Director: Cornelieu Porumboiu
Screenplay: Cornelieu Porumboiu
How debased has our sense of cinema and art become when we accept a scene in which a character reads flatly and repeatedly from a dictionary as some kind of revelation, or mark of filmmaking intelligence? This very scene is the “climax” of the tedious Romanian film Police, Adjective, directed by Cornelieu Porumboiu (12:o8 East of Bucharest ), which has been garnering a baffling amount of praise since it took home Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes last May. Seldom have I seen a film this blatantly didactic (though not as incendiary as Marxist Godard, or as controversial as Haneke) and intentionally dull (though not half as provocative as Antoniennui, or as morbidly funny as Tsai or Aki Kaurismäki) set so many pulses racing in the critical community. (The film has a 100% rating from major critics at Rotten Tomatoes. Robert Koehler of Variety called it the “best cut movie ever.”) By what strange deformation of our senses have we convinced ourselves that profoundly unimaginative, literal-headed and dramatically nil movies are some kind of mind-blowing art?
Describing Police, Adjective is a tedious task in its own right. Under the bleak skies of Vaslui, Romania, a youngish plainclothes police detective, Cristi (Dragos Bucur), spends weeks monitoring a high school student he suspects of possessing and possibly dealing hash. The job of surveillance is depicted in the driest terms possible, with the camera framing Cristi in unexciting compositions simply walking behind the suspect for minutes at a time, observing him in the schoolyard as he gets high with friends, and later standing outside the teen’s house watching people come and go while sipping tea and smoking cigarettes. At the end of the day, the detective goes back to the precinct to fill out forms and file the day’s report, and we sit there with him and watch. Occasionally Cristi converses with his co-workers over trifling matters (such as whether one colleague is fit to join the precinct’s “foot tennis” club); at home, he banters with his wife (Irina Saulescu) over grammatical errors and the semantics of a god-awful pop song (which we are subjected to hearing three times in a row). Now this is cinema! Let me rephrase that: Now this is cinema?
I suppose we are to understand from Cristi’s boring, absurdly trivial case that police procedure is often a soul-sucking task, and that strict adherence to the letter of the law (especially in a country still recovering from a Communist police state) dehumanizes the individual, whether cop or citizen. Cristi himself is “torn” (probably too strong a word) between arresting the teen perp for the piddling crime of smoking a joint, and ignoring the law so as not to send a young man to jail for eight years for a crime soon to be out-of-date (i.e. once Romania inevitably adopts some of the Western countries in the EU’s laxer drug laws). This “crisis of conscience” suggests a moral centre to the film that is hardly convincing, given how disaffected Cristi seems (e.g., he wears the same sweater for days at a time; never betrays an emotion on or off the job, aside from mild irritation), and how resolutely the film refuses to engage with the characters except as objects of amused, detached observation. Porumboiu’s camera studies Cristi and others with about an equal amount of inquisitiveness as it does a handwritten police report–the director’s idea of absurdist comedy.
The aforementioned dictionary scene should be notorious by now for its dual crimes of interminability and horseshit obviousness. Framed in a sarcastic static shot (note the bowl of wax fruit in the centre of the composition), the smug chief of police (Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist from the far superior 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ) challenges Cristi to define what he means by “conscience” after the detective uses the word to excuse himself from arresting the teenage drug offender. Cristi provides a hesitant, commonplace definition (referencing a sense of feeling bad about doing something wrong), which the chief of police orders another detective to write on a chalkboard, while in the meantime the chief’s secretary goes to fetch a dictionary for the group. The police chief then has Cristi recite the dictionary definition of “conscience,” to show up how meagerly Cristi’s definition matches the “official” one. From there, Cristi is ordered to look up the words “law,” and then “police”–all part of the chief’s (and we might say Porumboiu’s) long-winded lecture on the difference between personal, ethical responses to words/concepts and the meaning of these words as sanctioned by the state. Without state-approved definitions of law, police, conscience, says the chief, there would be “chaos.”
We might have guessed this would be the chief’s point from the moment he orders the dictionary into the room. The scene is such a rudimentary illustration of the tyranny of the state, its law and language, over the complexity of human feeling that one marvels at how long it takes Porumboiu to get from point-a to point-b in the chief’s argument. (Is this rigour or lack of concision? On whose part–Porumboiu’s or the chief’s?) What perhaps bothers me most about the scene (aside from the leaden use of a dictionary as dramatic device), is Porumboiu’s deference to the chief as he bullies Cristi with insufferable, condescending rhetoric. (The chief is meant to be a funny guy I guess–but his suggestion that he is engaging Cristi in “dialectics” is simply perverse.) Porumboiu undeniably finds something charming in the chief (he’s the only character allowed a vivid personality in the film), just as Tarantino located his most charismatic character in the Nazi “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds (2009). The two directors clearly share a facile sense of irony, and a penchant for indulging assholes.
From what I can tell, I’m virtually alone in despising Police, Adjective. (Well, Armond White’s always good for an outraged pan of a consensus favourite.) New York Times critic A.O. Scott defends the film’s blah realism as “a hyperbolically blunt statement of an impulse that drives much recent Romanian cinema, away from metaphor and toward a concrete, illusion-free reckoning with things as they are.” To put it less kindly, Porumboiu doesn’t allow that there are imaginative (also illusion-free) ways to deal with reality, in life and in filmmaking–strategies to resist the limitations of our daily existence: the pettiness of bureaucracy, the doldrums of work, the so-called “tyranny” of language. Even when the characters play a game of foot tennis, the camera frames it in a static, defeated composition. Porumboiu’s too cynical to embrace art as a means to reimagine life; he fails to score the triumph of bitter, deadpan humour over workaday living that, for example, Kaurismäki does in the restive Match Factory Girl (1990). And you can forget about finding here any of the spiritual victories over mundane reality evidenced in Bresson’s masterpieces, even though Porumboiu cites Pickpocket (1959) as a key influence. In fact, Police, Adjective is finally about surrendering to “things as they are”–the final shot is a veritable diagram of Cristi’s capitulation. That Porumboiu thinks the grating irony of the upbeat dance music over the end credits is any substitute for a more measured retort to bureaucratic control simply confirms the director’s stunted cynicism, and his lack of imagination.