Corneliu Porumboiu is my favorite Romanian director working today, although he’s got some stiff competition from Cristian Mungiu, Calin Peter Netzer, Cristi Puiu …. Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (I wrote about it here) is a slapstick re-enactment of a television program commemorating the Romanian revolution of 1989, and how it played out (or didn’t) in one particular small town. 12:08 East of Bucharest is hilarious, improvisational, so bitter it stings. The topic is serious, but it is treated with irony, cynicism, and humor. The film is also a perfect send-up of low-rent no-production-value cable access shows, with their anything-goes mentality, suffused with the pompous self-seriousness of having a platform.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is Porumboiu’s latest (and, at least in New York, it’s playing at Lincoln Center for a one-week run.)
The film is about a director making a film in Bucharest. He is sleeping with his lead actress, who is not from Bucharest, but from somewhere else, although she lived in Paris for a couple of years. Director and actress try to hammer out an important scene in the film they are making, the blocking, the justification for said blocking, and whether or not her nudity in the scene is justified. (It sounds like it’s not. My two cents.) There’s other stuff going on: a competition with another director in Romania, who is also interested in the lead actress, long conversations about film and Chinese food and geography and acting, digressions into Monica Vitti and the films of Antonioni (the actress has never heard of Antonioni, and the director says, “That would be like making a life in the theatre without ever having heard of Chekhov.” Actress replies, “I will see the films right away.”), digressions into bodily functions (did he or did he not have an ulcer in the past? Inquiring minds want to know), discussions about limits and how limits form us. We all work within limits, whether we know it or not, whether we care to acknowledge it or not. The limits should be embraced merely because they are the nature of reality. We are formed by the limits placed on us.
Just as 12:08 East of Bucharest prioritizes the HOW of the story (using the amateurish format of local television programming) over the WHAT of the story (the Romanian revolution, the fall of Communism and Ceaușescu) When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism tells its story of forms and limits through the medium of a limited form. The limits placed on the film itself reflect the subject matter, inform it, make jokes about it. Porumboiu filmed in black and white, stark and unsentimental. That’s one limit, removing the possibility of color from the palette. The other limit placed on the film is the daunting shot-lengths. The entire film is made up of only 17 shots, and while the camera does move (on occasion) it’s rare enough that it calls attention to itself. For the most part, we enter a new shot, with a new set-up and location (Chinese restaurant, moving car, apartment, diner) and we stay in that set-up, and watch the scene play out, until it’s time to move on. Everything, the language, the scene work, the possibilities, are hemmed in by the limits Porumboiu places on it. And, in the same way that 12:08 East of Bucharest commented on itself through the form of a cheap local talk-show, mocking the idea that anything can make sense, that anyone has anything relevant to say (about anything, never mind important topics), When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is in a constant state of self-awareness and self-evaluation, commenting on itself, winking at the audience. There’s an inside-joke feeling to some of it, but that’s part of the insular nature of the film industry.
And so what we get in the first shot is writer/director Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache, who was so unforgettable in Child’s Pose last year – my review here – he played a bratty sulky man-boy), driving around Bucharest with his lead actress Alina (Diana Avramut), discussing the scene they will be shooting tomorrow. This then becomes a conversation about the nature of movies. He talks about the difference between shooting on film and shooting digitally. When you shoot on film, you must accept the limitations. A single take cannot run longer than 11 minutes, he says, because that is the length of a roll of film, and so in many ways it is the limits that helped form cinema as we know it. Shooting digitally could change all that, could open up new possibilities. But Paul can’t help it: he has been formed by the “rules” of the movies as shot on film, all directors have been. As the take continues to unfurl, the street-lamps of Bucharest shimmering past the windshield, the camera placed in the back seat of the car, you start to wonder if this particular take is going to be 11 minutes long. Will this take be an example of what Paul is talking about?
That first scene sets us up for the whole film, with its long one-shots, hemmed in by limitations and form. Form comes up in every scene, in different contexts. Paul and Alina sit in a Chinese restaurant, eating, and discussing the development of Chinese cuisine, as opposed to other ethnic cuisines. Did Chinese food develop in the way it did because they eat with chopsticks? “The Chinese don’t make T-bone steaks,” says Paul. Did the form dictate the content? This conversation goes on and on, with gentle disagreements, and push-back from Alina, as she follows his theory to its logical conclusion. Logic turns out to be relative. Even within a rigid format.
Paul and Alina are having an affair, and that extremely cliched relationship can be seen as an accepted form of behavior, a “form” set up long before these two got together, so that they are stepping into understood roles, complete with unequal power dynamic, and behaving accordingly. Personal agency doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything. Form is ALL.
Later, there is a grotesque long sequence showing an endoscopy, the undulating wincing interior of Paul’s body taking up the entire screen. The doctor explains to the two people in the room what matters in the image: “When filming you put what most interests you in the center, not on the margin.” At that very moment, and throughout the whole scene, Paul, the guy whose interior is wriggling around on the laptop screen, stands on the margin of the room, the margin of the screen. Ba-dum-ching. Content (endoscopy) completely separated from form (Paul the man). No relation.
When Evening Falls is full of visual jokes like that, commentaries on what it is doing, asking us to make connections, to think beyond the frame, to think about the HOW as opposed to the WHAT.
All of this might sound a bit … chilly, perhaps. It is, but it isn’t. It’s a rigorous intellectual exercise, a lampoon of the Romanian film industry, a rather realistic look (actually) at how a director and an actress stumble their way through a scripted scene, questioning every piece of blocking, questioning the emotional motivations behind every gesture (“But why do you go to the door? Why don’t you just go to your bedroom? Why would you take out a lint-brush right after you got out of the shower? Wouldn’t that come later, as you go to put on the dress? Do you overhear the voices in the other room, or do you just assume that you did because you heard them say the lines in rehearsal?” No detail too small, no question unimportant)… the film comments on the nature of film, which is the nature of a completely distorted version of reality in the first place. If a take can only last 11 minutes, and generations of directors have grown up absorbing that limit as The Only Way, then they have allowed their art to be warped TO that limit without even realizing it. And so isn’t the nature of reality itself hemmed-in by forms we might not be able to perceive? Perhaps reality isn’t “out there,” but in here, with us, our backs hunched-in, our heads cramped-down, like Alice in Wonderland growing too big for her own house, the walls pressing in on her. Forces work on us from the outside, and we are not even aware of it.
These issues are presented humorously and yet not lightly. The stakes are pretty high, but the film never loses its dry sense of absurdity and self-awareness.
The meaning of all of it, though, is up for grabs.
Have at it. Porumboiu wants you to.