In other words: an interview with Corneliu Porumboiu

9 July, 2020

In the year that has passed since its premiere, Corneliu Porumboiu’s most recent film, La Gomera, seems to have changed the rules of the game in Romanian cinema. Signaling a rupture with his trademark, unwavering realism, which gave rise to some of the New Romanian Cinema’s most important films, La Gomera is a neo-noir heist movie that’s accessible and alert, and most importantly, open to a larger audience. After its debut on the Cannes Official Competition last year, the film has speedily set itself right in the middle of the local discourse: opening up countless discussions about the end of New Wave and the long-awaited (by some) appearance of a high-quality mainstream Romanian cinema and about the future directions of our national cinematography. It was voted as the eight-best Romanian film of the decade by local critics and it won the 2020 Gopo Awards in a landslide, bringing home nine awards in the face of a pretty tough competition (with Touch Me Not, Monsters. and Arrest amongst the nominees).

One question seems to have remained unanswered in this past year, ever since the film had its premiere on the Croisette: what exactly prompted this massive paradigmatic change in Corneliu Porumboiu’s career and how does he see these things? We had a lengthy discussion with the auteur a week after the Gopo Awards, talking about the solution of his career and this cinematic thought, about the New Cinema and auteurism, about genre cinema and, last but not least, about the impact of new media on contemporary filmmaking.

Corneliu Porumboiu cu Premiul Gopo pentru Cea mai bună regie, iunie 2020. Credit foto: Ionuț Rusu.
Corneliu Porumboiu holding the Gopo Award for Best direction, June 2020. Credits: Ionuț Rusu.

I assume that you are familiar with Andrei Gorzo’s writing about your body of work – especially in his 2012 book, Things that cannot be said otherwise. Starting from these premises, Gorzo penned a 2013 article in which he follows up on his claims, starting from an observation by David Bordwell – who, discussing the global New Waves, says the following thing: that if one takes a look at other artistically innovative cinematic movements within a given national cinema, excepting French and Italian cinema, we can observe the very same tendency that these first New Waves / Cinemas had. First, the movement goes into a phase where cinematic realism is the rigor, then there is a second phase that is eminently modernist. The examples which Gorzo cites are your 2013 film, Metabolism, or When Night Falls Over Bucharest and Puiu’s Aurora (2010). At the end of his piece, Gorzo says that the third and final step is either a post-modernist phase or a return to classicism. I would start out from here – given that La Gomera is a huge paradigmatic change for you. Do you believe, at least in your case, that Gorzo’s prediction holds true?

You know, I am on the other side of things. It’s hard for me to theorize this movement since, after all, I am part of it. On the other hand, as an author, I am interested in my own topics and the ways in which I treat them. For example, I have changed the ways in which I work with space, beginning with Metabolism. It’s a fact that, in my opinion, is related to La Gomera – which is not a film that simply appeared out of thin air. I have also worked with a more synthetic arrangement of space in The Treasure (2015). There, I also tried to create a certain contrast between the cityscape (which was always very dry and flat) and the camera, which was usually situated in a perpendicular fashion towards the background, and so the decor would also become flat; and then, in the second part of the film, I changed the perspective.

After all, I make films about personal things, depending on the shape that I can find for it. In the case of La Gomera, for example, I had found the topic ten years ago. And I never managed to find the form for it, so in the end, I decided to make it under this shape. I don’t know, I think every single author has his or her own path. It’s very hard for me to see that as a movement in itself. Even in the case of the first films [of the Wave] – they might have been made in a realistic key, but every one of them had a personal story behind.

So this is my point of view. It isn’t a very theoretical one. After all, I simply do things and I try, every single time, to find the most adequate shape for a subject, at its given time. For example, my relationship to genre film – it was there ever since Police, Adjective (2009), even if it took a different shape.

A deconstructivist approach.

Exactly. The script had a different structure initially, and when I went on to document the story, I realized that there were these “dead moments”, that 80% of a policeman’s time at work is spent in the act of surveillance. And so I thought to myself – what is this man who spends his entire day watching, who has little to no action in his day, like? How does he see reality? And so on. The Treasure also has a certain genre element – since the characters are rediscovering the same space, over and over. It was an inverted western, so to say.

I don’t conceive my films while thinking about the movement. What matters to me is a given topic and a set of recurring themes. It depends on the way in which I can get to what really interests me while I am making that film. Generally, it’s about a kind of emotion.

Still din Polțist,Adjectiv (2009).
Still from Police, Adjective (2009).

Speaking of recurrent topics – as many others have noted in relation to your work, you show a particular preoccupation for the concept of language. Of course, this reflects not just upon the subject and the themes, but also on your approach as a whole. If in your first features, this approach was in the vein of what Jacques Ranciere called “fictions of reality”, in La Gomera you use a wholly different cinematic vocabulary. Did your preoccupation with language also seep into the decision of choosing a different way of narrating cinematically?

Yes, because I thought about making a film about people who are playing roles. Obviously, I took this further – I pushed these characters into situations that were on the edge in order to see how they were structuring a certain kind of role, a certain way of being. And so I arrived at this structure with chapters and flashbacks, because I wanted to design the film in accordance with this language and the process by which it is learned. So this is how I got to this structure – first, I tried to make the film according to chronological order, in which the plot would begin in Bucharest and then Cristi [the main character, performed by Vlad Ivanov] would leave on his trip. But then it felt like the importance of the language itself was fading, in this arrangement.

Then there is this notion of the code. After all, cinema itself is a code. And so, I realized that the subject of the film allowed me to play around with these things – with the western elements, with the classic film noir structure, and then with all those other things.

But here I would like to discuss not just narration, since we are on the topic of language, but also about cinematic syntax. You use a much more alert style of editing in this film, the colors are much more saturated, a different type of dialogue, and a different mise-en-scene surrounding it. Could you tell us more about these specific choices?

Yes, because this is related to the different points of view in the script. I wanted to have the point of view of the surveillance camera, for example, the scene in which they are performing for that camera. About the colors, the choice to reference noir films guided me in that direction – I also had a discussion with my wife [Arantxa Etcheverria Porumboiu], who proposed having those title-cards in the colors of the rainbow, because you could discover all of those colors in the final sequence. Obviously, noir means having a strong color contrast, a deep shade of black.

This choice was quite striking for me, especially considering the type of discourse that the main character in Metabolism espoused, his almost obsessive wish to capture what is real, especially in relation to the limitations of cinema as a medium. Here I think that it’s the radical opposite, given the very speedy editing rhythm which you use here. It’s clear that the character in Metabolism was to a certain degree an ironic representation, but still, are you renouncing the style of your first films? Have you overcome their rigorous formality?

Yes, well, you know… that was a film about a crisis, and about someone who is thinking much more about means than about content. Some scenes of the film are funny to me in a certain way, because the way the character goes about things has the allure of a priest, in a sense. He’s someone who’s taken on something that’s much too big for him. In what concerns me, it all depends on the subject. Even in 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), I had many different perspectives, especially in the first part. Even Infinite Football (2018) is a very free film.

There is a fight in me if I can say so because I’m very obsessive when it comes to composition and cinematography. And sometimes I may even end up restricting my actors quite a lot, and rehearsing with them too much. But I have to learn how to pace these things, which is something that you only learn with time.

For me, it’s relevant that you mentioned your non-fictional work because, in it, you always make the spectator aware of the subjectivity of the endeavor – due to the fact that you always include yourself in the films. I always found this very interesting: while you can be sensed in certain details in your fiction films, you’re literally there in your documentaries. What determines this approach?

Well, first off – The Second Game (2014) was related to that very personal memory regarding that phone call in which my father received a death threat. And maybe it’s a bit hard to grasp for the audience, but that, as an event, really left its mark on me. So that was the starting point of the film, in a way, but also the fact that my dad called me one night to say that a television station was showing a rerun of that match. And when I watched the recording, I had this sense that it’s something from my past, because now I was seeing it through a completely different perspective than the one I had as a child, since I wasn’t able to rationalize things properly, and so I felt that the match also belonged to me, in a way. And that specific phone call had made me remember how I thought that I didn’t even know, back then, if my dad would ever come back home alive… so yeah, it started out from me. There was something there that I wanted to clear up, but also having a discussion with my dad was an endeavor in itself. But the match itself also had something very interesting in it, this feeling of the end of the world. That’s how I perceived the film, as a moment – one in which my dad and I are watching something and that, at one point in time, both of us will be gone, but this beautiful moment between us will remain still.

In Infinite Football, the protagonist is a very good friend – I’ve known Laurentiu [Ginghina] for a long time. And his ideal seemed somewhat artistic to me. But in this film I clearly situated myself as a sort of, I don’t know, Sancho Panza… [laughs]. His ideal was both artistic and sociological, after all, because his proposals limit the freedom of players a lot, and the fact that he had a day job as a bureaucrat gave this thing a whole different perspective, so many years after the revolution. I was also interested in creating a keepsake – Laurentiu, his father, and his family are a part of my childhood, which again made me want to say things in this specific manner. When it comes to fiction, it’s true that I might have the tendency to be very coded, or rigid.

Are you considering working on more non-fiction films?

Yes, I had an idea at one point – I don’t know if I’m going to work on it, but if I feel that I want to say that story, I will – why not, after all?

Afiș internațional al filmului La Gomera, realizat de The Posterhouse.
International poster of La Gomera/The Whistlers, designed by The Posterhouse.

Coming back to La Gomera – both in interviews and in the film itself, you revealed the fact that you were inspired by a series of classic films from the Golden Age of Hollywood. John Ford, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock. You even have a reference to a sort of classical Romanian cinema, to Sergiu Nicolaescu, who’s arguably the only local figure that has a “classical” angle to him. Seeing as we’re discussing genre film, which has its very clear rules and tropes, but also given that you’ve already tried a distant and ironic way of approaching them, how did you integrate these elements and harmonize them, seeing as you’re working with various genres that sometimes contradict each other, in an approach that is immersive, this time around?

I didn’t really set out to make a noir by the book – and noir is a very free and expressive genre, in itself. Even Inherent Vice (2014, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), which is a more recent neo-noir, has a very personal and subjective perspective to it. I felt that noir is a very relevant way to relate to a post-crisis world, in which everyone is defending this sort of exacerbated subjectivity, chasing their own interests, and wearing a double face while doing so. I worked a lot on dialogues, obviously, and I even had to cut two longer dialogue scenes from the film because I wanted to focus on the plot, even if the scenes were very good. It wasn’t easy, to be honest. My way of writing has changed a bit and I had to be aware of it, which is a fact that also influenced the mise-en-scene – working much more with shots and counter-shots, with very wide angles, with flashbacks, which are things that I had never worked with before.

How did this approach also inform the way that you constructed the characters? For example, Gilda’s character – she works according to the femme fatale archetype, the kind of woman that’s unafraid of using her sexuality to arrive at certain ends. Even though that sexuality can be dangerous – as it is in the scene in which she’s swimming in a pool and gets assaulted. These types of situations and characterizations are a part of the noir film vocabulary.

I simply thought to myself that these characters had constructed these roles for themselves. Cristi’s character was sort of a continuation to Vlad’s character in Police, Adjective, but this time I saw him as this character who had started having difficulties in expressing himself. As someone who had arrived at this sort of internalized and cold way of being, and that only this woman was capable of taking him out of it. He’s a guy that used to believe in certain ideals at one point, but who slowly gives up on words and ends up not believing anything anymore, he becomes a cynic.

And regarding Gilda and the other characters, they’ve all sort of constructed these images which are very hard to escape. But, in the end, I think that these images fall apart. In my mind, I always had this idea that the most important characters from Cristi’s surroundings would be represented by this triangle of women: the mother, Magda, and Gilda, and that he would sway between the three of them.

And each one of them represents a different kind of feminine archetype, in the end.

Yes, I also had this idea of swaying between these three types of femininity, if you will.

What interested you in his relationship with femininity? This character that is very cynical, who needs a feminine intervention to wake up from his emotional paralysis?

He’s sort of led on by all of these things, in a way – but that was a different thing, this self-assuredness of his that made him think that he can end up controlling everything. After all, he ends up being just a mere cog in a system that is way bigger than he is, and in the end, he, unfortunately, has to pay the price for this.

Because, for example, even in Sergio Leone’s films – money is a vehicle for something else. The characters’ chase for riches or attempts at killing others is, in fact, symptomatic for things that are very different. But, in contrast to the classical western and noir, there are no so-called alpha males in La Gomera. In a sense, every male character has a certain lack, even the one that is performed by Agusti Villaronga. Could this concept of a crisis also be related to a crisis of masculinity, too?

I think the female characters also have their own fragilities – Gilda’s smile, in the end, puts things in a different perspective, even though for the rest of the film, she’s also ruthlessly chasing her image, but when he saves her on the island, she decides that she will be there for him, in the end. But all the characters have something in them that is rotten, somehow. My extra-textual remark would be that, if anything, the very classical noir couple for me was Sabin-Gilda. If I’d chosen to make my protagonist much younger, it would have been a more classical noir structure, but I was interested in Cristi, who was at the end of his road – and this was also related to the language.

What do you think about the film’s reception? It was in the Official Competition at Cannes, it traveled to festivals all across the world and it was even screened at the prestigious Lincoln Center. On the other hand, it also opened up many discussions about the end of the Romanian New Wave.

The thing with the Wave is… I think it all depends on the author and that every single one of them builds his or her own path. The reception was good, we had a much larger opening to the audience with this film, maybe also because it was a film that delved into the genre. And it was also very successful with distributors. Unfortunately, it also overlapped with this whole virus thing in some of the countries – and it had kicked off quite well in the States, the first two weeks fared really well with the public, but they had to halt it. It also fared well in France, even though they were also having a tough time over there when it was showing since they were in the middle of the [Gilets Jaunes] protests. This film definitely had a larger appeal to the audience and it was brought to many territories, most of them, in fact – maybe not in Japan, if I’m not mistaken, but it fared well – in the arthouse circuit, of course.

And regarding the critical reception – well, it was quite natural. I usually read the reviews after a year, so I can have a certain kind of distance. It’s normal that some critics like it and others don’t. The only kind of reading I disagree with is an overtly political one. After all, the film is about some characters and I don’t want to politicize them in any single way, I’m trying to distance myself from that. Obviously there are some hidden things in there and every film is political in the end, but as a filmmaker, once you enter these dynamics and work with dramaturgy, you try to make much more than that. You know how they say, the characters are the ones who lead you to the end. And I wanted the film to end in this sort of hypermodern paradise, which was initially set to Inna Gadda Da Vida [by Iron Butterfly]. I have the same thing in Infinite football, too – the credits are like this sort of artificial paradise.

Still din La Gomera (2019).
Still from La Gomera (2019).

Do you think that the theory of auteurism – and maybe not necessarily in the way that Andrew Sarris put it in 1962, since his position was contested and revised so many times, as is the case with any massively influential theory – is still operative?

Yes, one can still function at this level – of the author being the one who writes and directs a film. I think that even Hollywood has many auteurs. For example, the last few Mission Impossible films are written and directed by the same person, Cristopher McQuarrie. And it’s a very good product!

And even Mission Impossible had a series of leitmotifs that it explores across an n number of films.

Exactly! Or the Matrix series: the Wachowskis are auteurs. Honestly, from my experience (and I’ve met some blockbuster directors) they’re auteurs, too! The simple fact that you’re tasked with taking a script in a certain direction… any single director would take it to a different place than anybody else. And they express their obsessions in this shape, because otherwise nothing would suffice. There’s nothing unemotional in this. I’d like working with someone else’s script – I’ve been trying and searching around because that means giving it a certain treatment and taking it to a certain direction. And for me, these issues are intersected.

In an interview for FILM MENU in 2013, the interviewers noted that, at the time, the strong, classical narrative approach of your film school shorts was slowly fading away. At least to me, it seems, then, that you are closing a circle.

It could be, yes. Maybe there are some elements here that are also coming in from Liviu’s Dream (2004), which also has this more classical narrative and mise-en-scene. I think this might be right, yes.

And this is where my question about auteurism stems from, in fact – if the auteur no longer is a set of immovable formal characteristics, amongst other traits, a set and, ultimately, a style which was widely emulated, both yours and Cristi Puiu’s, as Gorzo noted it. And this was the context of my earlier question.

If you will, lately I’ve been thinking about my films much more in terms of economy since, in the end, every film has its own economy. For example, a film such as The Second Game or Infinite Football is a film in which I can experiment with many more things, but also one which is primed for the festival circuit from the get-go, even though they did make it to a lot of festivals and even to the cinemas in certain countries, but I didn’t make them with any state funding. Obviously, if I’m working on a greater budget, I’m also interested in a larger audience. Slowly but surely, I have also started thinking about these things.

A director’s career also depends on his last film, in general. There are certain limitations set by the industry, and even if you claim not to be taking them into account, honestly, there’s no way around them. Because you’re working in a given context, after all. You must also strive for a distribution. And I wished that La Gomera would be a more open film.

Will you continue with this new cinematic style?

Yes. And, see, there are so many things that are changing right now – the market we have nowadays is completely different from the one that existed in 2006, back when I began. Streaming changed everything. I’m even planning some series – so maybe, one day, I’ll be able to make them. But cinema theaters…. I really don’t know what’s going to happen with them. This pandemic that we’re facing has also hit the festivals, and the classical routes of distribution had to face many losses, while streaming has only accelerated. The theaters will not disappear, of course. But we haven’t even managed to preserve our existing theaters in Romania, and we have never managed to create a cinema that has a programmatic approach towards auteur cinema, such as the Studio cinema used to be, before it closed down in 2015 due to the earthquake hazard. I mean, that was the cinema that sold the most tickets to my first films! But it was already waning by the time they had transformed into this place that was hosting festivals around the clock.

But not all of these changes are negative, in and of themselves – some of them have also made the process much easier, especially from an economic standpoint. A 35-millimeter copy of a film used to cost upwards of a thousand Euro, while a DCP is just a couple of hundreds. Things were always like this – even in the Golden Age, they had the Hays Code. We can’t ignore that there is a given political context in which we live and that these things are changing rapidly. If you’re a pessimist, sure, you’ll say that cinemas are going to close down, but I don’t really think that’s going to happen. Distribution has changed, anyway. Digital film has also democratized this thing – and also, around 80% of the films made nowadays are first and second features. On the other hand, it also means that directors may find it harder than ever to make their third or fourth film. And this state funding-based system might also end up being negotiated, like the deal between Europe and America will be renegotiated, and cinema will be seen as an entertainment industry and not a cultural product. But the French and the Germans will fight against this because they have an arthouse industry and they won’t let it go without a fight. Which, beyond simply being a cultural object, is also a certain type of savoir-faire. So yes, there are many political and economical constraints in all of this.

Still din Metabolism (2013).
Still from Metabolism (2013).

I’m very irritated whenever I hear some world-renowned director going some masterclasses and saying that it’s easier than ever to make films because everyone has smartphones nowadays. Even Yorgos Lanthimos said it.

Yeah, well… I’m not so sure what shape Yorgos was in, when he said this, maybe he wasn’t well. [laughs] Yeah, well, this can also come from a certain fear – cause I mean, let’s be honest about it, whatever big films were shot on smartphones used a very complex and expensive system of lenses!

But of course, there is this tendency to create things for a certain platform, like TikTok or Youtube, which have decisively influenced consumption. The Americans are now working on this platform (and, if I’m not mistaken, even Spielberg is working on it) where content is capped at a maximum of 15 minutes, because they fear that, in time, people won’t stand to watch a film for an hour and a half anymore. It’s a very confusing situation, ranging from the discussion on representation (if you take a look at what is going on in the States) to the formats and the means of production. So they’re trying this now. I think TikTok is decisively influencing a new generation as we speak – even though we might have hoped that the New Wave would shape the young audience and influence it, or even recreate an audience that we never even had in the first place, the fact of the matter is that the type of cinema that is consumed nowadays is different. Maybe we also unwittingly ignored that audience. I don’t know.

Of course – even Olivier Assayas discusses this in his state of the address for Sabzian. That cinephilia and the transmission of cinephilic thought are traversing this very paradoxical crisis nowadays, given that the internet has eliminated many of the historical challenges of cinephilia.

I mean, what’s happening right now with the Cahiers du Cinema isn’t coincidental – the fact that it was overtaken by investors who are going to turn it into a more glossy affair, and that the old team resigned en masse. And the Cahiers was a foundation of cinephilia, after all.

Film Comment has also folded out of the picture.

Yes, it’s a massive crisis, but on the other hand, there’s something interesting in this whole affair. This type of consumption that was facilitated by the internet will create new shapes of expression. Things are changing – people are consuming more video games and Youtube or TikTok videos than they’re consuming cinema, and one must take this into account. Once all of these things are going to stabilize, these mediums will also lead to a more personal type of content.

Do you think then, that someone such as Lav Diaz or Pedro Costa, or, at one time, even yourself – is everyone being foolish?

No, no – since even with streaming, what mattered first was the volume of content, rather than shape. But it’s clear that the audience ends up searching for different things, in time. After all, streaming has led to making a new season of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks possible. So the audience will end up looking for more and more different shapes, the more that they see things. Now you have much larger access to the audience than ever, and some will migrate to other types of content. Even me – between the ages of 14 and 19, before I first went to the cinematheque, I saw hundreds of American B and C movies, and martial arts movies. The larger your consumer base is, the more of it migrates – and the statistics show that somewhere between 20% and 30% of it ends up doing so. So yes, I think that streaming platforms will end up throwing their weight around by also doting on the quality of their portfolios. The competition is very big – you have Disney, Amazon, Netflix, HBO. And the fight already is really big – for example, who would have thought that the Chernobyl series would end up being this popular?

With the risk of sounding super snobbish, this specific word – content – repulses me, in a way. It became a part of the discourse on audiovisual shapes in such an insidious way, even though, for me at least, this term means little more than “filling”. And for me, this is both symptomatic and dangerous, given the type of relationship to images that this term elicits.

I see it as a problem between shape and matter. I associate this term with thematics if you will. After all, there are two main questions – what you say, and how you say it. Obviously, as we are living in a world where everyone tries to be different and to create something, and so we also have this sort of overload, these differences end up being exploited by marketing.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.