A French actress, Julie de Hauranne (Leonor Baldaque), arrives in Lisbon to shoot a 17th-century costume drama. She’ll star in an arty adaptation of the Lettres Portuguese, a pathetic epistolary monologue addressed from a Portuguese nun to the French officer who seduced and abandoned her.
The sensation of 1669, the letters are today identified as the invention of French pol Gabriel de Guilleragues. They’re only briefly heard from in The Portuguese Nun, but the paradox of their counterfeit origins and emotional verity are very much in line with the film and its dissolving dialectics between loves profane and sacred, self-service and spiritual charity, secular display and religious interiority, actress and nun.
Julie reports to the set of Denis Verde—played by Nun director Eugène Green, shooting with his actual crew. Earlier, Julie explains that they’re all in Lisbon only for images, having recorded sound earlier, a practice that Green has sometimes employed.
Green was born in New York City, but might agree to the self-definition of author Julien Green (no relation): “I am American-born, not -made.” Eugène surrendered his citizenship in our Bicentennial year to invent himself as a Frenchman, and has since mainly resided in centuries past. In Nun, he works in the same idiosyncratic formalism seen in his three features and sundry shorts released since 2001, a style gestated over an earlier career with his Baroque-revival stage company, Théâtre de la Sapience. The result is like nothing else playing, which makes it the best movie in town almost by default.
In dialogue, actors are frequently filmed head-on, in portrait-like close-ups, holding intensely alert expressions—Baldaque’s evocative reticence makes her Green’s perfect actress, eyes shifting from shot to shot between gold, hazel, brown, and green. The confidential direct-address is disarming, likewise the ritualistic stage direction, the enunciated, plainspoken, and candid dialogue: “If sleeping with me would help you, I’d feel like I’d be doing a good deed. So, it would be selfish of me, too,” Julie says, laying out the rules for an arbitrary on-set affair with a co-star, played by Green regular Adrien Michaux. Green’s script is an edifice of counterbalanced dictum and contradiction. “We have to live here and now,” offers another suitor; Julie rebuffs: “But here and now, I have to be somewhere else.”
With much downtime from Verde’s set, Julie—Portuguese on her mother’s side and familiar with the language, but little else—explores. Her walking tour takes her through sloped streets and empty stairwells—Lisbon often seems uninhabited, in perpetual siesta. The camera detaches gently, moving with Julie, then past her, digressing to get lost in the feet of passers-by and surveying vistas in metronymic pans. An overture of limping Fado, Portugal’s dolorous national folk music, sets the pace and infuses the atmosphere. Julie is lured into an obscure cantina by the shivering strum of a Portuguese guitar, transfixed by a fadista and his band. His song is translated and subtitled, but the mournful meaning would be clear without. How long has the band been here, dressed in album-cover impeccability, waiting to be seen? The musicians are apparitions as out-of-time and unlikely as the candelabra-carrying aristocrat (Diogo Dória) Julie will befriend. Another contradiction: Green greets these Old Europe phantoms with both poker-faced irony and real reverence.
Julie also takes in a show at the Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Monte, near her hotel, where she returns night after night to watch a young nun (Ana Moreira) performing her steadfast vigil of prayer. The eventual exchange between these two actress-nuns is the film’s spiritual capstone.
Green has explained his cinematographic project with winning immodesty: “I would like to re-enchant the world.” Here, re-enchantment comes in witnessing Julie’s discovery of self in the act of discovering an unfamiliar city through its music, living faith, and genteel poverty—the last represented by Vasco (Francisco Mozos), an urchin who Julie meets and begins to consider for adoption.
A chafing awareness of art-film ghettoization runs through Nun. “The film is . . . unconventional,” Julie explains to her make-up lady, who translates: “Boring, you mean.” Green deals in essential, universal emotions—but in a cinematic vocabulary alienating to most of his potential public. As French playwright Jacques Audiberti said: “The most obscure poem is addressed to everybody.” The name of Portugal’s King Sebastian I, who disappeared on a quixotic crusade at the head of a ridiculously undersized army, recurs in the film. Perhaps Green sees a kindred spirit.