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An Insect's Passing Fancy

Georgiana Madin of the 2013 Talent Press Sarajevo reviews Corneliu Porumboiu's film WHEN EVENING FALLS ON BUCHAREST OR METABOLISM.


Corneliu Porumboiu's WHEN EVENING FALLS ON BUCHAREST OR METABOLISM.

Voicing a common contemporary fear about the future of cinema in the digital age (a fear that Leos Carax has also worriedly expressed in a recent interview), Corneliu Porumboiu's latest feature film WHEN EVENING FALLS ON BUCHAREST OR METABOLISM is narrated through the perspective of Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), a film director in his thirties who, during the shooting of his next film, becomes romantically involved with Alina (Diana Avrămuţ), an actress with a minor role. Even though her role is only an unfilled logical gap in Paul's project, the director finds himself trapped by his inability to make Alina's part ring true to his fixed ideas of acting; to help the process, he toys with the idea of giving her a nude scene as well.

If in POLICE, ADJECTIVE (2009), Porumboiu analyzed the potential of words to become tools of oppression in the frame of hierarchical power positions, here he develops a self-referential lesson of cinema tightly bound with the semiotic of gesture and the haphazard motivations that often underlie meaning in film. Working as an inventory of real time lapses that never exceed 11 minutes (the maximum time length of film stock), the film follows the meandering and sometimes irrational process through which Paul constructs – or rather deconstructs – what is to him authentic significance in acting. While he extends these ideas to real life and shows that he can't even fake a stomach ache without actually feeling it, Alina is a repertoire of predefined actions and gestures that she believes lead to definite meanings. Conflict arises from this clash of attitudes, out of which neither comes out more victorious nor more valuable than the other.

In his erratic yet very ambitiously explained search for meaning, Paul drops his producer a few lies, in order to meet Alina under the pretext of rehearsal, a caprice that delays the production of his film. In the 17 scenes that depict the static narrative evolution, Porumboiu does little to interfere with the way viewers extract their own meaning from Paul's behavior. Instead, devoted to a realism that insists on presenting chunks of reality as the only mode of letting meaning come through – according to each one's own perceptions – Porumboiu initially parallels his auctorial principles with Paul's principles. Not only is this illustrated by the long, often fixed, shots in which Paul and Alina do nothing else (except the off-screen sex scenes) but rehearse a transitional scene and invest in the brushing of a dress or the exit from the bathroom intense dramatic potential, but it is also humorously referenced when Paul says that he will film her drying her hair for as long as it takes – even 10 minutes – just to stress the importance of complete, progressive and real action and to show her how mechanic and uninvolved she is in her interpretation.

But it is only up to a point that Paul's voicing of Porumboiu's ideas can be confused with sympathy on the part of the Romanian director towards his protagonist. In fact, once again faithful to realism, Porumboiu allows his male character to carry on with his stubbornness about self-made principles, until the structures of his theories crumble under their own weight. The liberty he offers his characters is not synonymous with taking their sides. Even though one may think that Paul's vision of the world is superior to Alina's, this comes only as a reading that depends on the viewer and also on the stamina with which Paul corroborates his own ideas. All Porumboiu does in terms of characterization is to capture them next to each other, for example while they eat, dimly recalling the shot in POLICE, ADJECTIVE where the husband eats and the wife listens to music – a shot that many viewers thought meant a lack of communication. Here, it is underlined by contrast: Paul eats greedily, in a theoretical accordance with his visceral way of living, whereas Alina is very picky, attentive and composedly detached, seemingly just like she acts in film or like she seizes opportunities in real life. We can't understand what they think about each other, nor can we ascertain whether their difference of opinion and style signifies incompatibility. The shots in which the two rehearse or eat are so flattened, minimalistic and ascetically composed that they don't communicate the faintest change of heart.

Porumboiu fully sticks to his attitude of not hinting at his characters' emotions. They may have a tumultuous inner core, but he renders it opaque and, might I say, irrelevant to understanding the story. Most of the image they show to the world is only an adornment – Paul's fussiness about the evolution of cuisine under the influence of tools and his desire to prove he is apt at finding cultural meanings fare no better than this; hinting at what he may feel would look like an excuse. Even if he takes distance from Alina through the cinematic medium, Paul is unable to mould her being into a sophisticated presence, and so he fails at sustaining his opinions with empirical evidence.

Proceeding like an entomologist, Porumboiu gets as close as making the lives of his characters look like scientific recordings of organisms, hence the title and the faked endoscopy. This intention is further sustained by the characters' reaction to the entrance of another, the well-known director brilliantly played by Alexandru Papadopol in the carnal greed he shows towards Alina. Paul and Alina face him like nothing more than biological organisms – once a stronger bull is in the arena, Paul returns to the initial scope of his film and gives up the hectic logic of casting Alina in an additional nude scene; Alina, now having been given a chance by a stronger male to stand out in her career, takes up Paul's very defective logic and turns it on its head to suit her. Now that the power poles have shifted, Porumboiu's refusal to mediate the character-viewer relationship effortlessly unfolds into a densely packed concept – logic and reason only need a strongly determined bearer to actually make sense, and meaning only exists as long as it can be beneficial in a certain context. A bitter but solid essay about the nature of human relationships, When Evening Falls on Bucharest is in the long term likely to provoke viewers into examining how many times their logic is a by-product of chemical reactions.



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