Looking for clues and meaning
by Boyd van Hoeij
23/06/2009 - Winner of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes 2009, the second film by Corneliu Porumboiu confirms the original talent of the young Romanian filmmaker Police, Adjective [trailer, film focus] again showcases the sideways approach to the main narrative and dryly absurd style previously seen in Corneliu Porumboiu’s Camera d’Or winner 12:08 East of Bucharest [trailer, film focus].
It is clear from his second film that the director has grown, rightly understanding that this story needed even more emphasis on the dreariness and emptiness of his hometown Vaslui (also the setting of 12:08), and including long stretches in which nothing much happens but that are crucial to the film’s overall impact.
The first 30 minutes of the story work with a subtle mirror effect, as protagonist Cristi (Dragos Bucur, Boogie [trailer, film focus]), a petty Vaslui police officer, tails a local youth who seems to be up to nothing much, except for the fact that Cristi seems particularly interested in a cigarette butt the young man has left behind on the ground.
By virtue of Poromboiu’s camera, the audience in turn is forced to tail the police officer, so the officer is looking for clues about his suspect, while the audience is looking for clues about the meaning of the film and the clues Cristi is looking for.
As the film progresses it paradoxically becomes clear that the search for meaning is not the means to an end but the actual subject of the film itself. One of the highlights entirely concerned with meaning and reception of meaning is an audacious ten-minute shot that starts with Cristi in the kitchen while his wife listens to an annoying Romanian schlager on YouTube. Cristi explains he does not understand what the song means, while his wife, who seems obsessed with the song, offers an explanation that is both passionate and illogical.
Porumboiu takes his tale of a police investigation of a minor smoking and perhaps selling pot to its rightfully absurd conclusion in another audacious long take. It features a game of semantic hide-and-seek in which the police inspector in charge of the investigation faces off against his boss (Vlad Ivanov of 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days [trailer, film focus]).
Taking up almost twenty minutes and filmed in two long takes divided by a short pillow shot, the film is not only a stunning display of Porumboiu’s directorial prowess, but also a showcase for the actors (many are stage actors and fully used to being in character that long) and, especially, Porumboiu’s unerring eye and ear for the way in which people manipulate dialogue and meaning to suit their own ends.
As in his previous film, the conversation hinges on the definition of concepts and their wider implications, not least of which are political. Because Cristi is a law enforcer by trade, the meaning and interpretation of words take on an even greater importance, while the necessity to properly motivate one’s actions in words is also explored.
A short, unsettling coda wraps up the entire film with the protagonist’s practical application of the reductio ad absurdum principle, effectively cementing Porumboiu’s status as one of the strongest contemporary Romanian or indeed European directors working today.