Footnotes: Fare thee well, Cannes! The Rise and Fall of Ecaterina Oproiu
If there is one biography missing from the shelves of Romanian bookstores, that is certainly Ecaterina Oproiu’s. Careful there: just a biography, no mirrors.
Almost twenty years ago, one could say that the most famous Romanian film critic was none other than Tudor Caranfil. “Does anyone remember Ecaterina Oproiu? Only the National Film Center and the DaKINO festival, maybe.” Words belonging to Alex. Leo Șerban; the year – 2003.
Oproiu’s name wasn’t just haphazardly thrown into the discussion by Leo Șerban. The children of socialism remember all too well that, up until 1989, the lady used to be a walking institution onto herself. Who had little time to read her reviews in Cinema, whose editor-in-chief she had been since May of 1965, could see her presenting films in the opening of the Telecinematheque television program. Others might have heard about her theater plays, especially „I Am Not The Eiffel Tower” (1964), which seems to have caused quite a buzz back then. Everything else is just positions and gossip. Oproiu was not a stranger to international juries, delegations, foreign film acquisition committees, preview committees, and other such structures, which not only built and cemented her authority but also painted her in the various colors of a moderate cosmopolitanism. This being the starting point of her famous Cannes reviews, published immediately in Literary Romania / România literară and after some time in Cinema (the last correspondences I could track down, dating from 1990 and 1991, having been published in The New Cinema / Noul Cinema, along with The Literary and Artistic Truth / Adevărul literar și artistic).
There must have been around thirty editions of the festival which Oproiu didn’t miss. This means that, if one were to anthologize these writings, they would obtain a book that, at the very least, is precious – the french festival is celebrating its 74th edition as we speak; the slice which the film critic recorded starts at the peak of the New Waves, passing through the protests and subcultures which took its glamorous style by surprise, arriving at the eighties-era confusion and ends symbolically in the year of the Fall of the Soviet Union. How (and how many of) these texts are worth publishing beyond their value as documents is something that only an editor could tell us. But what a fabulous archive, what sort of prime matter one could collect!
Well, this book does, in fact, exist. One publishing house, Signs / Semne has started to anthologize and publish a whole pile of Oproiu’s writings between 2014 and 2017 – three diaristic anthologies and others (Journal I, II and the above-mentioned volume), one focused on theater (Comedies with sand in their teeth / Comedii cu nisip în dinți), an entire play (The Suppliers of the Royal House / Furnizorii Casei Regale) and two novels (Miss România, A Studio Apartment in Hell / O garsonieră în iad). And it’s great that it did so!
The only thing is that this volume shouldn’t have looked like this. In any case, at the very least, more careful editing would have been necessary („Beaudelaire ” appears more than once, a sea of commas, amongst other offenses). How did we get here?
Well, in fact, there should be no wonder in the fact that the former matriarch of local film criticism ended up publishing her works from her peak years at a third-hand publishing house (where her editor was Viorica-Rozalia Matei, a one-time employee of Meridiane Publishing). Since, once the industry exiled her after a conflict in the days of the Revolution – in the midst of which it seems that Oproiu began to slap Ludmilla Patlanjoglu, one of her newsroom colleagues –, things started to go downhill, gaining in momentum every time as the critic was committing gaffes upon gaffes.
What is surprising is that she continued publishing in the weekly The Literary and Artistic Truth; so one can’t precisely call it a paralysis, even though things clearly weren’t the same anymore. Years later, the author started collaborating with Women’s World / Lumea femeilor, initially called Women’s Times… In The Land of Men / Timpul femeilor… în țara bărbaților (according to the sole article on the Internet that discusses the magazine’s history, Oproiu being the one who changes its name and editorial policy; from the same article – “They wrote about everything which regarded the women’s world: sex, manners, celebrities, fashion, astrology”). And, on the other hand, she was a member of the National Council of the Audiovisual (CNA), a function which she held until 2002. She had been appointed by Ion Iliescu, whom she was close to, who was still in his position as President in Romania, but this time in 2002, offered her the National Order of Faithful Service in the rank of Knight. Being remembered as one of “Iliescu’s men” isn’t precisely the most blissful of things, but it isn’t outright condemnable either.
Her closeness to the old guard of the industry would end up being more injurious. In the early 2000s, Sergiu Nicolaescu was not only a senator but also the president of the Advisory Board of Cinematography (CCC). At least two financing calls of the CNC, those from 2001 and 2003, had elicited terribly harsh reactions from names such as Stere Gulea, Lucian Pintilie, Cristi Puiu, Răzvan Rădulescu, Cristian Mungiu, Alexandru Solomon, and others. The problem, in short – in its previous formula, the CNC was operating under the guise of a president (Decebal Mitulescu) and was collaborating with an Advisory Board of Cinematography (Colegiu Consultativ al Cinematografiei), of which Oproiu was also a member. Well, in 2003, the Board proposed a jury that was dominated by its own members (3/5), which considered it would be proper for two of Nicolaescu’s projects and two of Ioan Cărmăzan’s, himself a member of the CCC, to triumph in the session. Something similar has also happened in 2001, along with an unforgivable strike below the belt – Stuff and Dough was banned from showing in cinemas with minors in attendance by the Board (or 18+, in short, no more, no less than a porno flick). The reason given being its raunchy use of language.
As I feel that I’m increasingly stepping away from Greetings from Cannes!, I’ll sum up the last three episodes of this saga. Even though the following one, chronologically speaking, is quite juicy. After the fall of communism, Clody Bertola, Lucian Pinitilie’s wife, inherits the entire building in which she lived in a flat, that is, an apartment building; with a small exception, and that is – the apartment which belonged to her parents, the same in which Oproiu lived then. Well, Pintilie’s assistant, Mihai Lazăr, wakes up one day to a call from the Ministry of Transports, Constructions, and Tourism. A leak from the director’s apartment was flooding the apartment of Mrs. Ecaterina Oproiu Murgescu (who, for some reason, was still living there). Pintilie is outraged and asks with what right the Ministry is dabbling in such domestic affairs. Well, it seems that Ileana Tureana, the critic’s daughter, was a state secretary. Everything goes out in the open after the filmmaker’s address to Miron Mitrea (the then-Minister of Transports) is made public, without a reply, however, and is uploaded onto LiterNet. It’s funny that one of the texts published in Journal I (p. 294) starts like this:
„Thursday 16th of February 1987
Tonight, Pintilie came down over to my place to see the exploits of a wall in the « backroom ». A wall soaking in water (the toilet above had a ruptured pipe) and just about to keel over.”
Joke aside, Nicolae Constantin Munteanu published The Last Seven Years from Home. A Newspaper Writer in the Secret Police Files / Ultimii șapte ani de-acasă. Un ziarist în dosarele Securității, a book which gathers the journalists’, one a film critic at Cinema magazine, Secret Police dossiers. It seems that in the seventies, when he was collaborating with Cinema, Munteanu had been spied upon by Oproiu. Speaking of Cannes: “On the 30th of May, our source, «Cati», called us on the telephone to inform us of the fact that, during her absence from the country (having visited the International Film Festival in Cannes), editor Neculai Constantin Munteanu had been invited by the magazine’s deputy editor, Rodica Lipatti, to participate in political education.”
The latter episode gives the impression of resignation. The Romanian Filmmakers’ Union decides to bestow an honorific trophy to the writer, which doesn’t seem to have caused much riff-raff in the public sphere. Yet, surprisingly, nobody showed up to pick up the award.
Why am I running through all of this? I’m not doing it to shame Ecaterina Oproiu. Anyways, from what there is to see, it’s either the fact that the much-avoided writer was never offered a right to answer accusations over the years or the fact that she chose to keep silent. I, myself, tried to propose an interview to her last year, sometime during the fall. Her rejection was timid, but it became categorical when it came down to the third knock.
The details of each of the above accusations are up for debate, but what is certain is the fact that the author’s reputation ended up increasingly muddied after each and every instance. And now, when the rest is silence, it becomes clear why no publishing house with a better standing rushed to edit her memoirs; a loss, at least when it comes to her Cannes volume.
„Even now, I can almost hear Mihnea Gheorghiu, 16 years ago. He called me and asked, in an imposing tone, whether I had any equipment.
– What sort of equipment?
– Equipment for the French Riviera?
I don’t get his joke, so I shut up. He goes on, in a false-authoritarian tone.
– You’re going to Cannes!
– Excuse me?!
– Yes, you’re going to the Festival. We’re sending you there.
Had he told me that they were sending me off to Burkina Faso, I’d had been just as surprised.”
(Journal I, p. 123 – “Cannes. A battle with flowers”)
Granted, one can find pages about Cannes scattered throughout her other journals, but Greetings from Cannes has the last word, no doubt about it. A brick of a book – since I started from Alex. Leo Șerban’s review of Caranfil’s dictionaries-the book is fattened with reviews and diaristic notes which the author splits in accordance with decades, from the sixties to the nineties only 1990. But this is not as straightforward as it seems; for the sake of poetic license, the author mixes up the texts according to her own tastes. Anyway, in the absence of dates or less ineffable information about films – like the year of production or the original title, even –, meaning, in the absence of an editor, the whole issue with time becomes somewhat more relative. Something to which Oproiu keeps on returning is a chronological sketch, which is not at all surprising, but which is documented from inches away.
The festival’s seasons, to call them like that, begin, of course, on a very generous spring, the postbellum belle époque – “For years on end, Cannes was the Festival of commercial film. Commercially-distinguished. Commercially-modern.”, p. 95), to which the author arrives quite late. Since, in 1964, when she accompanies the team of The Forest of the Hanged (dir. Liviu Ciulei, 1964), the party begins to spoil (“but, in fact – the hotel’s doorman told me, now, meaning in May 1964 – Cannes had only retained vague traces of its former splendor”, (pp. 41-42).
The estival heat and buzz began in May of ’68, which caught Oproiu in the position of a Cannes novice. The festival’s opening coincided with the ample protest of the Paris students – the 10th of May. Eight days later, after pressures from the Association of French Critics and of the EGC syndicate (États généraux du cinéma), a wave of filmmakers, the same who had supported Henri Langlois after he had been thrown out of the French Cinematheque, together with Polanski, Monica Vitti, Terrence Young, Miloš Forman, Geraldine Chaplin, to sum up, an entire flying red carpet, the festival is suspended. It’s a moment that will end up fascinating Oproiu – “[starting with] ’68, Cannes became the Festival of challenges”, p. 95 – despite her poking fun at it on countless occasions. For example, in 1975, the writer laughs at the fact that Godard returned at the festival having been defeated, and among her japes and details about the enfant terrible’s latest exploits an account of Wind from the East, directed by the Godard-led Dziga Vertov Group and co-written by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, slips in (p. 77) – “I was bored by the exaltation with which Bendit discovers truths which had already been long consummated in other parts of the world”. From this point onwards, Oproiu will reprise the topics of drugs and hippies, along with applauding politically engaged films (“A feature which is, as we would call it, « unengaged », has, at this day and time, no chances in Cannes”, p. 190), especially the American and Italian ones, and she will rejoice in the wonders of free love, which she doesn’t take apart, but chastises on an advisory and motherly tone – “Some sociologists agree that the sexual violence of spectacles helps discharge the social tension of the masses. Well, then! Let us discharge it!” (p. 81). The violence of Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom, the last film Pasolini directed before his abrupt death, did everything but discharge Ecaterina Oproiu’s social tension.
Fall. Starting from the end of the seventies, a certain local mythology creeps up, considering that it’s a bad sign that the 1900 Casino had been demolished and replaced with the contemporary Palais. But nothing’s local when it comes to Cannes. The revolutionary aplomb from the small films was starting to fade away in an event that became increasingly colossal in size, a “trust”, as the author calls it. In short, I’d say that a schematic summary of Oproiu’s vision would sound like this – Cannes starts out as a festival of cinema stars, directors confiscate it, and then it ends up falling into the hands of producers. As such, the time of bombastic cinema had arrived, of aggressive publicity, of the glory of such as Steven Spielberg. Regarding the investment of Universal Studios in Jaws 2 (dir. Jeannot Szwarc, 1978): “This deluge of zeroes shows us how far away we are from the times in which the newspapers would announce that « The Cannes Festival can no longer take place, due to lack of material resources »”.
And then, a warm winter, primed for the thawing of an entire era. The Cold War is nearing its end; less than six months after the shooting of the Ceaușescus, Oproiu is in Cannes once more. Her reviews, longer and more varied, are setting out on pop analyses of topics such as family, punk culture, the HIV epidemic, giving the impression of someone who is trying to gobble up the eighties in a single week. On the other hand, her assumptions regarding the representation of family in cinema are interesting; the author sees a resurgence of the pre-seventies family values, catalyzed by the AIDS crisis and the Bush family’s campaign image. But this, like the others, gives off the air of a summary filled with common spaces, cramped into a couple of random films. What is truly interesting about her 1990 correspondence is in a couple of thoughts about co-productions (p. 427) and a report of a colloquium hosted by a handful of eastern filmmakers, Lucian Pintilie and Věra Chytilová amongst them (aside from Nancy Reagan, the same edition has been attended by Dan Pița, Șerban Marinescu și Dorin Doroftei – „They were the ones that needed the « wall ». They, the ones who were either hitting their heads on the wall, or keeping the wall on their heads?”, p. 428). New walls were rising, however, and she was to fall on their other side. As I said, the last correspondence that I could find was published the following year in The Literary and Artistic Truth.
As Oproiu is only talked about in two tongues – nostalgia and antipathy -, I was either expecting a grand writer or a hot mess. It was neither the onenor or the other. I’d say that almost 500 pages gave me the time to stay in the presence of supple writing, one that is not necessarily remarkable, but capable of pulling its coups de grace. From the very beginning, it is said that this is not a professional anthology, but rather a cinephile one. Even more so, we are talking strictly about film criticism – one that had been published in cultural magazines –, the festival report is an odd appearance; mostly because of the sheer size of the volume of work at hand, because, let’s say, a day with three films and a review is a simple day. Then, it’s because it often asks readers to pass through several titles to find a common thread (which was a true passion for Oproiu). And when the correspondence comes from Cannes itself, it may be that any single mention of Brigitte Bardot is more than welcome, not to mention the sportsy-tinged commentary (“The Italian group seems to be the most unitary of all. The most interesting”, p. 129; “The film is funny, but the true question is, why does Czech cinema (…) come to an international competition with some vaudevilles in hand?”, p. 48; “I am obligated to acknowledge the fact that, from year to year, the prestige of Hungarian cinema is growing. I acknowledge this with sympathy, but also with a certain dose of envy”, p. 99).
It’s quite clear to me that Oproiu does a better job at writing about people and events than she does about cinema. Of course, she stood millimeters away from film history in the making and had the necessary flair to write about Rosellini and the suicide of Dalida, about the Third Cinema and Belmondo’s lost wallet, etc. But when she set out to analyze films, there was rarely an interesting result. Oproiu’s critique worked with themes and stories, which she then weighed in on from social, moral, and philosophical standpoints, but not before meandering in descriptions and enumerations. Like in this quote, for example: “this initial red turns into flame, into coral, intro the red of cardinals, into the color of wild strawberries, of cyclamens, seamlessly passing to the color of blood and thick wine” is just rows away from this one: “[a] sterilized, assorted, colored, musicalized world, lifted a few centimeters above its shell” (pp. 69-70). She’s not an author that launched provocative ideas about cinema; nor were they in any way new, but interesting at times (on Godard – “he launched a cinema in the style of a filmed press, an essay-film which pulverizes the classical recipes”, p. 77).
Speaking of Godard, after having watched Nouvelle Vague in 1990, Oproiu claims that the French filmmaker didn’t know how to grow old. “His last supporters feel ashamed, but nobody is giving him the reply that he deserves…”. He was 60 by then; she was 61.
The truth is that nobody knows how to grow old, it’s a lost battle. But, “when the defeated are dancing to their own failures, can one still claim that they are defeated?” (p. 217).