Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Rating *** A must-see
Directed by Radu Jude
Though I’ve now seen four of his features, I can’t claim to have a strong knowledge of Radu Jude’s career: he has directed somewhere in the neighborhood of eight features, including at least two found-footage documentaries, two fiction films before he first made the slightest of marks stateside with 2015’s Aferim!, and I haven’t gotten around to Uppercase Print, which premiered last year and seems to be a somber affair. Nevertheless, Jude’s shift to outright satire, as filtered through his distinctive sensibilities, is shaping up to be one of the most pronounced and productive career pivots in recent memory, in a similar manner to Bruno Dumont’s. Not to say that something like the pictorial Scarred Hearts doesn’t have a charge of its own, but his aesthetic seems both refined and amplified when applied to the present moment. My favorite of his films, “I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History As Barbarians” (2018), opted for a dialogue-filled, sprawling approach to its collision of present recreation and the lingering specters of past state violence.
The delightfully named Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn goes for something more and less focused for Jude, while extending the sexual provocations in that film into outright text. Its protagonist is Emi (Katia Pascariu), a respected teacher at a prestigious Bucharest secondary school, who becomes embroiled in controversy when a sex tape she makes with her husband is uploaded to PornHub through unknown means. Said sex tape is presented in full, seemingly unsimulated detail at the very beginning of the film before the title card, which categorizes what’s to follow as “a sketch for a popular film” with an epigraph from the Mahābhārata. Such an trifocal volley — obvious provocation, poppy aesthetic, and serious intellectual references — typifies Jude’s approach throughout the film: this is willfully crass and hilarious, but an urgent anger undergirds nearly every moment, a plea to examine perspectives and politics inherent in the everyday.
Indeed, Bad Luck Banging takes place across three parts of mostly equal length, each of which approaches the central conundrums raised by this sudden intrusion of private intimacies into the public world in very different ways. In the first, which takes place across the span of an afternoon, very little in obvious narrative terms occurs: it is made clear that the sex tape has already leaked and that Emi is due to be examined at an impending parent-teacher conference. But aside from a visit to the headmistress and a few phone calls with her husband, the film merely observes Emi as she walks what feels like the entire breadth of Bucharest, navigating a city in the throes of the mid-pandemic: masks are everywhere, and the corresponding etiquette is beginning to break down. Shot, like the rest of the film, in Scope, the camera pans across numerous incidents of arguments and rancor, intensified by the pandemic: a woman yelling at another woman paying with food stamps in a checkout line, only to suddenly tell the cashier to put her mask up; a driver practically running over an irate pedestrian; even Emi gets her own scene, heatedly arguing with a truck driver who has parked on the sidewalk.
The overriding impression is of a realization that things are as normal, despite the pandemic, with the streets, stores, and restaurants remaining as busy as ever. Jude’s pans especially serve to emphasize so much commercial detritus: a woman in a TikTok shirt, Emoji Movie backpacks, slot machines, numerous advertisements for real estate agents and a billboard for chocolate inscribed with the phrase “I Like It Deep.” The fiction even appears to rupture for a second, as an elderly woman strolls up to the camera and utters the phrase “eat my cunt.”
Bad Luck Banging then mutates in its second part, “a short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders,” which as might be expected covers an array of louche, horrifying, and unexpected entries, accompanied by equally unexpected illustrations formed principally from found footage and objects. These can take overtly Romanian forms: the former dictator Ceauşescu (whose ghost haunts the majority of Romanian New Wave films), the celebrated national poet Eminescu. But more often, they follow more general concepts, marching from A to Z, containing everything from “Nature” and “History” to “Blonde Jokes” and “Social Distancing.”
A brief explanation is proffered alongside the entry in the English subtitles, and here an almost schizophrenic attitude is adopted: the entry for “Aboriginies” describes them as persons of little worth, while “The Romanian Orthodox Church” is condemned for its complicity in the dictatorships, complete with a video showing nuns singing a Fascist Youth song. Numerous contradictions and perfectly unpleasant moments abound: “Blowjob” — accompanied by, of course, unsimulated fellatio — is noted as being the most looked-up word in the Online Dictionary, with the runner-up by “empathy”; “Efficiency” is simply represented by a pan from a funeral home to an emergency room; “Family” solely relates the statistic that six out of ten Romanian children are subject to domestic violence. This second part registers as both a stopgap between the two overtly Emi-related sections (though she makes a brief appearance, under “Close-Up”) and an extension of the overall challenge that Jude puts for the viewer, a synthesis in intellectual terms that is perhaps a more adult version of Emi’s own challenges for her students.
Those challenges form a large bulk of the final section of Bad Luck Banging, as what begins as a discussion of Emi’s fitness as a teacher in light of her indiscretion spirals in to a referendum on all manner of issues: the sanctity of institutions, the limits of education and grades, the responsibility of parents, the Holocaust, and even whether blowjobs and whips are part of normal sexual behavior. Jude keeps bouncing between the parents, who come from different strata of Romanian upper-middle-class life — an army officer, a belligerent pilot, an officious mother who shows the entire sex tape in full twice, a priest, precisely two people of color — and the headmistress and Emi. It remains contentious but funny throughout, full of interjections crass and insightful alike, including two separate instances in which Emi and a sympathetic man quote extensively from studies on their phones that cut against the traditional views of teaching, with him stressing the institutional aspect and her the benefits of memorization.
All the while, the night grows darker and the color gels increase in intensity, until the climactic vote, at which the film splits again into three separate possibilities. It’s crucial that, even though in one of them Emi is allowed to continue as a teacher, she never truly triumphs, at least in the eyes of the most vocal participants. Her autonomy, insight, and awareness are supported by her vociferous rebuttals, but in a society as fractured by history, nationalism, and a plague as Romania, only a certain transcendence can give satisfaction. Jude’s great achievement lies in his deconstruction of this society, so horrifying that it becomes funny once again.