Bad Luck Banging

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeala cu bucluc sau porno balamuc) (2021)

In Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (Babardeala cu bucluc sau porno balamuc), the titular ‘banging’ and ‘porn’ come front-loaded, if heavily qualified. For the film opens cold in the middle of an amateurish if energetic POV sex tape in the making, as a woman in a pink wig engages in a range of graphically depicted acts (masturbation, fellatio, doggy-style sex, some whip play) with the cameraman, even as her mother keeps knocking comically on the bedroom door with questions about the woman’s young daughter. It will become clear that the lovers are not only consenting adults, but enthusiastic and genuinely loving – not professional pornographers, but husband and wife (and father and mother), just trying to spice up their sex lives with some light cosplay and rôle play, and with the camera itself as a(nother) marital aid. 

Yet this sequence also positions us, the viewers, as voyeuristic consumers of porn, while the footage itself, foolishly uploaded to a private site by the cameraman/husband Eugen (Stefan Steel), will soon be downloaded, duplicated and disseminated, becoming a viral sensation and a scandalous cause célèbre. This is not good for the woman at the video’s centre – and indeed the film’s main character – Mrs Emilia Cilibiu (Katia Pascariu). For she is a respected, respectable history teacher at a prestigious, “Oxford quality” primary school for Romania’s élite, and the leak of the tape will see both Emi, and the society around her, coming under intense scrutiny.

Following this prologue and title, Bad Lack Banging or Loony Porn will present itself in three formally headed parts, followed by a similarly tripartite coda. The first of these parts, called One-way street, follows Emi as she walks through Bucharest on various errands, anxiously awaiting the parent-teacher meeting at the end of the day which will determine her fate. If Jude’s film opened with a bang, this section establishes the film as ‘observational’ in a different way, tracking Emi’s cross-town journey with fly-on-the-wall naturalism, even if the camera regularly drifts from our utterly ordinary heroine’s mundane shopping trips and home visits to take in contradictory little details of the urban spaces around her: a book entitled My Jesus in a shop window next to a children’s comic book, one billboard advertising Superkombat alongside another promoting a corporate cafe chain, developments and construction sites juxtaposed to abandoned buildings and ruins. This section also takes in the vicious microaggressions and seemingly endless altercations of those around Emi, as they argue about mask-wearing and infection (this was shot during the pandemic), about class and status, or just about right of way. Everybody is extremely discourteous, including one old woman who, in an ironic echo of the film’s prologue, addresses the camera directly with the unprovoked and entirely gratuitous words, “Eat my cunt.” So this first section plays as a kind of negative city symphony, presenting the Romanian capital as a place of deep-seated hostility, opposition and belligerence. In crossing Bucharest, Emi is also navigating a minefield.

The second part, entitled Short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders, is a series of drily cynical comments (in text form) on Romanian history, sociology and religion, to the accompaniment of file footage revealing the country’s Nazi and colonialist past, the cruel dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu, and the new dominance of capital and commerce. This is where the film expressly lays out its stall as a national satire, attacking the state’s institutions – the media, the church, the army and the political leadership – as models that instantiate and perpetuate a particularly Romanian brand of hypocrisy. There is also here, in keeping with the film’s broader concern with education, a focus on the way that children are indoctrinated and even abused at home, until they too become ‘good’ Romanians in the image of their parents. This non-narrative middle section of the film, too bitterly sardonic to be mere didactic agitprop, bites hard.  

Part III, entitled Praxis and innuendos (sitcom), depicts a Kafka-esque trial, as Emi finds herself being judged by a group of (sometimes) socially distanced parents who represent the pillars of Romanian society in cross section – a pilot, a priest, a decorated soldier, etc. Between them, they will offer a postmodern chaos of confused views that are variously illiberal and misogynistic, anti-intellectual, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma. The men will openly salivate over the sex video while calling Emi a ‘whore’, one of the women will question Emi’s honour despite having tried herself to bribe Emi earlier, and the military top brass will engage in wild – and wildly offensive – conspiracy theories. Emi may be in the hot seat, trying calmly to parry attacks on her person that are all at once prejudiced and irrational, two-faced and phony, but really it is Romania that is on trial here and found sorely wanting. 

If all three of these chapters offer the same ugly depiction of the Romanian status quo in three contrasting ‘genres’, the coda offers a Choose Your Own Adventure-style selection of three possible outcomes for the harried Emi: one low-key triumphant, one resignedly tragic, and one involving a sexualised variant on the sort of wish fulfilment fantasy escapism that viewers normally seek from a DC or MCU superhero movie (even as the lyrics to the song playing on the soundtrack go, “It is impossible to tell from a picture alone, whether it’s true or false”). When, near the beginning of Jude’s feature, the title Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn had first appeared on screen, it was accompanied by a subtitle modestly promising ‘a sketch for a film’. Perhaps that characterisation is not wrong – but the film’s sketch-like nature is able to accommodate all manner of taboo ideas about a nation and, more reflexively, about both the freedom and limits of cinema itself to speak truth to power. 

At one point, Jude expressly proposes the myth of Medusa as an analogy for cinema: much as the polished shield with which the goddess Athena gifted Perseus allows the hero to look upon the reflection of the monstrous Medusa without risk of being petrified by the Gorgon’s true image, both the screens and fictions of cinema provide a filter that allows the horrors of reality to be seen with relative safety. In the end, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn invites us to watch sensitive, even subversive materials through the dark, distorting glass of its cartoonish cinema, shielding us from the danger of being turned to stone (or even made rock hard). Any way you look at it, though, this film’s image of Romania is far from sexy, once a video intended to be personal has become public and political – and the film’s ultimate, angrily absurdist message is rammed down the throat with the kind of exultantly heroic irrumation that would make even Catullus blush. Satire, after all, gives voice to the oppressed while forcing silence upon their oppressors.

strap: Radu Jude’s biting tripartite satire offers a hardcore exposé of two-facedness in Romanian society

© Anton Bitel