In The Portuguese Nun, director Eugène Green is fascinated by actress Leonor Baldaque's eyes, his own rigorous formalism, and the architecture, art, and music of Lisbon—in that order. Baldaque stars as Julie de Hauranne, a French actress who arrives in the Portuguese capital to film a few scenes from an adaptation of the classic 17th-century text Letters of a Portuguese Nun, which details the eponymous figure's romance with a naval officer. Given the lax shooting schedule, Julie has plenty of time to wander around Lisbon, which, despite being her mother's hometown, she's never before visited, taking in its cultural sights, uttering enigmatic observations, and looking for a sense of purpose in her otherwise driftless life. This last possibility finds potential fulfillment in two encounters—one with a nun who performs a nightly solitary prayer session at a local chapel, the other with a young, soon-to-be-orphaned boy.
Filming everything in rigidly diagrammed compositions whose too-exact arrangements seem intentionally stilted, moving from angled medium close-ups to increasingly tight frontal shots in which his characters seem to be knowingly staring down the camera, and having his actors recite their lines in a neutral anti-naturalist drone, Green continually calls attention to his formalist aesthetic. (Alternatively, his camera executes slow, methodical pans when filming Lisbon's architectural landscapes or the interiors of its bars.) This self-conscious formalism takes on an inevitable meta-cinematic function when Julie, who plays a Portuguese nun in the movie, makes nightly visits to the real Portuguese nun with whom she increasingly identifies. When the movie crew shoots its film-within-the-film in the same chapel, the director (played by Green) frames Julie kneeling in her habit in the identical foreground position in which the real-life director had shot the authentic nun making her nightly entreaties. Later, when Julie has a brief fling with her co-star, they self-consciously reenact their love scene from the movie.
But The Portuguese Nun is finally less about the convergence of art and life than it is its lead character's quest for purpose. "The energy that Lisbon gives us is life itself," Julie tells a potential lover who she saves from suicide, the actress intoxicated both by the city's distinctive culture and the opportunity provided by her Lisbonian encounters to perform "good deeds." For all the film's rigid planimetric compositions and faux-mystical dialogue, it's really concerned with recounting the simple story of an actress deadened by too many brief affairs who finds redemption through her relationship with an adorable preteen boy. Ultimately, Green's insistence on foregrounding the meta-cinematic dissipates, even as the accompanying aesthetic remains. In the end, the film's reflexivity serves primarily to formalize the identification between "the Portuguese nun" and the Portuguese nun, as actress and woman of God engage in a long metaphysical discussion that ultimately boils down to the fact that what the man upstairs wants is for us to love "until we no longer exist." What form that love takes doesn't matter because "there's only one kind of love." For Julie, the upshot of this conversation, which takes an odd and unsettling turn when the nun starts an anti-Enlightenment screed calling "reason" the enemy of God, is the care of the aforementioned kid, who conveniently presents himself for her personal validation.
Earlier, Julie had characterized the film in which she stars as "unconventional," an appellation that Green would no doubt like to apply to his own project. And while in many ways The Portuguese Nun eschews the conventions of both mainstream cinematic narrative and playfully reflexive modernism, it ultimately and inevitably devolves into a predictably sentimental yarn—even if it's played at enough of a remove to avoid the easy emotion that generally accompanies such sentimentalism. But though the film eventually settles into a pattern of predictable plotting and though Green's relentless formalism starts to wear thin (there's only so many times seeing a character turn his gaze deliberately toward the camera can be effective), his project remains buoyed by a single lucky ingredient.
After a while, it becomes clear that the chief advantage of indulging in so many frontal close-ups is to highlight the subtly questioning eyes of Leonor Baldaque. An actress given to inexpressive line readings and deliberately refusing much in the way of facial expression, Baldaque communicates almost exclusively through her searching brown orbs. For all the narrative (non-)frissons surrounding Julie's conversation with the nun and her relationship with the young boy, the film's affective highlight comes in a far more modest scene as she takes in a performance of traditional Portuguese music at a local bar. After a series of progressively tight close-ups framing both the musicians and the customers (and increasingly alternating between just the singer and Julie), the sequence concludes with one last glimpse of the actress' face, a single tear rolling down her cheek to confirm that beneath all Green's schematized formalism, he's hasn't entirely distanced himself from the raw stuff of humanity.