Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

The film opens with an unnecessarily explicit 3 minutes apparently taken by a Romanian teacher and her husband. Yes, it is germane to the plot – the sex tape reaches the Internet and endangers her job, yes the film is satirizing prudes who don’t want this sort of thing in public. But there is still something a bit dubious about a male director seeming to get off on this sort of footage and assuming he has our complicity.

Once we get the gratuitous sex out of the way, we have a simple 3 act structure which concludes with 3 alternative endings. But for all the formality in the structure, director Radu Jude gleefully inserts the inexplicable into everyday scenes. So, in a supermarket queue, someone is dressed as Superman for no obvious reason. And every so often, the camera jadedly leaves the main characters to focus intensely on a nearby wall.

And there is one scene – which I seem to remember made it to the trailer – that just made me break up in hysterics. While shopping, the main character Emi walks past someone dressed inexplicably in a rabbit costume. She tweaks their nose, causing it to ring like a bell, and the rabbit tells her to fuck off. It is a moment of pure hilarity that is ruined by trying to explain just why I find it to be so funny.

Most of the first act consists of Eli walking through Bucharest, shopping and talking to her husband on the phone. Although he took the video down, someone has copied it and it is now required viewing for the kids she teaches. Their parents have called a meeting at the school and many are demanding that she be sacked.

This is, by the way, the first post-Corona film that I’ve seen. Everyone wears a mask – well, nearly everyone – there is one woman in the supermarket who looks proudly defiant. And there is a general mood of rising irritation and impatience. People bicker at the checkout because one shopper can’t afford to buy everything in her basket. An arsehole motorist leaves his van in everyone’s way. People just seem to have stopped caring for each other.

The second act breaks the narrative flow. Maybe the best cinematic comparison would be the little vignettes towards the beginning of Magnolia. Or, as Jude puts it “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders”. So, we see awful photos of white colonisers treating black women as if they owned them (which, formally, they did). And hear stories of the Orthodox Church refusing sanctuary to people fighting Ceaucescu in 1989. Or the Romanian migrant who could not afford a dentist and died when he tried to extract his own teeth.

This all somehow works very well. It has no direct relationship to the story so far (although it clearly positions the film and its director on the side of the good guys and against a reactionary rejection of science). But its all done in a whimsical manner so that we don’t really think about any of this, and just enjoy listening to the funny little tales.

I do think that the film makes a serious misstep in the final major act. Eli must testify in front of a kangaroo court of parents, grandparents and passing soldiers and pilots. She, and her defenders, put an articulate case – the sex tape was made privately, she was not to blame for it reaching the Internet, and even if it did, if kids are watching it, the problem lies with their parents and the school authorities and not with her.

The counter-argument is a mish-mash of conspiracy theories and antisemitic and sexist jibes. Maybe I’m sensitive, but the quick switch between blaming filthy Jews and complaining that the “Occupied Territories” don’t get enough news coverage felt implausible to me. But that wasn’t my main problem. It’s more the inability of liberal artists to understand Trumpism and its European equivalents.

Eli is so obviously portrayed as a martyr that there is no real attempt to confront the reactionary arguments used against her. Instead there are righteous and often intellectually obscure statement, one of which is dismissed as “mansplaining”. The message seems to be: these people are all bigots, what can you do?

The alternative endings – which actually worked in the French Lieutenants Woman – only serves to indulge the liberal hand wringing. Maybe Eli wins in the end, maybe she loses, maybe we get a fantasy ending. But the film seems to have invoked Godwin’s Law – as the people it’s arguing against are simply a load of fascists, all we need to say is that we are right.

This is a shame, because for most of the time, the film is inventive, creative and joyful. In this case at least, it would have been better to leave politics outside. It’s still worth a watch, but there’s a little too much of the petulant child there for me to be fully satisfied,

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