Radu Jude: “I’ve become more and more interested in the aesthetics of an unfinished product”

24 October, 2023

“I hope that, in a way, Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World will feel like an unfinished film. I’ve become more and more interested in the aesthetics of an unfinished product.”

“I wanted the structure of the film to be similar to a collage. The appeal of a collage lies in its very composition, in the fact that there are disparate and different elements put together to create a new image.”

“I start from things or aesthetics that are considered outdated or worthless, hoping to achieve a certain peculiarity in terms of the reality depicted.”

These are some of the beliefs expressed by Radu Jude in regard to his latest effort, Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World, winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2023 Locarno Film Festival, which will open in Romanian cinemas on October 27.

As the director describes it, “Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World (the title comes from an aphorism by Stanislaw Jerzy Lec) is a fragmentary film (part comedy, part road movie) about work, exploitation, death, and the new gig economy. At the same time, it is dealing with the difficult problem of image production. All these are at the surface level, as they say, but the film only has this one level; it is a film of surfaces.” 

The film centers on Angela (Ilinca Manolache), an overworked production assistant tasked with finding and filming workplace accident victims auditioning to be in a safety-at-work video commissioned by an Austrian multinational corporation.

The first part of the film follows Angela driving incessantly around Bucharest. All this running to and fro, caught in black and white on 16mm, is interspersed with color excerpts from Lucian Bratu’s 1982 film Angela Moves On and the protagonist’s own Tik Tok videos of her online alter-ego, Bobiță (a parodic avatar created by actress Ilinca Manolache herself, as a feminist discourse against toxic male behavior present in society nowadays). In the second part, consisting of the shooting of the safety video, the film becomes, in Radu Jude’s words, a sort of remake of his first feature, The Happiest Girl in the World.

In an interview for Films in Frame, Radu Jude talks about the sources and ideas behind his new film, as well as about its multiple layers.

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Many publications, both local and international, have regarded Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World as a critique of capitalism. To what extent do you agree with such a verdict, and how much of this interpretation is found in your original intentions?

It’s a difficult question to answer because, obviously, what emerges from a film or how it is interpreted can often be an extrapolation, a theorization of the author’s intentions, which are rendered in the film in a very particular form. Part of the critic’s job is to abstract, in a way, the things presented in a film. It’s hard for me to give a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to this question, for two reasons. On the one hand, I see the film rather as a depiction of a particular situation, that only certain people are facing, but, of course, they are caught in a system which at the moment is that of capitalism in a post-totalitarian country that has relatively recently emerged from a brutal dictatorship. On the other hand, when you say ‘anti-capitalism’, it’s something that, again, I think needs to be clarified because each country or each place deals with its own kind of capitalism. The one existing in Romania is not the same as the one in Vienna. The experiences of people in Bangladesh, working in an extremely brutal and dehumanizing capitalist system, are not comparable to those working in, say, Oslo. Romania probably falls somewhere in between.

Yet when Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and this new film are considered feminist, I take a step back because my ambitions are not so grand. I have more modest ambitions, as Jacques Rivette puts it perfectly in one of his texts – I think I even quoted him in the film’s press kit: ultimately, the purpose of cinema, in his view, is to depict, to be a sort of essay, although the term ‘essay’ in cinema means something different now. He says that cinema can offer a certain type of depiction, which I find to be very important. Of course, it’s a very complex depiction, not something done with a pencil on paper in three lines. It’s a very specific depiction, made with the tools of cinema.

My aim for this film was very modest. I only wanted to depict some people caught in personal, professional, work-related relationships, within a community, within a city, within a society; to depict some moments of their lives through stories. There are two main plotlines in the film and a few secondary ones. The narrative is based on real events that I witnessed or experienced, which not only seemed worthy of a film but also exemplary. They are like Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels in a way. Not in the sense that you can learn something from them. Although they are small, individual stories, they explore many sources of tension existing within our society today, I believe. From this perspective, the film can probably be seen, without necessarily being my intention, as a critique of the new Romanian capitalism we live in.

There was a vague desire to talk about labor relations today

At the same time, the film also seems to be some kind of a settling of scores with a period from your youth, when you were at the beginning of your career and did all sorts of jobs in advertising and film. As if those things stayed with you, had an impact on you somehow, and now you wanted to put them in a film to get closure.

Again, I think it’s speculation rather based on the way filmmakers usually talk about what they do: “I was obsessed with this thing.” It’s not my case. “I don’t have obsessions, only perversions,” as an old hip-hop song used to say. I don’t necessarily seek to settle scores with my past jobs. I started off small in cinema. I did all the jobs, and looking back, I actually think it was a very good thing. There were two directions that I was interested in exploring in this film. Apart from the exemplary stories I mentioned, there was a vague desire to talk about labor relations today, perhaps because they are not very often represented in Romanian films. Romanian films – whether great or not so good, it doesn’t matter – usually talk about personal relationships, relationships with institutions, or issues such as state corruption, and less about the relationships between working individuals or between employees and companies. I wanted to make a film about this type of issues. So, these two directions intersected because I could start from something I was familiar with, I knew how things happen in this professional environment. But I hesitated whether to make the film or not because my first feature (i.e. The Happiest Girl in the World) addresses a relatively similar topic. Still, that one focuses on different aspects. Even so, I found it interesting to accept that you could make a half-remake of your own film. In fact, Yasujirō Ozu made one of his films twice – A Story of the Floating Weeds (1934) and Floating Weeds (1959) – and they’re almost identical, except that the first one is black and white and the other is color. Not my case though (laughs).

I hope it will feel like an unfinished film

There are two narrative and formal options that stand out that I know were not among your initial ideas: the protagonist’s online alter-ego Bobiță and the excerpts from Lucian Bratu’s film Angela Moves On. I would like to talk a bit about them. You had worked with Ilinca Manolache before and probably wanted to collaborate again. I’m curious how you decided to cast her in the role of Angela and especially to include the character of Bobiţă, an avatar she created on social media during the pandemic.

The film was built in successive layers, and I wanted these layers to remain at least partially visible. I hope that in this way it will feel like an unfinished film. I’ve become more and more interested in the aesthetics of an unfinished product. That was the reason why I decided, as early on as the development stage, that the things that appear along the way should be added without melting perfectly into the narrative.

I started with the second part, when Ovidiu (i.e. one of the workplace accident victims) is brought to the location for the video shooting. The bit with the car journey was just a part of this second story, but, at some point, I began to develop it and slowly started to think that the character of the driver might be more interesting than what happens to the person taken to the location. Then, all of a sudden, I remembered a true incident that I had witnessed in a way – a young production assistant who died after being asked to drive around all day. He called the production manager a number of times to tell him he was tired, but each time he was told to have another coffee, have a Coke, pull over for a bit, and then drive for another hour or two, until that guy died. It wasn’t a project I worked on, it would probably have affected me even more. Still, it hit me quite hard. At that time, I was already a director, working in television and advertising, and since then, every time we had to shoot outside of Bucharest, at great distances, and the shooting days were long, I asked the producers – sometimes my request was accepted, other times I was kicked out of the project – to provide accommodation for the entire film crew overnight. Very often, production companies, especially in advertising, but sometimes in film and television too, push things to the limit in order to save money. You shoot for 10-12 hours, even 16-18, and then everyone goes back home and has to drive 100, 200, maybe even 300 km, which is extremely risky. After that incident, I really didn’t want to be involved in anything like that. As far as my films go, that was never a problem because Ada Solomon (i.e. producer and Radu Jude’s long-time collaborator) is very responsible.

The way Ilinca Manolache built this avatar and used it in various ways, especially as feminist criticism, I found it extremely interesting cinematically because it has something that reminds of the very beginnings of cinema

So, I started to build the other story, trying to connect them into a single narrative. It wasn’t possible, so I abandoned it, and I thought that this idea of a diptych, of a film made up of an ‘A’ part and a ‘B’ part, as in the Hollywood crisis era, might work. Thus, I built each part separately. As you said, I wanted to work with Ilinca Manolache again. She already had this character, Bobiţă. And, since the film was becoming more and more a film about the issue of image production today, the way Ilinca built this avatar and used it in various ways, especially as feminist criticism, I found it extremely interesting cinematically because it has something that reminds of the very beginnings of cinema. I felt that it added an extra layer to what we call a character. Suddenly, there is another character in the film that is very difficult to define.

Later, doing research and looking for other Romanian films with women driving, I came across Lucian Bratu’s film, which I hadn’t seen in a long time and didn’t remember much about, and I liked it. Initially, I wanted to use only one scene from Angela Moves On, to include it during the protagonist’s flashback. But after talking with Marius Panduru, the director of photography, we decided it was best to include more excerpts. So, me and Cătălin Cristuţiu, the editor, watched the film and extracted different scenes.

Not only do you include several fragments from Angela Moves On to showcase it in a dialogue with your film, but you even imagine a hypothetical follow-up to the two characters from Lucian Bratu’s film, played by the same actors. It’s an extremely unexpected choice.

That’s another direction that interested me. With the avatar, the idea was to understand the notion of ‘character’, but with Angela Moves On, the way the characters transition from one film to another, it was more about exploring the concept of narrative in cinema. Most films tend to consider narrative as a single story, or several stories working independently, and so on. In other arts, such as literature and painting, things are much more open, in my opinion. You can have a novel like Sebald’s, which integrates various photographs, paintings, stills from different films, and still work as literature. The narrative is not at all affected by the introduction of these non-literary elements. And since I’m interested in exploring forms I haven’t explored before or directions I’ve only slightly touched upon, I thought, “What if I integrate elements from another film? What if characters from one film appear in this new film?” In fact, Angela Moves On is seen as a documentary whose characters have left the frame to step into a fictional world. It’s a back-and-forth between the two films, or more precisely, between all sets of images. In fact, I think they should all be seen as both documentary and fiction at the same time. That is why wanted to extract details from Angela Moves On that are purely documentary. Sure, you can do that with anything. It’s Walter Benjamin’s idea presented in Arcades Project, which looks into all kinds of texts, including literary or poetic ones, for their symbolic and documentary value.

I’ve been thinking about making a film or a series for TikTok, but I don’t have the time or energy for it. Still, I would be very tempted to use this aesthetic for something else. After all, it’s just a form that can be filled with all sorts of things

It’s clear that, on the one hand, you continue or, rather, develop your interest in montage through this cross between the two films. At the same time, by introducing the social media character Bobiţă, you further pursue the interest you showed in Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn for new media images. You mix all these types of images, and the combination is sometimes surprising and even explosive. It seems that you treat them all equally, as if none were superior to another. I’d like you to explain this vision.

I myself am, if you will, torn between two opposite perspectives. One of them was nicely put by Călin Boto, who at one point wrote on Facebook that we should stop with this obsession that The Reenactment is above all and that we have a lot of interesting films. In a way, I agree with him. When we talk about cinema, everything is interesting. I’m not keen on football, but I find TV matches to be quite interesting in terms of cinema, especially since there are so many cameras now, slow-motion, the VAR system. Suddenly, a football match holds a lot of information in regard to filmmaking, which could compete with many great films. The way ads come up on the Internet, generating this involuntary montage, can be extremely stimulating. If you’re interested in cinema in that sense, then everything becomes interesting. I know I’ve quoted this anecdote before, but it’s one of my favorites: Naum Kleiman, the great Eisenstein expert, says somewhere that Eisenstein’s home library was not organized by authors or fields or chronologically, but based on principles of montage. For example, a Napoleon biography stood next to a book about genetic anomalies. Kleiman concludes that the way Eisenstein’s library was organized was a great film in itself. I’m a firm believer in these things, and I think that if you’re interested in cinema, you start to see cinema everywhere and in everything.

On the other hand, not all things are on the same level when you need a model or have to make a ranking, for example. Even if Boto is right and says that all Romanian films are interesting, The Reenactment by Lucian Pintilie remains a film that, in terms of how we traditionally think about cinema and the way we organize the canon, is superior to most, if not all, Romanian films. What’s more, you can learn how to make films from The Reenactment, whereas from all this garbage that comes out now the only thing you can learn is how not to make films.

So there are two perspectives, two different directions. One is analytical, where, as Umberto Eco said, it doesn’t matter what the object of research is, what matters is the method, and if the method is good, then you can study anything, because it’s just as interesting. On the other hand, as a filmmaker, as someone interested in making films, not everything is useful, and you need to discern, to know or at least to intuit which direction you want to go.

But, there is another area I’m very much intrigued by. It’s the area where these two directions can intersect. You can take an element from the TikTok aesthetic and integrate it into another aesthetic, or the other way around. I’ve been thinking about making a film or a series for TikTok, but I don’t have the time or energy for it. Still, I would be very tempted to use this aesthetic for something else. After all, it’s just a form that can be filled with all sorts of things. It doesn’t have to reproduce the same stuff, various people singing, doing lip sync, and so on. TikTok can be used for so much more. I’m certain of it, just as it was with the advent of television. I’m interested in how things can flow from one side to another.

 I wanted the structure of the film to be similar to a collage

I feel that you clearly highlight the different nature of the various images you use. The main plotline, of Angela driving around the city, is shot in black and white on 16mm. The TikTok clips are in color and have their own characteristics. The archive footage, i.e. the excerpts from Angela Moves On, works as flashbacks. Then there are the Zoom calls or the scenes shot with the phone.

I wanted the structure of the film to be similar to a collage. The appeal of a collage lies in its very composition, in the fact that there are disparate and different elements put together to create a new image. If you don’t see that those elements are separated, then it doesn’t feel like a collage, there is something wrong about it. The component parts of a collage should be visible as individual parts. That’s what I tried to do. I wanted each part to be as clear as possible, to clearly see how it’s built, feel its texture. That’s why you also see Angela from the outside, holding the phone and filming herself – you also have access to the production process, so to speak. All these things are indeed intentional.

I think shooting in black and white on 16mm was a great decision because this apparently raw, abrasive image reflects and accentuates the character’s state. A color image might have glamorized the whole situation a bit.

It may come as a disappointment but the decision was made for purely practical reasons. As you mentioned earlier, we wanted the difference between one medium and another to be as visible as possible. Since Angela Moves On is a color film from the 1980s, it was clear that this contemporary part needed a very different texture, in order to distinguish between the two perspectives. Initially, we thought of shooting with an iPhone or a GoPro, but then the idea of the TikTok clips came up, so we needed to find yet another texture. That’s how we got to the decision of shooting in black and white. Marius Panduru suggested doing it on 8mm or 16mm and even going for the push technique, which involves intentionally underexposing the film during capture and then compensating for the underexposure during development, resulting in an even more grainy, dirtier, and raw look. We tested it and decided to go with this option, which was quite complicated because there are no labs in Romania that process 16mm black-and-white film. It had to be developed in Hungary. We even encountered some issues in the lab, and it had to be changed, so it was quite difficult.

Then again, there is also my desire to use outdated techniques, that are considered obsolete. I think that, by changing the context, there is still potential to achieve interesting things. Bruno Dumont’s films are an example of that. I know – and he himself has said – that he watches a lot of silent films. The actors’ performance and the mise-en-scène in France, his latest film, rather remind of the silent era than modern cinema. That shows that in aesthetics we normally consider outdated there is actually potential for fresh ideas. My last two films, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn and Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World, aesthetically speaking, are largely inspired by things considered outdated, whether it’s the aesthetics or mise-en-scène of silent films, the way the city is captured– i.e. the first part of Bad Luck Banging… – which is reminiscent of early cinema, or collage, or things related to the classical avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s. I start from things or aesthetics that are considered outdated or worthless, hoping to achieve a certain peculiarity in terms of the reality depicted.

Let’s talk about the cast a bit. Ilinca Manolache seems the perfect choice for the role because she captures the character’s energy, strength, exhaustion, and anxiety very well. In supporting roles, we have actresses you’ve worked with on your previous films – Katia Pascariu, Ioana Iacob, Claudia Ieremia – and, of course, Şerban Pavlu. Also, as you mentioned in a press conference, you wanted non-professionals for the roles of workplace accident victims.

Yes, it’s an eclectic cast. On one hand, I worked with actors I had worked with before, partly because I wanted the second part of the film to be somewhat a remake, as I said earlier. So, I took characters and actors from The Happiest Girl in the World. Choosing Ilinca for the lead was not just due to her appearances on social media but also because I consider her a great actress. I had worked with her before, and I knew her enormous potential. Then there are these amateur actors, who, in a way, played their own roles as people with disabilities or individuals with various problems due to accidents. I’m really happy we went with this option because they are people in a delicate, difficult situation, and they all enjoyed being part of the film. We didn’t have a large casting for these roles. With the help of Florentina Bratfanof (i.e. the casting director) and the “Rise and Walk” association, we saw a few people with disabilities and decided to work with them. That’s because, for me, acting in a film is not so much about extraordinary virtuosity. There are films, like Întregalde (dir. Radu Muntean), where this virtuosity is visible in the actors’ performance, there is a very deep interest in flawless acting. Whereas I – maybe because I don’t have a knack for it – try to go the other way, that is, to communicate the main directions but leave room for personal input, and thus, let the performance come naturally.

I don’t seek a certain precision in terms of acting in my films. On the contrary, I’m trying to open up the acting and other aspects of the film to chance. Many of the things I kept in the film came about by accident, moments of acting, lines, scene lengths that were not planned. We filmed very little. Of course, we rehearsed the lines, but the mise-en-scène was done very quickly, on the spot, and we shot only two or three takes each time, hardly more than that, and only if there was a technical issue or something like that. Even for the last scene, which is very long, I think we had three or four continuous takes, from which I chose two and edited them so that the cuts are visible because I didn’t want it to run as a long take. Of course, you always gain something on one side and lose on the other. If you want everything to be flawless and have the ability to achieve that, the film will be perfect but stiff, in a way. But if you open it too much, there is the risk it will fall apart. You never know.

I wanted the pace of the film to be very disjointed

Another thing I seeked was to have this raw feel, not just in terms of cinematography but in all its details. So, for example, one of the things you try to do as a director is to control the pace of the film. If a scene is a bit too long, you speed it up, if it’s too rushed, you slow it down.

I wanted the pace of the film to be very disjointed. Sometimes it’s just right, other times it’s too fast or maybe too slow. I wanted this quality of unfinished product to infuse the entire film. But the big question is: if you do that, what’s the limit, what’s the point where things start to fall apart? No one can say because you’re on shifting sands. You can only rely on your own intuition, which can be wrong. You have no way of knowing if the fear of ruining the film is not just a defense mechanism. Marius Panduru often gives me grief about that. Every now and then, he comes up with all sorts of ideas, and after due consideration, I end up saying no. From his point of view, rightfully so, I annoy him and he says: you have no courage, you don’t really want to experiment, you just say you want to experiment, and so on. My answer is always that you can’t experiment with everything because it will all fall apart. And the only one who has any kind of vision of the entire film is me, the director. What Marius wants to experiment with may work from his point of view, but I try to see the big picture and say: this is a great idea, but I’m a bit afraid here, I think things will completely fall apart. However, I have no way of knowing. Sometimes it’s possible that it’s just fear, the fear of experimenting and the desire to follow the beaten path. Other times, it’s likely that things wouldn’t work beyond a certain limit. I don’t know. But that’s the most fascinating part of experimenting for real – the feeling of walking blindly, of fumbling around in the dark. I find that it’s very fertile, actually.

The soundtrack aligns with the collage-style structure of the film. It seems to be more of a commentary on what we’re listening to nowadays than a realistic element in the story: it’s unlikely that such a character would listen to such eclectic music, especially in such a short time frame.

Eclectic music indeed. For the sake of the story, it’s vaguely justified as being played on the radio, although no radio station out there would play manele, then a punk song, then a piece by Mozart, and a single by Sandu Ciorbă. I’ll refrain from making statements like, “This is what we’re listening to now.” Rather it’s an attempt to build a purely subjective landscape, or from a purely subjective perspective, about the various kinds of music and sounds that exist around today.

A Romanian writer recently wrote on Facebook that the film is about how we are as a people today. I’m wary of such generalizations: yes, we’re like that, like in this film, or, on the contrary, we’re not like that. This kind of interpretation is, in my opinion, very unfortunate because a film offers a different perspective on things. The least interesting thing is to try to describe some kind of national spirit.

Once the film is out in the world, anyone has the right to see it however they want and to say anything they feel and think about it. I don’t find that problematic

Do Not Expect Too Much of the End of the World, like your other films, is a bold and provocative film. It remains to be seen if it will spark any controversy or debates regarding the language used, which may be considered vulgar by some people. How do you think it will be received?

I don’t know if I can comment too much on this because I’m not very critical of the negative reactions my films provoke. Once the film is out in the world, anyone has the right to see it however they want and to say anything they feel and think about it. I don’t find that problematic. It’s certainly interesting, but I can’t comment much, not right now. What did surprise me with my recent films – especially Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, but also I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians – was a certain obtuseness among the audience of all kinds, including those considered educated, people with university degrees or a background in humanities and social sciences, regarding the form. I think this issue stems from the lack of importance cinema holds in Romania’s public, cultural, and intellectual discourse.

What is there to do? I believe the situation can be shifted through massive investments in culture and, first and foremost, in education, because we all know what a huge disaster is education in Romania. But it requires efforts from all sides. And my effort, if I may say so, is to make the best film of which I am capable, to make the film in the only way I see it possible. After that, the reactions are no longer my concern. But yes, what struck me and I still find it a bit sad is this obtuseness towards the film’s concept itself. I’m not saying it should be accepted. It can be rejected in many ways, if properly justified. It’s certainly not perfect. Unfortunately, the focus falls on things related to the story and perhaps the ideology, and the viewers’ reactions to the film depend on that. For me, beyond all these elements, the most important thing is how the film manages or fails to offer a depiction of the topics addressed using the cinematic language. I believe that cinema has this power. But this is simply a personal wish, I wish the film would cause a reaction starting from these elements. If it does, great. If not, no problem. I’m not saying it bothers me. Not at all. I’m just saying I’m sorry this thing doesn’t happen.

 

 

Photo credit: 4 Proof Film

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.