LOCARNO — A film director starts an affair with a supporting actress and then decides to write a last-minute nude scene for her in When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Cand se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism), the third feature of Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu that again takes a clichéd-seeming premise and carefully proceeds to turn it on its head through logic, absurd humor and the consumption of vast quantities of cigarettes.
The director’s Cannes Camera d’Or-winning debut 12:08 East of Bucharest and its follow-up, Police, Adjective, both investigated words and meanings but his latest explores film grammar instead, with the filmmaker’s trademark long, almost immobile takes pushed to a new extreme, with the entire 89-minute project consisting of under 20 shots.
Likely to be received in a more divisive manner than his previous works, the nonsensically-titled Evening, which feels like it’s a draft or two away from something great, should nonetheless prove alluring for festivals and cinephiles familiar with the Romanian New Wave or attracted by the film-centric topic and rigorous execution. It world premiered at Locarno, where it was one of the few new films shot and shown on 35mm.
Porumboiu opens with a take that lasts an entire roll of film and was shot from the backseat of a car in which the driver turns out to be a director, Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache). His passenger’s Alina (Diana Avramut), an actress with a small role in the film Paul’s in the middle of shooting. He explains to her that he shoots on film because it imposes a limit of 11 minutes for a single shot because a roll of film can’t contain more — with digital he wouldn’t have any limits and would be lost, though the result might be even more life-like. Clearly, Porumboiu directly addresses the audience through Paul here, as the character explains things in a carefully timed shot that serves to illustrate his point.
Indeed, the meta-textual presence of the director constantly hovers over the proceedings, with Paul explaining film techniques Porumboiu goes on to employ in his film about the making of Paul’s film.
A repeated scene in which the fictional filmmaker and Alina rehearse the nude scene — seen twice in two 10-minute long single takes, with the latter actually on location — shows how much care, artifice and fine-tuning go into creating something that’s supposedly true to life and natural. And Porumboiu cheekily follows this up with a variation on the rehearsed scene that supposedly happens in “real life,” i.e. the lives of Porumboiu’s fictional creations, Paul and Alina, essentially suggesting he went through much of the same process with his real-life actors to achieve that and indeed all the other scenes.
But the actors mainly remain mouthpieces for Porumboiu’s views rather than fully independent and realistic characters and there’s too much material that feels tangential, including a long restaurant scene in which the influence of chopsticks on Chinese cuisine is discussed in the director’s familiar, lightly absurd way of philosophizing about the world. The dialog’s never boring but it doesn’t directly tie in with the rest of the film-focused material and the scene’s illusion of reality — supposedly, as Paul explains, augmented by not cutting up the action into various shots — is undermined by a total lack of ambient sound or establishing shots. Absent these elements, the actors look like actors sitting on a sound or theater stage rather than in an actual restaurant.
This cerebral cinematic hall of mirrors is ably performed by Dumitrache and Avramut, who appear in almost every scene together and who tear through entire swaths of back-and-forth dialog with conviction, and the film does feature a doozie of a closing sequence that involves characters watching a — gasp! — digitally filmed medical film that’s full of motion (if not emotion).
Technically, the film’s in line with other recent Romanian productions.
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)?
Production companies: 42 KM Film, Les Films du Worso ?
Cast: Diana Avramut, Bogdan Dumitrache, Mihaela Sirbu, Alexandru Papadopol, Alexandru Jitea, Gabriela Cretan, Lucian Iftime
Director-screenwriter: Corneliu Porumboiu?
Producers: Marcela Ursu, Sylvie Pialat?
Director of photography: Tudor Mircea?
Production designer: Mihaela Poenaru?
Costume designer: Monica Florescu
?Editor: Dana Bunescu?
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 89 minutes.