Growing up in the glory days of liveleak and 4chan it’s hard to imagine any images can still shock, but Radu Jude manages to find some in Bad Luck Banging (2021) by starting the film with straight up, full penetration porn. i only wish i could have seen it in a cinema with the over-sixties who tend to populate screenings of this kind of European arthouse movie. Porn in and of itself is hardly surprising, none the less shocking, it pours through every little abscess of the internet—something most everyone of my generation have been exposed to from age ten on—but it’s not something you’re supposed to see in a film; it’s part of everyday life that feels isolated from an art-form that seems still to be lingering in the 20th century, struggling to find it’s place in a world with such a radically different relationship to images. The cinema isn’t a place to go to see images, beautiful people and beautiful things, you’re assaulted by them every second of every day.
In the first of the film’s three parts One Way Street, we follow Emi (Katia Pascariu), the maker (with her husband) of the aforementioned porn, as she wanders through the pandemic ridden streets. We slowly figure that she’s a teacher and that she’s in a lot of trouble since that video found it’s way online, even if by shady pc repair guys. We only briefly follow her in this forty-minute section as each camera move continues past her and Jude shows us more images that, though in this case partly for legal reasons, you are not supposed to see in a film—I did not know it was legally possible to show a giant inflatable play area teeming with Paw Patrol branding—and it’s hard not to respect a movie that acknowledges just how full the world is with Paw Patrol garbage. At its worst this formal gimmick does feel a like art house parody. It really teeters when we pan from a book called “My Jesus” to Frozen and Emoji Movie backpacks, but the novelty of the latter images just about holds it together; it’s a novel image if not a novel thought.
Jude is also making one of the first serious attempts to capture life under covid, everyone is masked up or notably not and getting increasingly mad at each other. It doesn’t quite grasp the twisted sense of normalcy that may well have set in after it was shot (and of course I can only really speak for how it is in London), but the bigger problem is in the formal shortcut he takes to show ‘reality.’ The camera pans into the real streets with real people and they occasionally look into the camera; they’re at least aware of it. It’s hard for the film to build a sense of atmosphere with this constant need to affirm it’s own realness; Emi doesn’t disappear into the ‘real world,’ she’s not oppressed by it’s mood. She stands outside of it—the only actor in a world of people.
When we next see her again in Part III: Praxis and Innuendo (Sitcom) she’s in a world of pure archetype: the military man, the prudish parent and the misogynist intellectual. They’re all at the school to put her on some kind of mock trail. There’s some pretty funny and, to me, quite valuable polemics about the military’s continuing structural presence, the fascism that lay in wait only slightly underneath the surface, if underneath at all.
Some of this is specific to Romania, Emi reads a pornographic poem by Romania’s “national poet” Eminescu, much to the shock and/or dismissal of many of the archetype: their great poet would never have done something that that. (In one of the film’s most amusing bit of ambiguity—something jude is generally not interested in—Emi knows this poem by heart but has to read an equally long quote about the value of memorisation, and thus teaching, from her phone).
If you wanted to connect these disparate polemics into some kind of arc, you could say that the people mistrust Emi—the teacher, if you wanted to turn her into an archetype too—in the same way they more broadly distrust institutions, especially in the wake of Covid as we see conspiracy theories bandied about in both parts in a way that has become a part of the texture of everyday life. Jude is smart enough to not believe that wholeheartedly—it’s a problem of pieces as much as of wholes—he makes a stand against those with a reactionary mistrust, who call Covid fake, but he’s hardly invested in the institutions either. Emi reads a quote, trying to justify her role as teacher, which describes education as a kind of violence.
The film is at its most clear and effective in Part II: A Short Dictionary of Anecdotes, Signs, and Wonders when the polemics are further disembodied and even more direct. Jude shows a series of images with text commenting on them, placed in alphabetical orders based on portentous titles like: “Family” (six out of ten children are subject to family violence), “Blowjob” (the most looked up word in the online dictions), and “Zen” (human life must be seen as both tragedy and comedy).
It’s hard not to find the section titled “The Romanian Orthodox Church”—where we read that the church kept their doors shut as revolutionaries were executed outside, and see church members singing “oh fascist youth, hearts of steel, souls like lilies”—far more powerful than seeing the archetype of fascism, the militia man, singing the same song in Part III after shouting that teachers are funded by George Soros and Bill Gates.
This is felt even more strongly in the ending in which we are shown three possibilities, the last being the most notable and noted upon: Emi transforms into a wonder woman-like costume and gets her violent revenge by shoving a giant dildo down the throats of all those who put her on trial. It’s not half as shocking as the opening, not just because it lacks that sense of reality and physicality, but because there is no reality and physicality around it to break out of it. It’s hard to find catharsis knocking down a world so thoroughly artificial, built only to be prodded at and broken down. It’s powerful in the abstract, it sounds good in a review, but in practice it’s, as the film says of itself: “but a joke”.
After all Jude’s attempt at expansion of form it seems like resignation, a recession into the fantasy world of content that the film so sharply resents, and that’s most likely the point. It’s built like an agitprop film—constantly pointing to itself as an object, shouting it’s ideas at you, telling you how they relate to the world outside of it—but it has no message. There’s no reassuring drive to get out to vote or even to go get your vaccine, everything is shit. It’s all shit and there’s nowhere else to go.
Originally posted on Substack on January 6th 2022