Sex and the City: Radu Jude’s banging Bucharest symphony

Text of Sex and the City: Radu Jude’s banging Bucharest symphony – my introduction to Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021), screened 9th December 2021 at the Ultimate Picture Palace, Oxford – in which I consider the tripartite film “as a recalcitrant member of the Romanian New Wave, as a sex comedy, as a city symphony, and as a multi-generic exposé of national hypocrisy.”

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Now I don’t believe that I know any of you personally, but I’m willing to hazard a guess that you will have been drawn out to see this particular film on this cold winter night by at least one of two factors. The first is the tidal pull of the Romanian New Wave. In 2004, Cristi Puiu’s Cigarettes and Coffee won the Short Film Golden Bear at the 2004 Berlin international Film Festival, while Catalin Mitulescu’s Traffic won the short film Palme d’Or in the same year at Cannes – and ever since then, the local film industry has been garnering international awards and arthouse attention with features like Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Sierenevada and Malmkrog, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective, and Christian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond The Hills and Graduation. While it is always somewhat perilous to make broad generalisations about a national cinema, permit me to suggest that what these films tend to have in common is their observational naturalism, a rigorously austere style, and an engagement with the darker aspects of Romania’s twentieth-century history – its Nazi alliance in the Second World War and its Communist dictatorship under Ceaucescu – that are often treated with a drily black humour.

Radu Jude has been a part of this movement from the early days. He served as assistant director on Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu, which won the Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005 and so became the first Romanian feature to surf the Romanian New Wave into international recognition. Jude’s Lampa cu căciulă, from 2006,is the most awarded short film in Romanian history, accumulating 15 prizes from various international festivals. And his features The Happiest Girl in the World (2009), Aferim! (2015), Scarred Hearts (2016)and I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History As Barbarians (2018) have also been feted around the world. Indeed that last title, I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians, might have served equally well for Jude’s latest film, which though set mostly over a single day in contemporary Bucharest, has as its main character a history teacher at a prestigious primary school, Mrs Emilia Cilibiu, played by Katia Pascariu – and if the historian Emilia is professionally bound to examine modern Romania through the prism of its past, the film itself is also didactic about the barbarity lingering like a bad smell from the last century or so of Romania’s history.

The film, which won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, is in fact called Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn. This title advertises the film’s second big draw for audiences. Famously, sex sells – and those enticed to watch by a title promising porn and banging will be rewarded with almost immediate gratification. For the very opening sequence, in fact a prologue to the film, comprises hardcore sex, as a wigged woman, shot graphically by her partner in handheld POV, engages enthusiastically in masturbation, fellatio, mild whip play and doggy-style intercourse. The sex is interrupted by the woman’s mother, knocking at the bedroom door, to make it clear that this footage is homemade and amateur – both of which are of course popular porn subcategories. Yet it will emerge that this video was not in fact intended, at least by its female participant Emilia, ever to be porn. Rather, for Emilia, the presence of the camera was, like the use of costumes and verbal role play, just another marital aid, designed to spice up the couple’s bedroom action while her mother babysits their own young daughter elsewhere in the apartment.

Unfortunately, by the time the film’s narrative proper is underway, Emilia’s husband has long since uploaded this very private tape to a private website, and from there it has leaked to public websites and spread virally, and Emilia – a teacher of pampered pre-adolescents from the city’s élite families – is having to face the judgement of her pupils’ parents, with her job and future on the line. We too are being invited to judge, having been tricked into watching what we were primed by the title to see as porn and now having that footage reconfigured and recontextualised as loving play between husband and wife, and never intended for voyeuristic mass consumption. What will emerge is a film that teases out our conflicting, often outright contradictory attitudes towards sex, porn, love, desire, privacy, history, power, gender, viewership and censorship, as the film’s initial big bang ripples and ramifies to create a whole universe of stimulating ideas.  

The principal narrative of Jude’s film is set on the day leading up to, and climaxing in, the school hearing where Emilia’s fate is to be decided, and is divided into three parts, each formally headed with their own titles. These three parts also each belong to different genres. The first tracks Emilia as she runs various errands in the streets of Bucharest, and plays out like a kind of city symphony in negative, with the camera regularly straying from our hassled heroine to capture, in her immediate vicinity, little details and paradoxical juxtapositions that slyly reveal the cultural and sociopolitical background of her predicament. For this is a place of ruins and renovations, stuck between past and present, between monumental communism and corporate capitalism, between religious iconography and sexualised advertisements. Everyone here is relentlessly foul-mouthed and rude, with Bucharest being depicted as an arena of unresolved microaggressions and arbitrary animosities. It is an ugly picture. Only this first section of the film, observational and realist, even begins to conform to the norms of the Romanian New Wave. The second part is a history lesson, a diatribe and a sardonic takedown of the national character all rolled into one encyclopaedic essay in voiceover (accompanied by ironic images) – again not a pretty picture. And the third part is the hearing itself, where not only Emilia, but also her interrogators – and the institutions and mainstays of Romanian culture that they variously embody – are on trial. This is played as broad carnivalesque farce, exposing the hypocrisy and idiocy of the church, the military, and the supposedly respectable classes, who all line up to display their sexism, their racism, their corruption and their concupiscence, in the face of Emilia’s liberalism, rationalism and politely cool defiance.

These three formally different parts of the film all end up telling the same story, forming a grotesque triptych of Romanian society – and they come with not one, but three radically different endings, as though, for all its decidedly adult material, this national allegory comes down to little more than a choose-your-own-adventure book for children, with one of those choices fancifully – and subversively – approximating the sort of wish-fulfilment and empowerment more typically associated with the popular American cinema of the Marvel Comics Universe than with the Romanian New Wave. This infantilised conclusion makes good sense in a film where a teacher sits at a desk before grown-up accusers who behave rather like a classroom full of unruly, bullying school kids.

The 16th poem of Catullus, a Roman poet of the late Republic, both began and ended with the notorious line Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo. This verse translates literally as “I’ll arsefuck and facefuck you”, and was addressed by Catullus, or at least by his poetic persona, to two men who had criticised Catullus for the supposedly improper sexual content to be found in some of his poems – although the explicitness of the line, and the prudishness of our own culture, were enough to ensure that it was not ever actually translated into English until the twentieth century, while in text books it was often bowdlerised even from the original Latin. It is as though teachers and scholars struggled to acknowledge that a great artist could have anything to do with graphic sexuality, and certainly could not accept that there is any place for sexual terms in decent society or its art – even if we are all, inevitably, ourselves the products of sexual union (if perhaps not of oral and anal sex), and ourselves naturally sexual beings. Likewise, some viewers who came to Jude’s film for its respectable membership of the Romanian New Wave might wish to deny that they also came for the banging and porn promised by its title. They might even reject the sexual aspects of the film as not having any proper place on the international arthouse circuit, or in association with the values and ideologies of the Romanian state and character. Such a repressive reception of filmed sexual material is precisely what Emilia is forced to confront from her faux-puritanical, utterly two-faced accusers – even as she points out to them that Romania’s own grand national poet, Mihai Eminescu, was more than capable of penning sexually explicit, even pornographic verse. 

The point, so to speak, of Catullus’ slur was that if his readers took his sexual verses too literally, and confused his poetic persona with his real self, then in reading this latest poem, they might just, by their own skewed logic, end up with the poet’s dick up their arse or in their mouth. And, besides being a sexual act, mouth-fucking is also, often an efficiently forceful way of silencing someone who is talking nonsense. Just like Catullus’ infamous sixteenth poem, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is bookended with acts of irrumation, as Emilia, and Radu Jude with her, insist that we either put up with what we have chosen to see, or shut up. For Jude, like Catullus, is testing the limits of expression and obscenity in art.

One final word: Jude’s ferocious satire may have in its immediate sights Bucharest, or more broadly Romania, but this should make none of us, as we sit here in a different country far away, feel too complacent or safe from its vicious stings. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is a film concerned with the power of the image, the politics of watching, and the way that we expose who we really are in our judgements of others. We are all implicated in Jude’s j’accuse, and left to choke on its bitter message. That said, like so much art that is provocative and obscene, it is also very funny. I hope you enjoy it.

© Anton Bitel

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is available in the UK on VOD here