Interview: Eugène Green, ‘The Portuguese Nun’

This week saw the release of Eugène Green’s The Portuguese Nun (2009) (review here) – a fascinating, yet highly unconventional existential journey through Lisbon following an actress as she deals with issues of loneliness, love and divine will. CineVue were lucky enough to catch up for an interview with Green, a director with a clear and distinctive style, to talk to him about the film.

Patrick Gamble: The Portuguese Nun is a film with a myriad of different themes, how would you describe the film to someone who hasn’t seen it and what would you say was your primarily focus when creating The Portuguese Nun?

Eugène Green: As you observe, it is a tapestry of interweaving themes. To describe it very briefly, it is about a young actress who, during a brief stay in Lisbon, discovers, through the mysteries of that city, certain things about the relationship between human and spiritual love, art and nature, myth and reality, leading to an epiphany which gives a meaning to her life.

PG: It’s fascinating to see the themes from the book filter through the film the characters are making, and then again through the actions of Julie. How did the idea come about for Julie’s character to mirror the actions of her role within the film?

EG: As for all my works of fiction, films and novels, the central idea came to me, a long time ago, in a flash: it was that of an actress come to Lisbon to play the role of Mariana in a film inspired by Les Lettres Portugaises, and who becomes fascinated by a real nun praying in a chapel. I don’t know where the flashes come from, but once they have occurred, the rest falls into place naturally.

PG: Your approach is very unconventional (especially your use of frontal shots during dialogue scenes), dividing even the most astute of cinema audiences, was their ever a worry that your unusual style may not gel effectively?

EG: I wanted to make films since the age of sixteen. When I got to shoot my first feature, Toutes les nuits (2001), I was more than fifty. I had had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do, and how to do it. I continue to use the same elements of style as in that first film, because they seem to me necessary and efficient in relation to what I am trying to achieve. I could not imagine doing otherwise.

PG: There are some sly jokes hidden within the film’s dialogue including a rather tongue in cheek conversation between Julie and her make-up artist – Is this self-awareness of the film’s distinctive and unusual style there to lighten the mood or as a defence against those who may see the film as a needlessly eccentric piece of art?

EG: It is both. It is a way at laughing at myself and at my adversaries at the same time. That’s very democratic, don’t you think so? In general, elements of humour come naturally in all my work, even though the themes are very serious.

PG: The film’s dialogue, whilst quite jarring when compared to the language of most films still has an incredibly naturalistic feeling – unafraid to include the awkwardness of real life. Is this something you look to achieve intentionally or does it naturally evolve?

EG: I usually find “naturalistic” dialogue – and acting – terribly false. What I aim at, in writing my dialogues, is interior truth. I hope to make the audience see and hear the characters’ soul. I therefore try to express very deep feelings with very simple words, in rigorous grammatical constructions. The aspect of the language to which you refer is very intentional, and difficult to accomplish: achieving simplicity is a very complicated thing. 

PG: Aside from the film’s rich tapestry of ideas there’s also some magnificent wide angle shots of Lisbon which helps the audience become as intoxicated with the city as Julie does. Is Lisbon a place you’ve always wanted to capture in this way or did it evolve organically whilst filming there?

EG: I have a very powerful and mysterious relation to Lisbon, and of course, the city is one of the two main characters, with Julie, and was present from the first conception of the film as an indispensable element.

PG: What‘s next in the pipeline?

EG: I hope to shoot this summer, mainly in Italy, a film called La Sapience or La Sapienza. It takes place today, but the central character is an architect who is obsessed by the great baroque architect Franceso Borromini, who will be present through his architecture and references to his life. Like all my projects, we have much difficulty in financing it, and the existence of the film will be decided on in the next few weeks. I also have another project in Portugal.

Win a DVD copy of The Portuguese Nun with our fantastic giveaway competition here.

Patrick Gamble