Corneliu Porumboiu, with just three features now under his belt, has established himself as one of the finest filmmakers of the Romanian new wave. His previous films 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Police, Adjective (2009) impressed film festival audiences and arthouse aficionados with their minimalist, yet darkly comic scenarios, which interrogated both language and cinematic styles with intellectual and structural rigor. Police, Adjective, especially, worked well as a brilliant deconstruction of the police procedural, using sustained long takes, capped by a chilling demonstration of how language works to support unyielding state authority, to powerfully illustrate its themes.
Porumboiu's latest, the cryptically titled When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism, finds him employing his penchant for long takes to interrogate cinematic form itself. He uses a deliberately banal, almost clichéd premise - a film director is having an affair with an actress in his latest feature - as material to both brilliantly demonstrate and slyly parody this sort of rigorously minimalist long-take style of filmmaking.
The first scene, or rather, first shot, establishes the visual and thematic structure of what is to follow. As we will understand as the film progresses, scenes and shots here are virtually synonymous; the entirety of the film's 89 minute running time consists of less than 20 shots (anywhere from 16 to 18, depending on whom you read).
In this first scene, a man and a woman are in a car at night, with the man driving. The unmoving camera is placed behind the two, so that we hear their voices but don't see their faces. These turn out to be the two principal characters: Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) and Alina (Diana Avramut). Paul and Alina are the director and actor having the affair, and we later learn that Alina is also in a relationship with another man. During the ride, Paul theorizes about how, in his conception, film is defined by the limitations caused by the fact that a roll of film can only hold 11 minutes worth of footage. Paul prefers to shoot on film, because with digital, where one can make a shot as long as they like, these limitations are erased, and he would feel lost without them. He does allow, however, that the results of this may be more "lifelike." One day, he feels, digital will cause what he considers to be "movies" to completely disappear. People will still watch what they call "movies," but it won't be truly film as we know it. Considering that Porumboiu shot this film on 35mm, and that this scene itself is the length of a reel of film, it's not too much of a stretch to speculate that Paul's feelings reflect the director's own.
Besides expounding on his theories of the film medium, Paul also proposes a scene that he has written into the film in which Alina appears nude, feeling her out as to her willingness to do this. Alina says she'll only do it if the story justifies it. Paul assures her that it definitely does, though one suspects that this is a ruse just to get her to be naked on camera, and that it's all a matter of how successful Paul is in convincing Alina that this is not the case.
The subsequent scenes build upon this first one, taking us behind the scenes of Paul's film - which we never actually see being shot - and revealing Paul's superior, pontificating attitude as masking crippling indecision and an increasing loss of confidence that seems to manifest itself in a stomach ulcer that he claims is flaring up. He calls his producer Magda (Mihaela Sirbu), canceling that day's planned shoot, telling her he's having problems with his ulcer. In a later scene, Magda expresses skepticism about whether this condition actually exists, demanding medical proof from a doctor.
During the film, there are two scenes in which Paul and Alina rehearse the scene that will involve her nudity. They painstakingly go over every minute detail of the scene, up to and well past the point of absurdity, with Alina questioning the logic and significance of every action, and Paul being forced to justify his ideas for the scene. The stillness of the unblinking (and mostly unmoving) camera enhances the dryly humorous aspects of these scenes. Dialog is heavily used here, and serves to reveal the motivations and subtle power plays on display.
There are also two dinner scenes, during which Paul and Alina discuss the influence of utensils on the content of Eastern and Western cuisine, and during which an element of jealousy on Paul's part is introduced when Laur (Alexandru Papadopol), another film director, says he wants to cast her in his next film. Laur praises Alina's looks, comparing her to Monica Vitti; this leads to a humorous exchange when Alina reveals that she's never heard of either Vitti or Antonioni, her frequent director. Despite Paul's position of power over her as the director, Alina proves to be not nearly as malleable or naïve as he thinks she is, or wishes her to be.
Although When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism at first glance would seem to be an insufferably navel-gazing exercise concerning the over-familiar subject of a film about filmmaking, the wit and structural elegance of Porumboiu's film prevents this from being the case. The twinned rehearsal and dinner scenes give the film a pleasing structural symmetry. Hesitations, awkwardness, and self-delusions are beautifully conveyed in the dialog. This use of dialog, and the presence of the director character, who indecisively dithers over the direction of his life, brings to mind the films of Hong Sang-soo (who Porumboiu himself cites as an influence) and Eric Rohmer. However, the film in no way feels derivative, and is instead further proof of the unique talents of its director, who proves himself equally adept at both employing and interrogating the methods of his chosen medium.
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism screens at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 8, 9:15pm. For more information, visit The Film Society of Lincoln Center's website.