By Phil Coldiron
In the name of the popular, delighting in reduction and obviousness, a boring assertion: the common ground of every film movement christened a “new wave” over the last 70 years has tended toward revision, a self-conscious desire to provide a true image of the people in opposition to the distorted picture given by whatever relevant iterations of official culture. The banality of this claim can be measured by the volume of cant and platitude produced in support of it, often by the artists themselves. There is, I hope, little need to rehearse these arguments regarding realism, myth, and so on. Who today can help but squirm when faced with the phrase “true image of the people?” Still, that more slippery thing called film culture continues apace in discovering fresh waves or producing them, an inevitable response to a century—the 20th, which, despite all number of alterations in social and geopolitical alignment, refuses to end—in which control of images appears to comprise a substantial part of what it means to be in power.
The most visible of such recent movements emerged in Romania, signalled by the arrival in consecutive years of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), and Cristian Mungiu’sPalme-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007). The authors of these have, to this date, remained the most prominent of recent Romanian directors—a tier which Radu Jude seems set to enter following his top-prize win at this year’s Berlinale for Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn.
Following a string of acclaimed shorts, Jude made his feature debut in 2009 with The Happiest Girl in the World, a minor comedy of deadpan repetition which staked out the concern with image production sustained across the first decade of his career. Unfolding from late morning through to sundown, it charts the excruciating attempt to film a promotional spot with the titular girl, Delia Cristina Fratina, the unhappy winner of a Dacia Logan through a beverage company’s mail-in-the-label contest. Her unhappiness derives from papa’s insistence on selling the station wagon to fund a family-run boarding house, his desire to enter into the financial comfort of rent collection at odds with the teenage freedom a car affords.
Sullen and unable to convincingly deliver the line that she’s “the luckiest, happiest girl in the world”—she reliably forgets the former adjective—poor Delia is run through take after take, forced to gulp down ludicrous quantities of cola-spiked artificial juice (added to improve its colour), while drawing the ire and annoyance of both the spot’s director and the on-set beverage executives as adequate light slowly slips away. If Jude risks tidiness in contrasting the new corporate Romania’s insistence on producing the image of an idiotically giddy consumerist subject with the subsistence-level reality of the individuals lucky enough to be picked to fill this role, his willingness to root comedy in the exhaustion and tedium of even a single afternoon’s effort in this failed process of low-grade social engineering makes clear that, from the first, he possessed a fine sense of the relationship between style and meaning.
Working across a dozen years marked by the widening demand that every artist maintain a consistent and coherent style-as-brand, Jude has instead progressed by sharp zigs and zags. Leaving aside a pair of still-image essays on Romania’s anti-Semitic pogroms, The Dead Nation (2017) and The Exit of the Trains (2020), his other seven features each take up a form all but entirely distinct from the rest. Following the repetitive naturalism of Happiest Girl, an approach plainly inflected by Lazarescu (though Jude’s repetition is more severe and his flat, fading daylight is far from Puiu’s sickly artificial interiors), he returned three years later with Everybody in Our Family, a domestic drama that spirals from bickering to manic derangement.
The story is, again, simple: divorced Marius (an ominously kind Serban Pavlu, a Jude regular) wants to take his daughter Sofia, who resides with his ex-wife Otilia, on a trip to the seaside as part of a planned weekend visit. For the first half of its 100-minute runtime, the film remains within the realm of the talky, medium shot-based approach of Happiest Girl, though the shift from 35mm to 16mm allows for a more fluid, inquisitive camera, constantly shifting to accommodate the movement of figures within a series of comfortable but still cramped Bucharest apartments: Marius’ own, that of his parents (where he argues, briefly but bitterly, with his father), and finally Otilia’s, where he has arrived to pick up Sofia. As Marius finds his plans stymied by Otilia’s new boyfriend (the child, it’s claimed, is ill with fever and exhausted, though she doesn’t show it), the film’s steadily building tension breaks as he and the boyfriend scuffle. This is the first in a series of increasingly violent and bizarre incidents that unravel in an atmosphere of amphetamine nihilism across the film’s second half, giving absurd form to the negative feedback of a failed romance.
Viewed head-on, Everybody appears the entry in Jude’s oeuvre bearing the least in the way of immediate social or political content: tales of people being awful to one another simply because they were once in love are ancient and universal. But caught from the right angle, it can seem a direct and intentional inversion of the dynamics of Happiest Girl. The principals, rather than country folk clawing after middle-class comforts, are here fully bourgeois urbanites: Marius is a dentist, Otilia’s boyfriend an accountant. An early line from Marius to his father is key: “It’s a difficult situation and we’re doing our best. That’s what modern families do.” Everybody, then, revolves around individuals who think of themselves above all as “modern,” which is another way of saying that they think of themselves as individuals. (Marius sucks constantly on an e-cigarette, in one of the earliest instances of vaping onscreen.) And so while Delia runs up over and over again against her failure to be a model of the new Romania, dragging her fictional setting into a loop along with her, Marius will not be denied what he wants in the moment, not even at the cost of destroying all reason, any possibility of a family, and, finally, himself. Hurtling along with Marius’ reckless, rampaging desire—a desire which betrays the dark conservative heart of so much contemporary liberalism: to be modern without giving up the old-fashioned rights of patriarchy—the film is no less gripping and awful for its cartoonishness. Broken, we leave him as he bums a cigarette.
Having produced portraits of a Modern Man (brutal) and a Modern Girl (pitiable)—I wonder whether these both need be named as specifically Romanian instances—Jude turned in his next two features toward the past, continuing to leverage moments of masculinity in crisis as opportunities for historical revision on a national scale. Both Aferim! (2015) and Scarred Hearts (2016) pivot away from the allegorical possibilities of Happiest Girl and Everybody, presenting instead object lessons in social dynamics. The former—which marks a significant expansion of Jude’s visual scale into widescreen monochrome, full of broad horizons and light dense enough to grasp—is a kind of revisionist Eastern in the manner of Peckinpah or Hellman, following a father-son pair as they roam Wallachia circa 1835 in search of a runaway Romani slave on the lam after fucking the wife of his owner, the local Boyar. The latter, loosely adapted from the Romanian surrealist Max Blecher’s sanatorium-set autobiographical novel of the same name, details the blithe detachment of the country’s upper class on the eve of its Nazi alliance, told with appropriate preciousness in the recent International Style: 35mm in an Academy frame (complete with rounded corners), master-shot compositions full of hues as saturated as they are muted, and a general air of wistful irony at the fact of living through history.
Aferim! is relentlessly unpleasant, all the more so for its shot-to-shot beauty. The father, a constable played with maximal bluster and bile by Teodor Corban, rarely goes more than a few words without delivering a piece of racist, sexist, or classist invective. His haughty condescension is, plainly, defensive: it is more than lightly implied that he and his offspring will be paid handsomely for success, and will owe their lives for failure. The aspirant willingness to take on this risk reverberates through his nervous goading of his scrawny son on an imagined path to military glory (we see the young man practicing his sword-handling, barely able to swing the blade). He buys the boy a roadside-inn whore (“Don’t embarrass me, lad”), and some minutes later follows her into the manger-boudoir himself, collapsing in the hay in a violent coughing fit after a brief, pathetic effort. And yet for all this, the pair do track down the runaway, Carfin, earlier in the story than might have been expected. Much of the film (including the roadside bacchanal) concerns the return journey, as Carfin, shackled and slung across the constable’s horse like a piece of luggage, pleads for clemency, certain that death awaits him. As they travel and converse, the pair’s racist disdain thaws into a repugnant warmth; upon arriving and collecting payment, the father even argues to the Boyar, indulging his misogyny, that the blame lies entirely with his wife. Little surprise, this tactic is unsuccessful: Carfin is castrated, the wife is beaten, and worse, surely, lies ahead for both. Father and son, slightly richer, trudge home. The youth is distraught by their complicity in this horror, the elder resigned: “This world will stay as it is, you can’t change it, try as you might.”
This sense of fatalism plays in a less conservative key across Scarred Hearts. Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus, beautiful and charming in his only feature-film appearance to date), a son of obvious wealth, arrives with his father at the seaside hospital of Dr. Ceafalan (Pavlu, bemused by the suffering around him). He is promptly diagnosed with Pott’s Disease (the source novel’s author Blecher himself died of this spinal condition at 28) and placed on bed rest, his torso fully encased in a tortuous cast. Where the image of Carfin, locked in stocks and tossed as a sack, functioned as a horrible emblem attached to each of Aferim!’s romantic views of the Wallachian countryside, here immobility expands to a structuring principle: this is the only film I’m aware of whose compositional style derives directly from Mantegna’s Dead Christ. There is little plot to speak of, just the slow entropy of death and recovery. The former arrives for characters as a matter of course, occurring offscreen; it can be hard to tell who is being mourned, whose funeral it is we’re seeing. Recovery remains a hope, embodied by the literal horizon, its slim odds betrayed by the blue of the sea.
Within this purgatory, Emanuel pursues something like romance with a pair of women around the hospital, one healed (Ivana Mladenovic’s Solange, the reticence of her curiosity rescuing a role that might have been but twee), the other afflicted (Ilinca Harnut’s Isa, almost all voice), leading to a handful of sex scenes of deeply sentimental physical comedy. These brief glimpses of pleasure find their counterparts in extremes of pain, the worst involving the extraction of huge volumes of pus from Emanuel’s internal lesions. But, mostly, people talk. The longest conversations are devoted, unsurprisingly, to the coming war, which is discussed with a degree of detachment befitting those whose health, and ability to pay for this treatment, allow them to imagine they will remain far from it. (Jude refrains from placing any particular emphasis on the fact that a number of the participants in these conversations, including Emanuel, are Jewish.) One man does a dead-ringer impersonation of Hitler in his most unhinged oratorical mode; E.M. Cioran’s fascist idiocy is debated; fondnesses for authoritarianism, theoretical and actual, are defended and condemned. As Emanuel’s condition deteriorates, he is sent home to Bucharest for surgery, a still-immobile body supine on the floor of a crowded train.
It’s possible to view three of Jude’s subsequent four films as expansions of this quiet, heavy image: each deals directly with Romania’s persecution and extermination of its Jewish population during WWII, a topic denied, manipulated, and distorted to various and contradictory political ends across the subsequent eight decades. The Dead Nation and The Exit of the Trains (co-directed by Adrian Cioflanca) comprise a complementary pair of essays integrating still image with audio, one half tending toward poetry, the other prose. The earlier, poetic film combines glass-plate photographs from Costica Acsinte’s studio in Slobozia (which range across traditional portraiture, journalism, and stranger, quasi-narrative tableaux) with an audio montage composed of readings from the Bucharest doctor Emil Dorian’s wartime diary and fragments of various nationalistic songs. The later film presents something between report and memorial: a litany, presented in alphabetical order, for victims of the Iasi pogrom, a week of heinous violence spanning June and July of 1941 in which more than 12,000 Jews were murdered. The soundtrack offers bare descriptions of the circumstances of each individual’s death, drawn largely from the testimony of their surviving family. Both of these films push art to points of failure: how can a viewer enjoy the odd, elegant pleasures of Acsinte’s photos, their decay into fascinating ruins, in the presence of a voice narrating the out-of-frame horrors of their context? And how can one tolerate that the dead appearing in Exit (a mere fraction of the lives lost in Iasi) may have found their way into this film memorial only because they had been photographed?
Arriving in between these essays, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians” (2018) moves Jude’s concern with the era into a more elaborate form which condenses fiction, essay, and performance document. It follows an artist, Mariana (Ioana Iacob), as she rehearses and stages a piece of public theatre based on the Odessa massacre, three days of brutal violence in which Romanian and German troops murdered more than 30,000 Jews in retaliation for the destruction of a military office (Odessa, at the time, sat in the Romanian-controlled Transnistria). Mariana’s performance takes the form of a military re-enactment, the kind of pride-in-country spectacle destined for national holidays. She runs afoul of both nationalist members among the amateur re-enactors—“nationalist” here ranging from individuals harbouring hazily neofascist opinions to those whose common-sense nationalism points toward the fact that Marshal Antonescu, the authoritarian Romanian leader who was executed in 1946 for war crimes (including those in Odessa), remains widely revered—and a local arts administrator who continually shows up to engage in sophistic theoretical discussions while delivering increasingly direct threats to sink the project if Mariana doesn’t soften its political edges.
These discussions are tedious, no doubt, but pace Michael Sicinski’s assertion in these pages that Jude himself is the one with an undergraduate level of intellectual rigour, this seems to be something like the point: to be a working artist, Mariana must situate herself as an acceptable kind of subversive, the sort who charms conservative bureaucrats. That the piece comes off without a hitch is unsurprising; that the crowd seems at best unconcerned by the anti-Semitic brutality they are presented with, even less so. But in presenting Mariana’s performance as a modern iteration of a strain of state theatre stretching back to the Bolshevik spectacles of the 1920s, and by wrapping that iteration in a layer of fiction (the film, otherwise in 16mm, drops into both the digital photography and visual grammar of the contemporary performance document as the piece commences, prompting basic questions like: Is this an audience of actors? If not, what do they think they’re watching? What about the rest of the public, seen passing by?), Jude presents an object which challenges a number of base clichés about the current value of political art by putting the figure of the audience as active participant under considerable stress.
For Jude, the audience, the crowd, the people, attain coherence through fiction. Nationalism, for example, is not a fiction, but it is built of them; such points are as close as art and politics come to one another. Of course, they never touch: the notion that art itself can “do politics” through mere reflection and representation is among the more pernicious of current liberal myths. And as “I Do Not Care” shows, while political forces may aim to censor or shape art to their preferences (in extremes, they may destroy it), art’s capacity for dissembling, its complicated and enervating relationship to truth, will lead it over, under, and around restraints.
So here we squirm: What to do with a true image of the people? Has Jude, across these seven films, produced one? (The eighth, last year’s Uppercase Print, is to my mind his only outright failure, an overly loose arrangement of case files presented in the deadpan public-address tones of Straub-Huillet against garish and minimal pop sets interspersed with disjunctive passages of found footage; though in showing the limits of certain kinds of self-conscious artifice, it contributes something to this constellation all the same.) I must, for now, leave this question open, though I’ll offer related questions in place of an answer. What is the standard by which we might judge this truth? What is the value in reflecting on the process of such image production? How do we conceive the audience for such work, and what does this desire betray?
This last question leads on, somewhat perversely, to Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which carries a clarifying subtitle: sketch for a popular film. As I’ve shown, the first phase of Jude’s career orbits the production of images, whether directly (Happiest Girl, Aferim!, “I Do Not Care,” Uppercase Print, the still-image essays) or obliquely (Everybody, Scarred Hearts). If Bad Luck Banging—which, given its subject matter and its Berlin win, will surely become the director’s most visible title in North America—signals a new chapter in his career even as it sums up much of what came before, it is so to the extent that it shifts his focus from the production of images to their circulation and distribution.
Streamlining the collage style of “I Do Not Care” and Uppercase Print, Bad Luck Banging is divided into an overture, three formally distinct chapters, and a trio of potential endings. It opens with three minutes of hardcore pornography, unsimulated, shot in the typical amateur style: handheld camera from the male point of view, talky and occasionally awkward, inclusive of the irregular rhythms of Real Sex. (That this scene was done with a body double for the film’s central character adds a charming metafictional dimension to the film.) The first long chapter follows that protagonist, the schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu), as she goes about a day of errands across Bucharest during the pandemic summer, dispersing small bits of narrative information amidst long passages of documentary observation. We are shown a city lousy with advertisements, incitements to consume; Emi, in her conservative grey suit, is one amongst the crowds dwarfed by these building-scale images. In parallel with a portrait of the pandemic mood (fights in a supermarket line, conspiracy theories at the pharmacy, vitriol in even the most minor social exchanges), Jude teases out his simple narrative: the video which opened the film has found its way onto the phones of Emi’s students and thus to the attention of their parents, who have called a meeting with designs on removing her from the school. (Most critics thus far, with the exception of the Romanian Flavia Dima, appear to have missed the two lines of dialogue which all but confirm that Emi herself uploaded the film, opting instead to accept Emi’s initial bluff and refer to it as “leaked,” thus imposing a tidier ethical framework than Jude himself provides.)
The second chapter, “Short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders,” returns to the alphabetical mode of The Exit of the Trains, presenting a series of topics ranging from “23 August” (the day of Antonescu’s fall) to “Zen.” Each entry receives both image and language, both levels comprising a mixture of found and original material. In an appropriately internet-era manner, the language is presented as voiceless subtitles, figuring words as their own type of image. Taken as a whole, this collage provides a historical context in which the opening portrait of daily life in Bucharest, and Emi’s quandary inside it, might be situated, an abstract, intellectual context transparently inflected by Jude’s sensibility. The entry for “Sentiment,” for example, shows the rose-strewn bed of a luxury hotel room on which two towels sit folded into the image of a pair of swans, their necks forming a heart, as the subtitles read, “Why this certainty that the heart is ethically superior to the brain? Are not vile acts committed as often with the heart’s help as without it?”
After arriving at “Zen”—a mummy, “The true poet must be at the same time tragical and comical; human life must be seen as tragedy and comedy”—the narrative resumes as Emi arrives to meet her accusers in a public trial, which plays out against the comic backdrop of a classical courtyard. Jude presents the parents as an array of broad caricatures, most of them tending toward bourgeois moralism, cartooned by the fact that when one insists on playing the video, the group gathers around, plainly thrilled as they go on decrying its existence. Emi remains defiant, insisting on her right to do what she wishes in her own bedroom and to live publicly in whatever way she chooses. (When she notes that the video was uploaded to a private adult website—what were the children doing there anyway?—Jude subtly introduces the degree to which the circulation of images today flows beyond all control.) The crowd steadily descends to new depths of prejudice and bigotry in their persecution of Emi (her staunchest defender is a pedant whose words are nearly all proper nouns and quotations), lobbing accusations of driving their children into homosexuality, of being a communist, a Jew. This latter leads to a small but telling exchange, as one particularly vitriolic mother, having denounced Emi as a Mossad agent spreading “filthy Jewish propaganda” rather than teaching the glories of Romanian hero Stephen the Great, punctuates her rant with the pointed question: “What about what Israel does in the Occupied Territories?” Emi shrugs and says with a blank stare (the meeting’s uniform mask compliance forces attention onto the actors’ eyes) that both topics are in the children’s handbooks. Jude, reliably sharp in identifying the horrors of nationalism, is no less sharp in identifying the ease with which distant atrocity is abstracted and narrativized to serve abhorrent ends. There is no reason to believe that this anti-Semitic mother is bothered by the maintenance of an apartheid state: for her, Israel’s programmatic violence against the Palestinians is purely rhetorical. Like the rest, this brief beat is quickly swept back into the swirling agitation of the meeting.
Jude concludes with three potential endings. (Those who have not seen the film may want to skip what follows.) The first two endings are straightforward: in one, the parents vote to allow Emi to remain in her position, leading to a physical confrontation between Emi and the mother thirstiest for her removal; in the other, she is voted out and leaves quietly. In the third she is again voted out, but rather than downbeat naturalism Jude opts for an outrageous stupidity to rival any modernist comic: letting loose a primal roar, Emi is suddenly transformed into a dildo-wielding Diana (that is, Wonder Woman), who traps the crowd of parents in a kind of magical net and proceeds to assault them with this sex toy, ramming it down their screaming throats. It is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen, and almost as smart. Jude has simply arrived at his promised “popular film,” combining with cool rationality our two most widely viewed popular modes: porn and the superhero blockbuster. What efficiency!
That it’s hard to imagine who would choose this ending poses a number of further questions, some of them quite basic: Do we want mindless spectacle in the same way we want pornography? And if so, how are these desires formed? Others are stranger, more complicated: Can a critical sensibility be made popular? Has this ever been the case, and what does it say about one’s relationship to culture that one might want it to be so at this particular moment in time? If Bad Lucking Banging deals overtly with the circulation of images, the questions it implies return us to the matter of their production, while also opening onto the dynamics of their reception. Such is Jude’s sensibility: a skeptic, a materialist, and an artist, despite it all, of the people.