Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jan 23, 2022 11:37 am 
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A provocative and effectively messy Romanian film about the injustice of internet (sex) scandals

The important thing to note is that Radu Jude's film, set during the pandemic with masks and social distancing, is in raucous bad taste throughout, but its provocations are scattershot and sometimes score and others bore. "Its critique of misplaced moral panic around sex instead of more pressing political issues will likely strike a more damning note in religiously conservative countries like Romania than elsewhere," Stephen Dalton noted in a Hollywood Reporter review penned at the Berlinale, where the film won Jude his second Golden Bear. Nonetheless, if this is a "bad film," it's a damn good one and a highly original and quite earnest one that will wake you up.

The outset is the biggest provocation, the starting point of all the action: a short but exuberant, joyful, and totally explicit cell-phone-filmed sex tape shot by a married couple with fellatio, anal sex, dirty talk, and a pink fright wig, and a real erection and real penetration. It was shot, in the film's story, that is, by Eugen (Stefan Steel) the partner of Emilia Cilibiu, known as Emi (Katia Pascariu), who happens to teach Romanian history at a quality Bucharest high school. Eugen, we later learn, puts it on a "private" fetish site, which means it rapidly goes onto the internet at large and thence into the startled eyeballs of Emi's school's administrators, faculty, students, and their parents, with immediate dire consequences for Emi.

This opening pre-title segment is a shocker: you've never seen a full-on sex tape in a movie made for general or arthouse consumption and probably won't soon again.Though under three minutes, the lively, real hardcore action is hard to take in a mainstream context and hence seems, well, pretty long It would have been perfectly possible for Jude not to have shown a second of the actual tape; but his game is provocation. (I don't know his eight other films but gather he is usually a provocateur, much focused on such issues as Romanian anti-Semitism and Holocaust complicity, but this is his most clearly outrageous film yet.)

Jude's images are tasteless in other ways, simply in being crude. There is nothing pretty about the first of the three parts that follow the intro sex tape, which depicts Emi in a frumpy suit and messy hair walking across Bucharest on a hot summer day to her school where a hearing will be held to vote on whether she can stay at her job. The point here is to show dozens of incidents where people are rude, provocative, or obscene, even to an old lady who utters a sexual slur to the camera in a third-wall interruption. The camera repeatedly pans away from Emi to focus on posters or ruined facades or other city scenes. One point is that the language of public discourse is pornographic. Maybe another key one is that people are strung out and angry from the persistence of the pandemic, whose presence is indicated by the many stages of mask-wearing on display in Bucarest's streets.

Jude again provokes by presenting a second part that drops the narrative for a 26-minute A to Z "short dictionary of anecdotes, signs and wonders.” Jumping around in Romanian history and folklore, this segment lists multiple samples of sexism, child abuse, racism, antisemitism, Communist-era corruption and fascist collaboration, including his major concern of Romania's collaboration in the Holocaust. This segment is a key element in establishing Jude's radical structure. But it's also meandering, sometimes boring, scattershot. It maintains energy only through the suspense it arouses since we want to know where the sex tape controversy will go. No one way, as it turns out. That the issue isn't, perhaps can't be, seriously resolved is a natural outcome of Jude's Brechtian audience-provocation: he will poke us, but not satisfy us.

Part three is Emi's "hearing" before a motley gathering of covid mask-wearing priests, military men, parents, teachers who accuse or attack her and only occasionally defend her, though in one of the three alternative final votes that come at the end she wins. Again, a wild mixture here because Emi's earnest self defenses, which can be taken quite seriously, come from a different movie. As the opening of the actual sex tape shows, Jude believes we should not be shocked by it or bar anyone from their job for making such a tape. But as the attacks grow more racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic as well as obscene (while also prudish), they may amuse but are too surreal to bring to life the very real issue of someone of probity otherwise being in such a dilemma.

The film's inclusion of the words "bad luck" in its title hints at an inevitable aspect of situations like this: however you may sympathize with Emi, evidently a teacher admired by all up to now; however she may be right that whatever she and her husband dd in bed, including filming themselves doing it, is their own business and not lewd nor is she a whore for acting "dirty" to excite her husband in private sex; however she may be innocent of broadcasting the tape herself; however it has been wrong, and not Emi's responsibility, that the kids have been able to see it (and however they did so), this exposure irrevocably taints her as a public figure, i.e. a schoolteacher. The film's third part brings out various arguments about all this in an interesting way. But then the other people present - except for the headmistress (Claudia Ieremia), who wants Emi to be allowed to stay on - become more and more slapstick, and a hand-to-hand fight between women even breaks out. A final short segment shows Emi using a giant dildo to wreak violent fantasy-revenge on her accusers.

Radu Jude seems to me an acquired taste, but his appeal ranges from the relentless provocateur Armond White, who calls Loony Porn, a film "that both Godard and Makavejev might approve," to the New York Times' much more mainstream chief film critic A.O. Scott, who in his review runs through Jude's oeuvre approvingly and makes this new film a Critic's Pick. Evidently for the people of the Berlinale, the Radu Jude taste has become addictive. But look: he clearly undercuts some of his best stuff here with his tonal imbalances, scattershot organization, and adolescent humor. Nonetheless, he brings out the issue of private life encroaching horribly on one's public one so vividly I was immediately moved to write this review.

Bad Luck Banging or Loojny Porn/Babardeala cu bucluc sau porno balamuc , 106 mins., in Romanian, debuted at Berlin where it won the Golden Bear. It was shown at over 40 international festivals, including the New York Film Festival, and has been released in at least 17 countries. It was Romania's submission for the International Feature Film Oscar, but not among the fifteen finalists. US limited release by Magnoilia was Nov. 19, 2021. Wider US release Jan. 22, 2022. At Roxie Theater, San Francisco, Opens Virtually Jan. 21, 2022 at Roxie Theater Virtual, with in-person screenings at the Roxie Sat., Jan. 22 at 9:15 p.m., Fri., Jan. 28, 2022 at 9:25 pm and Tues., Feb. 1, 2022 at 9:15 p.m. Metacritic rating: 75%.

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