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'Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn': Public space, private life

Radu Jude's new film, the Golden Bear winner at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival, is a provocative look at sexuality, societal mores and gender politics

Katia Pascariu in 'Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn'

Radu Jude's new film, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, the Golden Bear winner at the recently concluded 71st Berlinale industry event, begins with a quote from Mahabharata's "Shanti Parva". It says, “the world is sinking in the ocean of time which is infested with crocodiles called death and decrepitude”. The prologue before the quote shows a couple having sex, filming the fellatio and intercourse, ignoring the calls outside the door, from older people in the household. The woman is a school teacher, Emi (Katia Pascariu, playing to perfection a character who is assertive outside but imploding inside), and the video clip finds its way to the internet, thanks in no small part to her husband. What this means for a woman and a school teacher is predictable, so Jude is in no rush to get there. Instead, we walk the streets, observe the architecture and populace of Bucharest along with Emi.

It's not a tour as much as a case study in how women traverse and negotiate public spaces. The pandemic is raging, and Emi is wearing a mask, and the knowledge that it is Emi in the video is only available to the school authorities and parents (from their smartphone-wielding children). During this walk, Emi is any woman on the street, out in the public eye and trying to navigate spaces where danger, a brawl or harassment lurks in every intersection. She questions a man for parking his car on the sidewalk and he tells her to fuck off. You can't even afford a car, he yells. She hears the same two words from an entertainer in a bunny suit when she pinches the rabbit's nose as she walks past. One talks from a place of power, the other from a place of frustration at the job or the lack of one.

The action and the reaction capture the disposition of this film down to its tiniest detail. We get up, close or farther away from Emi, the camera lingering for a few seconds after she walks out of the frame to look at structures, billboards, restaurants and grocery stores. A short man gets out of a Hummer and is dwarfed by it while a poster advertises flexed muscles and fitness. A cafe is called La Strada, Emi becoming Fellini's Gelsomina, out here on the road, having to juggle multiple chores, deal with men like the guy parked on the sidewalk and the librarian who tries to flirt, with no time left to mentally prepare for the parent-teacher meeting later in the day.

Jude divides the film into three disjointed parts and in the first ("One Way Street"), he is asking the question, do you even need inadvertently uploaded amateur porn to make the life of a woman living hell? Aren’t the outside environs challenging enough, even for a woman with consent and authority within boundaries of a closed space? And what fresh hell breaks loose when that too is snatched away from her?

Jude's Aferim used a weighty subject like slavery to dabble in humour and here, his comedic inappropriateness continues with audacious gusto. The second part —"Short Dictionary of Anecdotes, Signs and Wonders"—is a long series of images with one or two lines of narration and this is the portion that would normally throw us off in any other film but not here, for with an endless conveyor belt of pictures and words, Jude sets the tone for the history of civilization and how we've arrived at the place we are today. Jude takes us through a mural of quickly transmuting historic vignettes on topics ranging from truth, bookshelf, competition, kitchen, Christmas, luxury, social distancing, Romanian thinker Mihai Eminescu, family, fiction, folklore, Jesus, love, sex, rape, fellatio, pornography, sidewalk, realism, war, blonde jokes, male and female genitalia, gaze, power, racism et al. There is cinema too, which he compares to Athena's polished shield, provided to Perseus to kill Medusa. We cannot see actual horrors for they paralyze us and therefore cinema is the polished shield to make them consumable, he reveals.

And we know Jude lives by it, for the third part—"Praxis and Innuendos (Sitcom)"—is where the film really juggles with the moral bankruptcy, the decrepitude of people and the media where everything is connected and saleable (as I write this Jack Dorsey is selling his first ever tweet as an NFT). Jude seems to suggest that you've followed the history of civilization in the second part and in the first, he's shown you the state of women in today's neo-liberal society. Here is the praxis where all of it gets distilled.

The outdoor area of the school shines pink in the twilight as the meeting begins with Emi seated in front like a performer and the headmistress presiding over parents who all come from diverse backgrounds. Emi gradually discovers their different ideological bents, wearing designer masks dictated by their age, class, race, position of power (army or church), their roots. A couple of them even raise anti-Semitic slogans. Jude wants to lay bare the hypocrisy of a society where parents, teachers and children form a web of oppressive force. At the centre is Emi, a critical thinker, a teacher who’s continuing to read and learn about the world and her place in it while everyone around her has already made that judgement. The film has been called provocative but watching it is more liberating in a nihilistic sense. A hostile world is sinking into that ocean with crocodiles, and it'll be cathartic if it is going down for real.

Aditya Shrikrishna is a Chennai-based writer.

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