Take on Me
by Peter Labuza
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania, Cinema Guild
Why does one make movies in a certain way? Is style a product of an original creative process, or largely a result of circumstance? And if it’s the latter, how does one create a unique voice distinct from one’s contemporaries? These questions appear to be on the mind of Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu. After two drily humorous films about the lingering effects of totalitarian authority on the nation, Porumboiu has made another deadpan comedy, but his subject is now himself. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism would be best described as a self-reflexive investigation into its own aesthetics. Since 2005, Romanian cinema has been largely defined—at least on the evidence of those films receiving festival attention—by long takes, dreary neorealist environments, low-key comic moments, and scenes of seemingly plotless meandering. While looking and sounding like many of these films, When Evening Falls on Bucharest, which follows a filmmaker in crisis, suggests a statement of artistic principles, what he has called in interviews a questioning of his “methods of cinema.” When Evening Falls on Bucharest stages this statement as satire, examining the problematic side to Porumboiu’s own cinematic practices, but in a way that highlights the strengths of this filmmaking style. It’s a paradox that drives this fascinating, peculiar film.
Shot on 35mm (and the only title at this year’s New York Film Festival projected on film), When Evening Falls on Bucharest opens—naturally—with a long take, camera placed in the back of a car in which a director and actress are discussing their upcoming shoot. It’s a nude scene, so when she asks him why the lead actor doesn’t have one as well, he claims male bodies never look good onscreen, as they lack the symmetry of the female form. Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) then pontificates to Alina (Diana Avramut) why he won’t shoot digital—if he has one 20-minute long take, then the film must necessarily be only composed of 20-minute long takes. He instead prefers to work within the limits imposed by film. Even by the end of this scene, we get a sense of how Paul justifies his actions on tenuous theoretical grounds. Paul’s didacticism comes to define him; he is one who refuses to compromise his convictions, either on terms of film or his life.
If Porumboiu’s previous films had a more absurd comic sensibility, When Evening Falls on Bucharest’s humor is slyer and more nuanced, and ultimately reveals more about the artistic process. A long discussion between Paul and Alina at a restaurant features a debate on how the design of chopsticks has led to stronger complexities in the food produced in China than cuisine in fork-and-knife European countries. When Alina exposes the flaws in this logic, Paul won’t back down, continuing to search for a logical solution when there clearly isn’t any. While seemingly pointless, the conversation is perhaps most essential in reflecting not only how Paul thinks but also the director’s own artistic tendencies. In an interview, Porumboiu describes how “the instruments and the economy of where we live inform your style.” Is Paul’s indulgent long take Paul his own expression of his artistry, or simply what he thinks will work at the given moment? Paul seems to be justifying his cinematic approach (simpler is more complex) in this roundabout conversation, and his strange logic exposes the flaw in his style.
Whichever the case, Paul’s filmmaking theories become problematic during rehearsals for a scene in which Alina overhears a conversation while dressing in another room; the scene becomes increasingly overdetermined via Paul’s meddling. Paul continually changes the circumstances of the scene to make it more “real,” but Alina stares at him confused by its strange inauthenticity. She constantly thinks of rationalizations for her character’s actions, while Paul offers nothing of the sort. When he does give advice, it’s either metaphorical (“The dress becomes your armor”) or abstract (“The action must be reflected in every inch of your being!”). Instead of working through the scene practically, Paul thinks through his conception of “realism”—if Alina needs ten minutes to dry her hair in real life, then he must show the same in the film. If it all seems bizarre, add that we don’t even learn what Paul’s film is about besides the fact it’s “political”; Paul’s so focused on his theoretical approach to filmmaking he’s not even thinking about his script.
What drives Paul’s worldview? When Evening Falls on Bucharest provides no simple answers to his psychology. However, we can see similar overly rational characters in Porumboiu’s other works, using semantics and word games to justify impractical orders: the ridiculous television debate about the exact moment Ceausescu fled the country in 12:08 East of Bucharest, or the police captain that uses the dictionary to justify the imprisonment of a minor criminal in Police, Adjective. Other Romanian filmmakers have portrayed overly rational characters in irrational situations (Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas and Radu Jude’s Everybody in Our Family to name two). All this imposed order amongst chaos could surely be read as a product of lingering post-Soviet anxieties; in these films, the male characters, especially, try to force a frustrating, unsuccessful structure to the lives around them.
Paul’s distressing rationality affects his relationship with Alina as well as his work. When she chats with another director, he accuses her of flirting with him, thinking that would be her only reason to talk with him. Later, when the two discuss the trend of directors and their actresses sleeping together, it’s easy to follow his thinking: she has slept with him, thus she is bound to sleep with every director she will ever work with. His final scene with her—in which he tells her that he needs to cut down the scene they’ve spent the last two days working on—can be read twofold. He explains that focusing on her has ruined its essence, but, for someone who prefers working within limitations, he’s clearly frustrated at not being able to control her outside the picture.
In interviews, Porumboiu has cited Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt as a major influence; that self-reflexive experiment was essentially an “anti-film,” less celebratory of the “magic of movies” than investigative of its own techniques. Porumboiu never turns the camera directly on himself, but he does take us inside his body, literally, for the film’s penultimate shot. After Paul lies about an ulcer to get out of shooting, his producer demands a video to prove this excuse to the insurance investigator, so Paul somehow gets a faked medical video. There’s a shock to seeing this moving image tracking down a black hole in low-grade digital video, especially compared to the flattened, master shots that have preceded the film. When Paul’s producer asks if the invisible ulcer could be hidden on the side of the frame, he replies that the important visual information would be in the center—a claim that could be read as quite contradictory to Porumbiou’s off-kilter style throughout the film. Is this faked video a setup meant to mock philistines who would misinterpret his work? Or perhaps it’s a sign that however much his approach to moviemaking might be ridiculous, it’s certainly not conventional.
If Porumboiu has indeed made a film that questions his own methods, there is certainly a strong ambivalence on display toward his main character and potential surrogate. And yet Porumboiu’s film conveys his narrative in this practiced style nonetheless, and with striking nuance and wit. Where does the filmmaker go from here? More long take films, or perhaps another bodily investigation? Paul might be limited by his own attitudes, but Porumboiu seems like a filmmaker who could head in infinite directions.