Film of the Week: When Evening Falls on Bucharest
We’re often told that filmmaking is a visceral pursuit; When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism gives us a case of a filmmaker literally putting his guts on screen. Corneliu Porumboiu’s 2013 feature contains an extract from the endoscopy video of a director named Paul—winding pink tunnels, foamy discharge, and all. Intriguingly, in this narrative about the process of shooting a film, it’s the only piece of footage we see. And significantly, in a work that muses on authenticity and the demands of screen realism, the footage is at once real (indeed, it’s hard to imagine anything much more real than a traveling close-up of a person’s innards) and at the same time fake—since the video is not an up-to-date representation of Paul’s gut at the time he submits it for insurance purposes. When Evening Falls may be a unique case of a film in which a director misuses medical evidence to cover his tracks while dallying with an actress. Oh, those movie people!
All of the above might suggest that When Evening Falls is an outré comedy, or generally confrontational in nature. If it is a comedy, however, it’s so dry and detached that the humor is virtually subliminal, and the film is certainly anything but aggressive. This is the most contemplative of the Romanian director’s fiction features so far, considerably more muted than the testy comedy of his 2006 reputation-making debut 12:08 East of Bucharest, and even lower on action than 2009’s anti-thriller Police, Adjective, which was as claustrophobically procedural as procedurals can possibly get. (I’ve yet to see his documentary of last year, The Second Game, in which Porumboiu reviews a 1988 football match with his referee father.)
When Evening Falls is a new addition to the canon of discursive films-about-film, and it’s certainly one of the most intensely thoughtful, though hardly the most riveting. It comprises a series of primarily locked shots of various lengths (I counted 15, plus the gut footage), one or two of them very short but for most of them extended, the longest clocking in at nine minutes. In fact, the opening sequence—Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) and actress Alina (Diana Avramut) talking in his car, the two of them filmed from behind—contains a discussion of shot length. Paul points out that working on celluloid—as he’s doing in his movie, and as Porumboiu is in his—means that you can only film for a maximum of 11 minutes at a time, a technical limitation which for decades defined the nature of cinema. Video changed everything, he says, and longer takes now allow you to depict the world more faithfully (his endoscopy presumably being an example of in-deep DV realism). It’s a rather academic discussion to anyone who’s not specifically interested in questions of film form and ontology—and we eventually gather that Alina isn’t. Still, if Paul’s hoping to impress her, it seems to work, and the couple kiss at the end of this seven-minute shot.
Paul has got it into his head that he needs Alina to appear naked, a proposal that he insists is absolutely justified by his movie (stop me if you’ve heard this one before…). Shortly after, we see him talking her through a long sequence that involves her dressing after a shower, which leads to a discussion of exactly where her character would keep her tights in her apartment, and why. Alina is skeptical (“You wrote this just so I could appear naked?”), and possibly with good reason; she’s playing a minor character, and yet, because Paul has become fixated on her, or on her shower scene, she seems to have moved to the center of his film. The couple get down to some intensive rehearsing that is either perfectionist truth-seeking, or a pedantic, time-wasting business that holds up production; but it ends up more than once with the couple in bed.
When they’re not rehearsing, screwing, or driving around, the couple find time to eat. Their first meal is in a Chinese restaurant where Alina talks about her time living in France, and Paul muses on the question of utensils and cuisine, about the question of whether Chinese cooking developed differently from European because of chopsticks. Alina doesn’t seem keen to sit through yet another form-and-function lecture, but it becomes clear that whatever Paul is talking about, he’s really still thinking about cinema (which, like food, also tends to present itself to the consumer as being more or less raw or cooked). “Taste has to be educated,” Paul pontificates. “Whatever you say,” Alina replies, and keeps eating.
The other restaurant scene is marked by a dry, uncomfortable comedy, as the couple are joined by another filmmaker, one Laurentiu (Alexander Papadopol). He promptly tells Alina that she looks like Monica Vitti—she doesn’t, not remotely—and suggests that she audition for his new film. Paul, who clearly knows all the time-honored techniques by which directors hit on actresses, isn’t impressed, and visibly balks when Alina says she likes Laurentiu’s films; who knows, perhaps Porumboiu is giving us some sly insight here into rivalries among the Romanian New Wave. Alina rejects Paul’s accusation that she’s flirting with the other director, then puts his back up by saying that she’s never heard of Monica Vitti—nor Antonioni, for that matter. Paul bristles (“It’s like talking about theater without knowing Chekhov”), and thereby pretty much seals our impression of him as a pompous, solipsistic, self-deluding dork—nicely embodied by actor Dumitrache, who mostly looms and hunches morosely, resembling a sullen, underfed Emir Kusturica.
Porumboiu’s film neatly captures an enduring paradox of filmmaking—that while an auteur agonizes about truth, and shoots, reshoots, or tries not to shoot, all in the name of elusive perfection, meanwhile the dollars, or euros, or in this case lei, are ticking away on the meter. Bringing things down to earth is understandably cantankerous producer Magda (Mihaela Sirbu), who has already had trouble with an actor trashing his room, is running over budget because of lost shooting days, and now needs Paul to produce an endoscopy video for insurance purposes. You could hardly bring the lofty business of cinema more decisively down to earth, or make the brain/belly divide more literal.
The explicit debate on matters of film form and true or deceptive realism promises to be fascinating, but doesn’t in the end engage all that deeply, partly because of Porumboiu’s oppressively stylized execution—claustrophobically flat compositions, a studied visual drabness (deadened greys and blues in Tudor Mircea’s photography), and a detachment compounded by a curiously dead sound design, stripped of background noise even in the restaurants or a hotel lobby and bar, as if the action were happening in an anechoic chamber, or under a bell jar. For much of the time, it all feels like a theorem being worked out under lab conditions.
Where the film comes to life is in those rehearsal scenes, in the first of which Alina rises to the challenge and we get a sense of the ways in which an actor can really direct a scene far more than a director does—which the sharply alert Avramut seems to be doing here. But the absurdities of the process really emerge in the next session: Paul wants Alina to dry her hair for a full 10 minutes, although most of that won’t be on camera, and presses her on the subject of whether or not her character can hear the other actors’ dialogue. She can choose the action, he tells her, “but whatever it is has to be assumed by every inch of your being.”
What a line—and just how much of a performer’s being is required to step out of a shower on screen? Well, sometimes a great deal, and sometimes arguably none. But by this point, things are beginning to feel a little obsessively pedantic, like Paul himself—and I can’t help feeling that a certain over-insistent pedantry has been in Porumboiu’s makeup ever since 12:08, in which he spun out a studio-bound trial-by-television sequence somewhat farther than its satire could profitably take it.
When Evening Falls is intriguing as the latest intervention in cinema’s long debate on itself, but non-specialists will find it a little arid. And I suspect that even many critics would enjoy engaging with Porumboiu’s film less than they’d be interested in hearing how it went down with other directors noted for their own uncompromising approaches to realism, authenticity, or pushing actors to “assume . . . with every inch of their being.” When Evening Falls is so-so as a stand-alone piece, but I’d love to see it as a curtain-raiser for a roundtable between, say, Abdellatif Kechiche, Mike Leigh, and Catherine Breillat.