Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn: Wow | Berlinale.71
It’s no secret that Radu Jude has proven himself to be the most chameleonic director working in contemporary Romanian cinema – whose path of constant formal reinvention predates the recent moves outside of the New Romanian Cinema’s dogmas of the movement’s biggest names, as well as the wave of Romanian debut films released between 2017 and 2019, which moved the center of Romanian cinema from the rigors of realism to newer aesthetic territories. Even so, with the spectacular Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (with its under-title, Sketches for a popular film), Jude might be making his most daring movement to date, which is already, in and of itself, an achievement for an auteur that hasn’t shied away from confronting some of the most difficult and uncomfortable subjects of his homeland: from his explorations of the Romanian Holocaust to the enslavement of Roma people, to the political repression of dissidents during the communist era. If last year I wrote that “Radu Jude’s historical exploration phase has reached its complete maturity and conceptual stability [with Uppercase Print and The Exit of the Trains]”, then this return to contemporary times appears as a natural next step.
Here, Jude steers completely into the present time, with a film that has a frontal approach of topics such as sexuality and stereotypes, without the present time being an echo chamber of the past like in I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (save for a few lines of dialogue), yet retaining one of its most important angles: the act of focalizing on a female character (in this case, Emilia Cibiliu, a History teacher performed by Katia Pascaiu, an actress known for her involvement in the local political theater scene), who is facing a completely hostile environment, a circumstance which is used to explore the various kinds of misogynistic prejudices that Romanian women still face today. The smoking gun? One of the teacher’s home-made porn tapes leaks onto the Internet and arrives at its only logical destination: in the hands of her pupils, prompting their outraged parents to call for a parent-teacher conference for the purpose of chastising the tutor. Based on true events, the film is split into three sections: the first, which serves as its exposition, as well as an urban exploration of Bucharest; the second, a structuralist intermezzo that acts as a vernacular dictionary of sorts; and the third, the meeting between Emilia and the parents, whose staging brings to mind the second story of Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights, Volume 2: The Desolate One.
It’s reductive, however, to simply look at Bad Luck… only in terms of its central conflict or plot progression – which is, in fact, much rather an opportunity for the director to examine a mammoth-sized theme: the mentalities that run amok in Romanian society in late capitalism, which Jude approaches without sliding into the simplistic trap that is classism, which is oftentimes tangible in films (and other various cultural products) that set out to explore this topic. The rabble of revolted parents that gathers in the inner courtyard of the Nichifor Crainic high school is assorted, yet mostly upper-middle-class (and amongst the actors we can spot cameos of well-known cultural workers from Bucharest, such as Paula Dunkler, Ada Solomon or Raya al Souliman, along with Jude regulars Gabriel Spahiu, Alexandru Potocean, Ilinca Hărnuț and Ilinca Manolache), but their social status doesn’t make them immune from the crassest, even primitive perceptions about female sexuality – from (fake) moral panics to slut-shaming, every single misogynistic line one can imagine is leveraged against Emilia, who, in spite of a vaguely defeatist air, tries to resist them. Significantly enough, the parent most willing to humiliate her is one of the mothers, indicating the instrumental complicity of certain women in the act of upholding patriarchy.
The film’s subtitle – Sketches for a popular film, written in kitsch cursive letters on a hot pink still – beyond its obvious wink to the fact that the New Romanian Cinema was always regarded as unsellable on its home ground, and to the fact that the actually sellable ones (such as Miami Bici, the film that has ostensibly saved Romanian cinema from an economic collapse last year), is also a way of setting a tone that is open to experimentation, as well as a means to invert the usual paradigms in the representation of female sexuality. If in entertainment films such as the aforementioned Miami Bici, female characters are mostly flat and simple objects of visual pleasure, the subversion of Bad Luck… lies in frontally representing the sexuality of a female character (the film itself begins with a series of uncensored amateur porn fragments) who has full control over her intimate life. (Even though one couldn’t precisely call it a whodunnit narrative thread, a big part of the film circles around the question of who uploaded the sex tape – and a short scene hints at Emilia herself being the culprit.) Of course, one can think of few things that are more scandalous in a country where sex-ed is non-existent, and which has the highest levels of teenage pregnancy in Europe, both for the parents within the fiction and, most probably, for real ones, after the film will be released. It will certainly inflame spirits and piss off even more social categories hitherto not annoyed by Jude’s works (and you’d say there wouldn’t be any more left, but think again); a scandal that will mirror the one surrounding Touch Me Not is completely possible. Such discussions are all the more relevant if one takes into account the increasing panic amongst Romanian conservatives regarding “political correctness” and “cancel culture”: but, in fact, it’s precisely people like Emilia Cilibiu who end up being cancelled.
I wrote about Barbarians in 2018 that “beyond its central topic, it’s equally a film about a crisis of representing history (…) and the plurality of political visions in contemporary society” – then, Bad Luck… can be seen as a film about another type of crisis, that of representing the present and its multiple facets. Beyond using dialogue as a means of characterization, which is the predominant form of analysis in the third act, the film’s arguably most ambitious parts are the first ones, which are both hybrids between fiction and documentary, acting as an index of urban landscapes (in an extension of sorts to the second-to-last shot in Uppercase Print) and of the recent scandals that have outraged the public opinion. In the first part, Emilia goes on a long walk through Bucharest in the areas surrounding the Obor Market and the City Center, during summertime, in the pandemic: mottled and loud, crowded, disfigured by an infinity of commercials and hideous logos, contaminated with electoral posters and badly-parked cars, invaded by supermarkets and betting agencies, the capital’s streets appear as they are, a total visual cacophony. The camera (wielded by longtime Jude’s collaborator Marius Panduru) slowly and deliberately pans over all of these details, using this rhythm as if to counteract the total chaos that reins within the composition – which is made even worse by displays of typical urban aggressivity, as well as the sense of dread and abjection induced by the pandemic, as many unmasked people cross in front of the lens. (In a significant choice, the third part has the parents spitting out phrases such as “sanitary dictatorship” and “face muzzle” throughout their tirades.)
However, the heart of the film lies in its second act, both literally and metaphorically – titled “A small dictionary of anecdotes”. Returning to the rigorous formalism of his recent films and thus to an overtly political tone, Jude creates a cinematic lexicon (presented in alphabetical order) of a multitude of concepts: varying from various insults or terms such as “d*ck” and “p*ssy”, to definitions of personalities such as Mihai Eminescu or various social phenomena. Peppered at times with either personal observations, or with statistics, or sometimes simply lifting the description of certain words from the fundamental dictionary, the second part fuses original footage, which is abundant in cameos (such as a joke with blondes that is reenacted with local artist Oana Maria Zaharia), with found footage. It is the latter that features some of the film’s most visible political overtones, which at times remind of Harun Farocki: collating multiple videos that became viral on Romanian social media, from the images of textile industry workers being psychologically abused to those in which Florica Moldovan, a young Roma woman is savagely beaten by a bus driver, to a recording of a controversial performance by Fluid, and other such moments. Amongst all of these, small ars poetica moments slip in, reminding of the filmmaker’s recent self-portrait comissioned by the goEast festival: such as an instance in which the myth of Medusa is used as a metaphor for cinema itself. The second part is engaged with the strange new memory of social media and news cycles – images that seem to be omnipresent for a couple of days, only to disappear as rapidly as they appeared – and gives them new life, as in an audiovisual journal that aims to record the present, which is also reflected in the ambition to preserve the image of the pandemic.
Cheeky and astonishing, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn already looks like it will be one of the most intensely discussed films of the year in Romania, and which will certainly offend many conservative sensibilities – be they social, cultural, even cinematic in nature. However, its abundant humor is dark; and its usage of morality play, in a style reminiscent of Romanian classic Ion Luca Caragiale (and it wouldn’t be the first time Jude has used a framework inspired by theater), is more than just a hook towards “popular” works, but also the ideal means to resuscitate a narrative aesthetic that perfectly fits a politically and socially turbulent era, to hold a mirror up to our collective visage.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Katia Pascariu, Andi Vasluianu, Gabriel Spahiu, Claudia Ieremia, Olimpia Mălai, Alexandru Potocean, Florin Petrescu, Șerban Pavlu, Silviu Gherman, Ada Solomon, Oana Maria Zaharia, Paula Dunkler, Raya al Souliman