“To get it out of the way at the outset,” writes Blake Williams, opening “The Films of Eugène Green,” an essay set to appear in the 60th issue of Cinema Scope:
Eugène Green, now 67 years of age, began making films when he was 53, all of them built around and deeply concerned with a set of traditions belonging to the arts of the Baroque period, particularly its theatre. His body of work (to date, five features and three shorts) is one that is not merely “inspired” by the late 16th-century style’s tastes, concepts, and modes of thinking; it is entirely saturated in the Baroque itself—in its manners of thought, being, loving—and it accordingly exhibits many of the exuberant, contradictory, proto-Rococo tendencies suggested by this affiliation. The films unabashedly announce themselves as such, and any discussion or discourse surrounding them, or any of the research, writing, or theatre direction that Green has produced up to this point in his career, tends to (perhaps necessarily) approach these works through the lens of Baroque sensibilities above and before all else.
La Sapienza premiered in Locarno and will screen later this week in Toronto’s Wavelengths program. I don’t make a habit of having the programmers chime in here, but the programmer here is Andréa Picard, after all, and she sets Green’s new film up nicely:
Named for the famous seventeenth-century Roman church Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, which was designed by the legendary architect (and Bernini rival) Francesco Borromini, La Sapienza echoes Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia in its tale of Alexandre Schmid (Fabrizio Rongione), a brilliant architect who, plagued by doubts and loss of inspiration, embarks on a quest of artistic and spiritual renewal guided by his study of Borromini. His wife Aliénor (Christelle Prot), similarly troubled by the crassness of contemporary society—as well as the couple’s lack of communication and passion—decides to accompany him. In Stresa, a chance encounter with adolescent siblings Goffredo (who is about to commence his own architectural studies) and his fragile sister Lavinia upends the couple’s plans. As Borromini’s spirit and the vertiginous splendour of his structures spin a mysterious web among them, within the course of a few days the foursome experiences a series of life-altering revelations.
“A lithe, luminous film that truly ‘dances about architecture,’ Sapience is the rare work of narrative art that can invoke philosophical problems in a manner that feels completely organic to the world it has created,” writes Michael Sicinski. “It is rare that the mere visual description of space can produce a shock for the viewer. However, the opening moments of Sapience—in which Green spends minutes gazing upon classical European structures, only to cut them down with an agonizing edit to a modern factory landscape—quite literally took my breath away.”
Also in the Notebook, Marie-Pierre Duhamel argues that “the important truth is that more than in his previous works, Green’s haughty approach results in attitudes and expressions from the actors that prevent any of the ‘psychological’ tricks the story could have engendered. It creates forms of body language that are strictly consistent with the framing and help the emotion and the interest of the viewer concentrate upon what is deeply at stake: the constant threat upon language. A danger of being emptied and become a mere mechanic of communication. The ‘villains’ of the film (local representatives and bureaucrats, journalists, a caricatural Australian and a bunch of snobs at the Villa Medicis, in one of Green’s funniest over-the-top caricature episodes) are menaces to languages as expression of thought and feeling, hence to culture.”
But at the House Next Door, James Lattimer finds that “La Sapienza is lazily content to draw on the exact same set of formal strategies (constant cuts back and forth between frontal shots, stylized movement, dialogue delivered with the monotony of a language learning tape) employed to more fitting effect in The Portuguese Nun, with all the studied artificiality just serving to inflate this already over-determined story of chance encounters, architectural pontificating, and converging destinies to the point of ridiculousness.”
Green “weaves a particularly dense thematic tapestry in which the past constantly influences the present, something reinforced when several ghosts from the couple’s shared history surface,” writes Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter. “If anything, the film seems to suggest that all constructions exist in a continuum, with at least one leg in the past and another not necessarily in the present or the future but in eternity (in the case of buildings) or at least a kind of eternal truth (in the case of humans and their relationships).”
Update, 9/9: “Simple things are, for me, strongest,” Green tells Violet Lucca in an interview for Film Comment.