a historical drama.
Left to her own devices by a director (Green himself) more interested in
photographing Lisbon than telling a story, Julie wanders the streets having
encounters with a series of male archetypes including a needy child (Mozos), a faithless husband (Michaux) and a seductive father-figure
(Doria). Bouncing from one aimless
encounter to the next, Julie initially tries to impose some kind of order on
her life by attempting to adopt a local child but it is only when she
encounters an actual Portuguese nun that she begins to realise the similarities
between her life and that of the Portuguese nun she plays in the film.

The first thing that strikes you
about The Portuguese Nun is the eye-catching beauty of its cinematography and
the purity of its visual composition. As with Jose Luis Guerin’s In The
City of Sylvia
and Jim Jarmusch’s
The Limits of Control, we spend so
much time simply experiencing the city that its moods and textures come to form
an integral part of the film itself. Indeed, The Portuguese Nun is probably
best understood as an homage to the Portuguese director Pedro Costa whose films In
Vanda’s Room
and Colossal Youth
attempt to capture the patina of life in a Portuguese city and reduce it down
to some purified artistic essence. However, unlike Jarmusch and Guerin who use
the interaction between their cities and their characters to tell a story and advance
an idea, Costa and Green are quite content to treat their cities as ends in
themselves resulting in excruciatingly boring but undeniably decorative
cinematic experiences.

As tempting as it may be to
describe The Portuguese Nun as little more than people wandering around Lisbon
for a couple of hours, the film does nonetheless contain some actual substance
beyond its aesthetic appeal. For example, Green displays a good deal of self-awareness
by casting himself as a pretentious director and having one of the characters
dismiss all art house film as boring. Also engaging is the scene in which the
actress and the nun compare their experiences and find a good deal in common.
Well-written and passionately delivered, this scene stands in stark contrast to
the rest of the film where actors deliver perfunctory, stilted and overly formal
dialogue straight into camera. Though certainly engaging, these rare moments of
imagination are ultimately too isolated and under-developed to counterbalance
the aimless boredom that comprises the rest of the film. If one were being
particularly charitable one might attempt to argue that the film constitutes
some kind of meditation on the affected and staged nature of film as a medium
but if Green is indeed trying to present an argument then his ideas are either insufficiently
clear or insufficiently substantial to support a 127-minute film.

Dull, pretentious and irritatingly
affected, The Portuguese Nun may appeal to fans of Pedro Costa but for the rest
of us it remains a damning indictment of a European art house tradition which,
after fifty years of brilliance, is finally beginning to show its age.


Jonathan McCalmont