The year’s first truly shocking movie image appears when Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn shows a person wearing a blue paper face mask. It’s a jolt because no other movie during the past year and a half of the pandemic has dared feature that ubiquitous emblem of Covid-19. Jude hits us with the image casually, but he is in a comic rage about the disintegration of the Covid-infected world.
As Romania’s most versatile filmmaker (Aferim!, Scarred Hearts), he critiques the globe’s current moral crisis from the individual experience of Emi (Katia Pascariu), a school teacher who gets caught up in the country’s latest authoritarian mania, conveying her trauma in three sections. Part One, “One-Way Street,” follows Emi when a private gonzo sex tape she makes with her husband gets uploaded onto the Internet. Part Two, “A Short Dictionary of Anecdotes, Signs,” is a discursive tangent exploring not-obvious totalitarian language and history. Part Three, “Praxis and Innuendos (Sitcom),” returns to Emi’s social fate.
Jude’s analytic format opposes contemporary media’s narrative failures — not just the mendacity of partisan journalism but the decadent escapism of mainstream cinema that hasn’t yet gotten up to speed about the pandemic but still treats moviegoers like children who need relentless distraction via entertainment. Emi’s unlucky cosplay, turning intimacy into porn, signifies a personal restlessness that gets loosed into a heedless culture.
But pornography itself is not what Jude finds obscene. He’s riled by hypocrisy that has become the new normal.
A filmmaker’s best response to bad movies is to make good movies, so Jude dares follow the examples of great, if now obscure, predecessors Jean-Luc Godard and Dusan Makavejev, artists whose meta-cinema always maintained humor and compassion while raging against the political stupidity and dishonesty around them.
It is the shocking immediacy of that blue facial mask that makes Bad Luck Banging recall Godard’s wonderful essay film Two or Three Things I Know About Her, an examination of 1967 Paris that was just one of several films Godard turned out the same year, his edgy talent keeping up with the world around him and often getting ahead of it — or at least getting ahead of his peers and, sometimes, his audience.
Godard could work as fast as a pop musician. No one today is that fast or that good, but Jude is game. (Bad Luck Banging is subtitled “A sketch for a film,” similar to Godard’s subtitling Weekend “A film adrift in the cosmos.”) Jude surveys Emi amid profane encounters at a market checkout, on the streets of a double-parked world that’s on the verge of hysteria. Like a Godard heroine, she ventures past outdoor shops and billboards that broadcast the capitalist vulgarity (from Paw Patrol to KFC) that is ironically embraced by progressives. This is the environment of activist corporations who solicit us while betraying us. (“I like it deep,” blares a giant poster — porn or a new gadget?) Jude’s eye-popping essay captures the same insolence indicated by the unrivaled title of his previous film, I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians.
Widescreen panoramas of urban activity are not much of a plot construct, but Jude dismisses plot for analysis like Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Man Is Not a Bird. His dictionary segment confronts the audacity of tyrants who shaped language and landscapes according to their vanity. Have today’s lockdown and mandate tyrants, free of any media scrutiny or judgment, done any less?
Thank goodness, Jude doesn’t pose as an activist filmmaker — the breed of noxious Hollywood despots who usually employ Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon and make propaganda documentaries celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony Fauci, and Pete Buttigieg. He sets a better example by satirizing that ilk in the final farce section where Emi faces the judgment of her peers, fellow faculty members, and community folk, including a priest whose Covid mask bears the slogan “I Can’t Breathe,” virtue-signaling the new BLM orthodoxy. Their discussion over Emi’s fitness to teach devolves into Romania’s lingering ethnic paranoia, then suspicions about George Soros and Bill Gates indoctrinating students. Jude’s perception is so sharp, this sequence resembles the chaos of recent school-board meetings as well as the meta-antics seen on an episode of Gutfeld!
Jude’s final fillip (Emi as Wonder Woman wielding a sex toy) parodies Hollywood’s practice of making sinister violent escapism where antagonisms are not suppressed but ignored, replaced by revenge fantasies. When Jude plays art historian and notes how the word “pornography” began with Greek painter Parrahasius doing “portraits of prostitutes,” the allusion to everyone’s current political exploitation is one that both Godard and Makavejev might approve.