Picture This
By Lawrence Garcia

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World
Dir. Radu Jude, Romania, Luxembourg, France, Croatia, MUBI

Of the filmmakers who came to prominence during the Romanian New Wave, Radu Jude has proven the most prone to a kind of genre nomadism. To date, he has made naturalistic dramas laden with social import (The Happiest Girl in the World, Everybody in Our Family); a quasi-Western in 19th-century rural Romania (Aferim!); a sanatorium-set period piece (Scarred Hearts); essayistic fictions (“I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians,” Uppercase Print); and archival documentaries that excavate dark periods of Romanian history (The Dead Nation, The Exit of the Trains). His Golden Bear–winning Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021) unites several aesthetic tendencies, comprising three distinct chapters, as well as three different endings. These film-to-film shifts have required that Jude regularly change up his visual palette—which means that his style is not as immediately recognizable as that of, say, Wes Anderson, Kubrick, or any other director routinely subjected to user experiments in AI. Speaking on this aspect of his work in a recent interview, Jude has gone so far as to say: “I don’t have a style.” Then again, what Jude’s genre-hopping tendencies seem to suggest is a conception of style that’s irreducible to purely visual markers.

Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, Jude’s latest feature, multiplies the consequences of this position. Comprising two distinct chapters, the film freely mixes disparate formats, textures, and modes. The first chapter follows two days in the life of a brash, overworked production assistant, Angela (Ilinca Manolache), as she drives around Bucharest filming casting interviews with injured factory workers for a safety video commissioned by an Austrian conglomerate. Shot in 16mm black and white, these scenes are intercut not just with color footage from Angela Moves On (1981), a Ceaușescu-era film about a female taxi driver, but also with satirical video broadcasts in which modern-day Angela poses as “Bobita,” an online Andrew Tate parody, delivering misogynistic, racist, and conspiratorial rants under the cover of a face filter. Wildly entertaining and fueled by Manolache’s live-wire energy, this section sees Angela encounter the much-maligned genre filmmaker Uwe Boll, here depicted shooting some CGI-heavy sci-fi production; Dorina Lazăr, who played the original Angela from Angela Moves On; and Doris (Nina Hoss), the head of the Austrian company commissioning the safety video, who also happens to be a descendant of Goethe. Eventually, the film segues into its second, shorter, but more aesthetically rigorous chapter: a 40-minute, on-set, locked-down shot depicting the filming of the work safety video, in which the interviewee is forced to censor parts of his story for the benefit of the company.

From the outset, it is clear that Do Not Expect is a film immersed in the contemporary production and circulation of images. By plunging the viewer into Angela’s production travails, it operates in the vein of Harun Farocki’s 1983 short An Image, which chronicles a four-day shoot for a centerfold spread of Playboy magazine, observing how an entire process is collapsed into formula. It is significant, however, that Do Not Expect arrives in an era when such reflexive material investigations as Farocki’s have themselves become formulaic. In the context of An Image, it is natural to see the photography studio as the “real” space, in contrast to the literal flatness of the final product. But once the film itself is seen to operate according to a recognizable style—once we are able to identify a generic category to which it would belong—its images no longer take on the same kind of depth. The glut of contemporary image culture has sensitized us to how seemingly any sequence of images can be connected to cinematic precedent. (The visual markers we associate with Malick, for instance, are as open to being aped by aspiring auteurs, as by advertising agencies.) The result is a heightened awareness in our viewing, one that threatens to collapse the diegetic space of the film onto the literal flatness of the movie screen.

In Do Not Expect, this tension manifests as a relentless referentiality and reflexivity—an acute sense of how its images link up to existing films, styles, genres. There is, foremost, the inclusion of footage from Angela Moves On, though the choice to alternate between the two Angelas also recalls Dušan Makavejev’s Innocence Unprotected (1968), which includes footage from the 1941 film of the same name (intended to be the first Serbian sound film), with newsreel footage and interviews with surviving cast members. The parallel between the two Angelas is set up by the film’s opening, which presents the title card on a sheet of paper held up in front of the camera, and is followed by a sheet that says “A) Angela: a conversation with a 1981 film.” But this framing device is itself a reference to the music video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues” from Dont Look Back (1967), which is explicitly brought up during the work-safety video shoot—though it may also be connected to Hollis Frampton’s Poetic Justice (1972), in which an entire cinematic scenario is presented via sheets of paper resting on a table.

What Jude is contending with here is—not to put too fine a point on it—the fact of film history. As his oeuvre suggests, he understands that making a film in the present requires one to acknowledge that the entirety of the cinema is contemporary with it—that one cannot, for instance, put a man on a horse without potentially recalling the tradition of the western, or shoot in certain parts of San Francisco without bringing Vertigo (1958) to mind. The medium having built up a history, no image is free from such associations. In his confrontation of this fact, the filmmaker Jude most closely resembles is Godard, whom Andrew Sarris once described as “cursed with a fantastic memory of the medium.” Jude evidently shares this burden. Like Godard, he is acutely aware of how every image or sequence of images can be sorted into genres, textures, colors, references, and so on—categories whose associations stretch back into the whole of cinema’s past. And he understands that this is not the easiest position to be in, for it would seem to indicate a closure of artistic possibilities. Throughout Angela’s nonstop itinerary, we get an acute sense of how contemporary life has been completely overtaken by work—by its drudgery and normalized exploitation, and the sheer physical and mental toll it exerts. The sense of exhaustion Do Not Expect conveys, though, is not just physical but creative as well. In the various people Angela meets, we see the difficulty of doing something new in an environment where it seems that everything has already been done. What Jude also understands, however, is that the task of confronting the past—what one might call the responsibility to remember—is not a constraint on artistic novelty but rather a condition of it. For Jude, as for Godard, to engage with film history is not to close off aesthetic possibilities, but to transform them.

The closing chapter of Do Not Expect puts this principle into practice. For 40 minutes, the fixed composition sees the wheelchair-bound worker situated in the center of the frame, as he is subjected to various pressures to change his story and capitulate to the interests of the company producing the video. On the one hand, it is an explicit return to the fixed-frame setups of the early cinema—to what Noël Burch once termed “primitive modes of representation” (as opposed to the “institutional modes of representation” of the studio system). On the other, Jude’s decision to shoot things in this way is, precisely, a choice in a way that it wasn’t previously, and consequently reveals possibilities only latent in, say, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895). The underlying thought is not some positivist notion of artistic progress, but rather the idea that one’s engagement with the past can reveal possibilities which in one sense are new, but which, in another, were there from the very start. The closing chapter thereby doubles as a history of labor and of filmic representations of it. As its title suggests, the film’s outlook on both counts is not exactly optimistic. Nevertheless, it carries the conviction that so long as we are willing to engage with the past, we have a right to expect something from the future.