If the prolific Romanian director Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn does nothing else, it wins its lead actress an award for bravery. Its opening scenes feature Katia Pascariu in full-on sex with her screen husband, the pair of them putting it all on tape – her swinging tits, his erect cock, her back end, her entreaties for him to stick it in etc. Pascariu was last seen, high irony, playing a nun in Cristian Mungiu’s bleak 2012 drama Beyond the Hills.
What neither the fully consensual Emilia (Pascariu) nor Eugen know is that the strictly-for-home-consumption “tape” is going to wind up on PornHub, and stay there, in spite of their attempts to take it down, and that Emilia’s position as a teacher in a swish school is suddenly going to become even shakier than the footage.
Jude breaks the film down into chapters, each with their own flavour. But first he dispenses with the services of Stefan Steel, the bona-fide porn star (the name’s a clue) who plays Emilia’s husband, to focus entirely on her as she meanders towards a showdown at a hastily convened parent/teacher meeting.
Part one is a jaundiced overview of modern life, like an update on Anthony Trollope’s satirical novel The Way We Live Now. Jude’s camera follows Emilia as she traipses across town, encountering aggression and skirmishes on the flanks of the culture war, across nominally public spaces that have all been colonised by private concerns like McDonald’s and KFC. Jude’s camera regularly focuses on advertising hoardings and regularly pauses on ruined public buildings, while his microphone picks up snatches of conversations heard in passing – incense being a cure for cancer, the malign influence of George Soros, fake news and conspiracy theories as evidence of a shattered public discourse.
Part two pursues this logic even further, being not so much a narrative as a grab-bag of snippets, jottings in a liberal cineaste’s notebook, archive footage collaged together with iPhone recordings, attempting nothing less than an overarching theory of everything that’s wrong in the world, from the church and the military, to Christmas, global warming, mathematics, montage, Jesus, love and intimacy. Depending on how well disposed towards Jude you are, this can either be seen as a thoughtful disquisition on modern mores or as a playful bit of Jean-Luc Godard-style intellectual timewasting. I went with the latter, and I am hugely disposed towards Jude.
Part three is the showdown, and a return to more conventional film-making, as Emilia arrives at school and puts up a prolonged and spirited defence of herself before a hostile crowd of parents and teachers, who invoke one piece of lynch-mob logic after another in order to get the result they want. When they point out that the kids shouldn’t be watching footage of Emilia and her husband having sex, she counters with the argument that it’s the parents’ responsibility to monitor what their kids watch on their smart phones, and that in any case there is nothing wrong with a woman and her husband making love. “But not blowjobs!” shrieks one. But no matter which way Emilia turns, they keep coming back. Basically, as far as they’re concerned, she’s a liberal, a leftie, anti-patriotic, a slut, a whore.
Bizarrely, the discussion momentarily diverts into one on pedagogics, then into another one on anti-semitism and homophobia, before building towards a climax of three different endings – in two of which Emilia emerges triumphant, in one she doesn’t, and Jude throws in a couple of extra violent shocks, as he’s done before in Aferim! and I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, which manage to be both unsettling and funny. A close facsimile of Wonder Woman even makes an appearance at one point, though the official DC Extended Universe isn’t likely to endorse what she’s doing with her magic net, unless DC is suddenly an abbreviation for “dick”.
Shot during the Covid pandemic, with masks featuring throughout, it feels like something that’s been made mostly on the hoof and then assembled in a locked-down edit suite. A writer/director’s got to keep himself busy while a virus is making film-making a challenge. I look forward to Jude’s next film. This was, for all its ingenuity, a bit of a chore.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021