Bad Luck Banging, Great Luck Filming

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, directed by Radu Jude

The Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude has made a delightfully infuriating film, deceptively random in its details and meandering in its form. “I decided to see what a film would look like if its form was left open, unfinished, like a sketch,” he said. As a viewer, you may not like yourself for liking his sketch as much as you do, and if you don’t like it, you will undoubtedly suffer acute self-disappointment. Jude gets you coming and going, which is appropriate for a movie one-third of which is a walk through the city of Bucharest.

The story is simple; the life of Emilia Cilibiu, a dedicated teacher at a prestigious school, is disrupted when a tape of her and her husband making love is downloaded without her knowledge, prompting several outraged parents to call a meeting with the purpose of having her dismissed. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is divided into three parts: the first and third are connected to the main story, the second is a compendium of reflections on everything from military and religious history to literary quotes and theories of child education. There are blonde jokes; opinions about folklore, the kitchen, luxury and the unconscious; and quotations from the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s National Poet. This “dictionary,” as Jude calls it, is not organized alphabetically, but it advances on the energy of its own associative logic.

The first part, “One Way Street,” operates within the hallowed tradition of the city symphony, a film genre that began in the 1920s (Alberto Cavalcanti’s portrait of Paris called Rien que les heures, 1926; Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, 1927; and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, a composite tribute to Kiev, Moscow and Odessa), and continues to the present in Guy Maddin’s docu-phantasia, My Winnipeg, 2007, and The Green Fog, 2017, his collaboration with the Johnson Brothers on a vertiginous San Francisco. City symphonies are visual tone poems, the purpose of which is to celebrate the qualities of the metropolis that is their subject.

Jude decidedly takes his tribute in an opposite direction. He says his film is closer to “an anti-symphony of a city” since there is little to celebrate and much to malign. In an interview in November, after an online screening for the New York Film Festival, he describes Romania as “a very vulgar, extremely patriarchal country.” Bucharest’s citizenry is nasty, brutish and short-tempered. Its streets and shops are littered with cheap, noxious-coloured children’s toys, broken mannequins and a proliferation of advertisements for KFC. Its architecture is either massive Soviet-inspired apartment complexes or collapsing and abandoned buildings with decorative facades depicting classical figures that hover above sleazy cinemas and ubiquitous For Rent signs.

One of the first city symphonies was Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta, 1921, a paean to New York that uses lines from Walt Whitman’s poetry as its text. Jude has no poet to supply uplifting epigrams; his language comes from the street in the form of uncivil interactions between pedestrians and motorists, between shoppers in a grocery store checkout line and between employer and employees. The word that is repeated most often by the people in these everyday situations is “fuck,” an expletive that conveys anger and insult and racial tension. A motorist responds to a man in a crossing lane with the comment, “Fuck off, faggot, I’ll run you over,” which he then does. An impatient woman contemptuously tells another woman who is returning items she can’t afford to “stand aside and go boo-hoo about how poor you are.” But the most vicious of the social encounters in the film comes from a documentary segment where a boss is threatening workers so they will accept an offer that he has made them. He is speaking in English, calling them “disgusting animals,” and when he screams, “You fucking peasants. Get out. Scumbag,” the translator’s version of his outburst is, “He invites you to leave.”

While the content of Loony Porn is harsh, the ideas and provocations that inspired and inform the film come from literature and the visual arts; from the “Caricaturana” of Honoré Daumier, from Delacroix’s sketches (by way of André Malraux’s book The Voices of Silence) and from Picasso’s cubism. As a way of explaining the organization of Part II, a section called a “Short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders,” he advises us to think of “the structure of a cubist painting, where you have the nose over there, the mouth up here and the eyes elsewhere and, as a viewer, you have to put them together to see a portrait.”

The way he composes his portrait, or “sketches” out his film, is ingenious. In Part I, Emi goes into a bookstore, where she purchases a copy of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. Published in 1915, the book takes the form of 245 free verse poems spoken by the residents of a fictional small town in America. They speak from a cemetery, and among them are “the weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter, all are sleeping on the hill.” In Part III, contemporary facsimiles of these people are wide awake in the ironically named “Ospedale degli innocenti” (the hospital of the innocent), the garden of the Crainiac School where Emi faces the parents who want her humiliated and fired. Together they represent the same characteristics—weakness, strongarming, clowning and fighting—that Masters describes in his poems. Throughout Loony Porn, Jude makes connections that have this kind of resonance. The alliance between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the military dictatorships is seamless. Books on Jesus share space with goofy toys in shop windows, nuns cheerfully sing about the country’s Fascist past, and the church consistently aligns with the army in suppressing and executing its citizens. Among the most telling stories connecting the soul of religion with the sole of the military boot is a dictionary entry about Christmas in which an army unit, ordered to kill 3,000 Jews and Roma, works with “great speed to allow the soldiers to celebrate Christ’s birth.”

Among the depressing anecdotes and signs is an entry that goes to the heart of wonder. Under the category “cinema” Jude recounts the story of the Gorgon Medusa, whose face was so horrible that it turned man and beast to stone: “When Athena instigated Perseus to slay the monster, she warned him never to look at its face but only at its mirror reflection in the polished shield.” The moral that Jude draws from this divine advice is that in order not to see actual horrors, “because they paralyze us with blinding fear,” we see them through the mirror of the camera. “We shall know what they look like,” he says, “only by watching images which reproduce their appearance.” By this measure, Loony Porn is a brilliant horror film and cinema is the Gorgon’s art.

But close to the surface of the film is the operation of his visual understanding. In each of the three parts of Loony Porn, he acknowledges other artists; in Part I during Emi’s walk through the city, the camera shows a bus, which it then returns to, reiterating the cover image of Robert Frank’s The Americans, 1959, where we look in and the passengers on the bus look out at us; in Part II, to illustrate the pudendum of a woman’s body, he reposes a contemporary version of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, 1868; and in Part III when Emi is tested for COVID before entering the garden of the inquisition, she passes by a multi-coloured copy of Constantin Brancusi’s Endless Column, 1918. Brancusi, who was Romanian, would have been horrified by this pop version.

What becomes clear as you watch the film is that references that might seem arbitrary eventually add up to a portrait of a culture and a country. In Part I Emi approaches a car parked on the sidewalk, forcing anyone on foot to step off the sidewalk and onto the road. When she suggests that the driver park on the street, he dismisses her complaint, and the exchange rapidly deteriorates. Emi threatens to report him to the police and his response is a torrent of abuse that, on the surface, seems disproportionate to her intention. His final comments as she walks away are a litany of insult: “Fuck off before I spit in your informer mug. Suck my dick. You can’t even afford a car. Fuck your broke ass.” The driver’s reaction is a perfect reflection of a society that has become intolerant and selfishly individualistic. As a pedestrian, Emi is less important than a car owner, and as a woman who will report the driver to the police, she brings back the memory of a society once under the murderous control of Nicolae Ceausescu. Emi has inadvertently touched the pressure point that opens up all the driver’s misanthropy, prejudices and resentments.

The same attitudes emerge in the confrontational meeting called by the parents to discuss Emi’s fate, with the addition of hypocrisy and racism. This last tendency is widely applied (Mr Otopeanu, an airline pilot, views masks as “the muzzle of slaves” imposed by “a dirty Arab with his pandemic dictatorship”), but it is the Roma and Jews who are singled out for special notice. At one point the debate has turned to religion, and Father Bârsescu says, “We don’t want you indoctrinating our children about the Holocaust,” and Otopeanu completes his observation “with lies about Romanians killing kikes and crows.” But even he is outdone by Lieutenant Gheorghescu, the military officer who offers an especially offensive conspiracy theory. “We all know Hitler and the camp commanders were all Jews,” he says, “killing their own as an excuse to create Israel.”

The meeting is the whole of Part III, called “Praxis and Innuendos (sitcom).” If we take “praxis” as an engagement of the real in place of the theoretical, then the idea that gets translated into action in this section is built upon the dubious claims of innuendo, conspiracy theories, hypocrisy and naked racism. Throughout her ordeal Emi is unapologetic, reasonable and measured; she presents convincing responses to all the objections the tape has raised. Katia Pascariu as the beleaguered Emi provides an impeccable performance; at the same time that she is accused of sexual obscenity, her intelligence and commitment to teaching allow her the control she needs to deal with the obscene hypocrisy around her. The sex tape is banal and amateur, but it has about it an honesty and poignancy that separate it from anything remotely obscene. It is one of the few genuinely loving human interactions in the entire film.

The sitcom element sets the tone for the interrogation—the headmistress calls it “our debate of ideas”—and the section concludes with a physical fight between Emi and Mrs Lucia, the mother who has been most vocal in arguing that Emi be fired. She has even downloaded the sex tape, which she insists on showing to the assembled parents. As they punch and tear at one another’s hair, someone remarks, “They’re acting like gypsies.” Jude’s screenplay never loses an opportunity to raise the racist temperature in the film.

The range of his subjects is evidence of his putting into practice Jean-Luc Godard’s conviction that “you have to put everything you like into a film.” Jude packs Loony Porn with a number of things he doesn’t like, as well, and their presence is what makes the film hilarious and disturbing at the same time. The epigraph that closes Part II is the observation that “a true poet must be at the same time tragical and comical.” His aim is clearly for a poetics of filmmaking.

The film has three sections, so it is fitting that it offers the same number of possible endings. The first two are conventional; Emi is retained as the school’s professor; or she is asked to resign and she leaves the garden, defeated and disconsolate. The third ending is the best, the most just and the most contentious. When Emi hears that she has been fired, she looks at her accusers and roars. There is a flash of light and suddenly she is transformed into Wonder Woman. Masked again, as was her body double in the downloaded sex tape, she casts a net with which she reels in all the parents who have been her tormentors. In one hand she holds the net; in the other, a prodigious dildo. I leave to your imagination a detailed description of the parents’ fate, but let me offer a clue. Among the snide remarks uttered by one of the men, who pays close attention to the blow job Emi performs on her husband in the tape, is “an oral exam. Oral B. No cavities.” His comment combines pedagogy and dental hygiene. Emi, ever the attentive teacher, takes his words at face value, and Loony Porn ends with a riotous and democratically administered oral defence. ❚