Director – Radu Jude – 2021 – Romania – Cert. 18 – 106m
A teacher becomes the subject of controversy after her husband’s private sex tape is posted online – on BFI Player Subscription from Friday, April 1st
Park your prejudices at the door! The opening three or so minutes of this will surprise or possibly even shock you – basically, hard core, live action genital sex images of a man and a woman, no holds barred. Real, not simulated. And real in other senses too – banging… knocking… (oh God, double entendres, can’t see how to avoid them here) on the door as our couple go at it… Her mother, one imagines, heard through the wall… “Emi, are you asleep” – Emi’s reply, “please leave us alone” – her mother again, “the little one hasn’t sanitised”…
Yes, it’s the world of immediate, post-lockdown pandemic, with people wearing masks and social distancing (or not, if they don’t get it). That wasn’t in the script but when director Jude was shooting in Bucharest: Romania was coming out of lockdown, and he decided to incorporate that into his film. Most contemporary films pretend we’re in a world where Covid-19 never happened or isn’t happening, so we just carry on as normal. However, that hasn’t been our experience for most of us. We’ve come out of lockdown and worn masks, as much to protect others as anything else, and been frustrated when people haven’t likewise thought to mask up and protect us. Go out and shoot a film where people go to the shops or cross the street wearing masks… suddenly you have my full attention. That what Jude has done and here. And that’s not even what his film’s about. This element is just there, part and parcel of the everyday life we all have to live post-pandemic.
Actually, he does a lot more than that. As his heroine Emi (Katia Pascariu) walks down the street the camera pans away from her and upwards to show a hoarding advertising a boxing match, adorned with threatening muscular male bodies. Another occasion, we move off her and up to see a woman about to swallow something, sexualised by a slogan along the lines of, “I like it deep”. We’ve recognised Emi having sex, but that’s just a part of life along with going to the shops, walking along the street or calling in to visit friends, colleagues or relatives. Yet these figures on billboards are selling caricatures, marketing icons who bear no relation to actual real life: the ideas they’re selling are untenable. Every time Jude’s camera meanders away from his supposed narrative, he shows us another facet of Romanian society – and if you’re paying attention and reading the signs, they don’t look good.
The plot – well, Emi is a teacher, married (we only see her partner in the opening self-shot video sex frolic, although she talks to him a great deal on the phone during the course of the film) with kids (as noted in those opening minutes) and unfortunately for her, as she admits at least once, her husband has uploaded that video to a DIY porn site. Elsewhere she maintains a fiction that it was uploaded by peole at the camera repair shop. She has been recognised and although the video has been taken down by the site, it keeps cropping up on blog posts or being reuploaded by people who saved it in case it disappeared. Her headmistress has called a PTA meeting to discuss Emi’s position (another double entendre).
The film is bookended by Emi and her husband’s sex tape at the start and a post-PTA finale in which she is transformed into wonder woman to orally assault her various detractors with a dildo. It sounds (and indeed is) completely bonkers, but by that point you’ll be alongside Emi and wanting to encourage her in this. At least I hope you will: if you find yourself siding with all those who speak out against her, I suggest you’re in trouble. Actually, there are three separate endings in this section, calling into question what the whole film was about and presenting three very different versions of society.
In between these bookends, there are three longer sections. The first has Emi going about her day-to-day business, which currently includes lots of phone calls to her husband as she tries to spur him into action on getting the video taken down, like a stressful game of whack-a-mole. The third section is the PTA meeting, where Emi’s rational attempts at defending her (ahem) position come up against an irate woman parent who helpfully saved the video to show it again at the meeting for those who missed it, such as the man who bemoans that he missed it originally because he was working a shift. A priest (wearing a mask adorned with the BLM slogan “I can’t breathe”) complains that Emi has been promoting “Jewish lies about the Holocaust” to their children. An airline pilot and a general back him up.
When Emi counters claims that she has allowed children to see sexual things they shouldn’t with questions as to why children are allowed their own mobile phones which means they can access anything that’s out there on the web and presumably their parents think this is okay, no-one engages with her arguments. Perhaps they don’t even listen to them. The PTA meeting constantly goes off at tangents thanks to a mixed bag of assorted irrational arguments by some decidedly off the wall parents in attendance and in the end, any attempt at rational sense by Emi or her headmistress (chairing the meeting) is derailed. In fact, they are off the wall in much the same way as the incidental details picked up by the wandering camera in the film’s first segment.
As if to really bring this out, a second section comprises a compendium of images and clips of all manner of socio-political, sexual or other subject matter: a recollection of a speedily carried out official round-up of Jews and Roma so that the perpetrators could get home to their families for Christmas; a photographic shot of and a discussion of a vagina; a comment that “blow job” is the term most frequently searched for online.
Jude’s film is a bizarre circus of truth, half-truth, ordinary everyday living, prejudice, bigotry and a tale of an essentially good woman, an unlucky victim of stupidity, as she attempts to navigate her way through the morass. Emi is told she should resign, when all she has done is participated in consensual sex with her husband. Society, it seems, can’t handle the idea of two people wilfully engaging in sex without having them – or at least the woman, because no-one seems the slightest bit worried about her husband – pilloried. In Romanian society, it gets her slut-shamed and will, in all likelihood, get her thrown out of her “respectable” teacher’s job. I fear something very similar would happen to a woman in similar circumstances in the UK.
There is honestly so much going on here that a normal length review can’t do it justice. For me, it’s a film to go back and revisit several times over (and I hope the distributor puts out a Blu-ray in due course.). There’s a reason it won the Golden Bear in Berlin. Go see it, be provoked, be challenged, think, talk about it with your friends and possibly also your enemies, then go back and see it again. An absolutely extraordinary, breathtaking piece of work. And one which improves even as it grows in complexity with each successive viewing.
Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn is on BFI Player Subscription from Friday, April 1st.
71st Berlin International Film Festival: Winner (Golden Bear)
BFI London Film Festival 2021
Cinemas from Friday, November 26th 2021
PVoD and in Virtual Cinemas from Friday, January 28th 2022
VoD from Monday, February 21st 2022
BFI Player Subscription from Friday, April 1st