Word Is Out
By Michael Koresky
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Dir. Radu Jude, Romania, Magnolia Pictures
The title of Radu Jude’s new film dares you to take it seriously, but it’s a challenge one should meet. As Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn charts its own digressive, idiosyncratic course, and begins to gradually open and unlock new meanings for its viewers, it becomes increasingly impossible to not take it seriously—even as Jude recurringly, and quite literally and unpersuasively, instructs us not to. At one crucial moment he provides on-screen text that the film is “but a joke.” We have a choice—and it’s a crucial one—whether to trust his words.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn foregrounds its own semiotic ambitions throughout its three discrete sections, but never so blatantly as in the title of the galvanizing second chapter: A short dictionary of anecdotes, signs, and wonders. Here, Jude serves the viewer a relentless outpouring of briefly delineated historical sketches, stories, jokes, and standalone images, seemingly disconnected from one another, each given a generalized categorization, and all related via perfunctory and dispassionate subtitles. As conceived, this lengthy sequence registers as a randomized lexicon of Romanian history and a catalogue of 20th-century horror and hypocrisy, told in a sardonic manner that’s somehow cryptic and wildly didactic at once. For instance, filed under the heading “Romanian Orthodox Church” is a tersely related episode from the 1989 Romanian revolution that led to Ceaușescu’s downfall, informing us that “when revolutionaries sought shelter from Army bullets, the cathedral kept its doors closed.” These words are displayed below the image of the imposing and, in light of the circumstances, ironically named People’s Salvation Cathedral in Bucharest.
It’s probably useful to mention at this juncture that Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is, in outline, a comedy. The film broadly concerns the escalating frustrations of grade-school teacher Emilia, whose career and livelihood are in jeopardy after her husband uploads to the Internet—by his account, quite accidentally—the couple’s private sex tape. Never mind that the foreplay, dirty talk, and intercourse captured on video are entirely consensual acts between two married people: the discovery of these “pornographic” images sparks predictable outrage amongst the parents of her students at the private school where she teaches. Jude’s film takes this simple, and presumably satirical premise, and refracts it through three episodes of distinct structure and aesthetic.
Following a nearly three-minute prologue that presents highlights from the actual sex tape—and thus immediately confronts the film’s audience with erect penises, genital penetration, images of lite BDSM, and goofily tame bedroom talk like “I’m your slut”—Jude begins with a chapter perhaps even more confrontational than the controversial video in question. In the riskily inchoate first part, One-Way Street, we follow Emilia as she navigates Bucharest, captured by Jude as a city in transition, a place of post-communist ruins sitting awkwardly alongside newly constructed buildings. Her cell phone often glued to her masked face (Jude shot the film in the summer of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic), Emilia fumbles through a city that seems to be in a state of constant anxiety. As she narrowly avoids angry pedestrians and supermarket shoppers apparently always ready for a rumble, either with her or each other, Jude’s camera continually drifts away from her, panning across city streets, up the sides of buildings, and alighting on posters and billboards. Not only does the camera seem hesitant to catch up with Emilia, its constant attraction to the signs and wonders of the city puts us in a state of attentiveness, creating implicit connections between Emilia’s unintentional (and still largely unexplained) transgression and the overwhelming experience of contemporary materialist crassness: store windows displaying Frozen backpacks next to Jesus literature; übermasculine, nationalistic billboards romanticizing war and combat; piles of Paw Patrol merch; an enormous, city-dwarfing ad for... yogurt [?] featuring a woman gratefully smiling while her open mouth is splashed with white liquid above the English-language slogan “I like it deep.”
It’s a brief tour of the city and contemporary Romanian urban living, captured with observational, documentary-like patience, but amped up by stress and driven to a distraction recognizable to any Western city dweller. Only momentarily does Emilia remove her mask—to smell a flower—but otherwise we cannot see her panic and frustration. She remains largely concealed from us, her nose and mouth hidden whether she’s stopping at her school headmistress’s claustrophobic, hectic apartment to find out that parents have called an emergency meeting; standing in line at a pharmacy, where customers argue over the morality of a recent “transplant scandal” in which a celebrity allegedly cut in front of a child on an organ donor waiting list; or wading through a cacophonous arcade of slot machines, where she finds out via phone that, despite her husband’s attempts to scrub the video from the Internet, it’s been saved and reuploaded to Pornhub. Jude’s approach necessarily stirs questions about what the filmmaker simply captures on the fly and what’s been intentionally placed there. At one point, an elderly woman passes by the camera, looks at us and casually snickers; the subtitle reads: “Eat my cunt.” Later during a parking altercation, an angry driver will snap at Emilia, “Suck my cock.”
An unflattering look at contemporary society, no doubt, but we may still initially wonder what’s going on in that second chapter, with its prominently placed reminder of the sins of the Church. This and all the other anecdotes, signs, and wonders during this section’s nearly 30 minutes are offered to us as curiosities and considerations for further study. The clarity of the filmmaker’s mission here is essential, so unmistakable, so bald, and so intentionally disconnected from a narrative outline of the overall film that its didacticism becomes almost obtuse. It’s not just that Jude wants us to know about 20th-century atrocities that directly indict or relate to the condition and personality of his home country; it's also that by putting them on the same playing field as seemingly mundane observations about contemporary life in a post-totalitarian capitalist economy, he wants us to know that these incidents are related to everyday evils both great (sexual assault, the mistreatment of workers, the slave labor used to build Ceaușescu’s palace) and comparatively small (dumb blonde jokes, the giddy mockery of social distancing guidelines during COVID, gaudily hypersexual interior design). And thus, if the captive viewer is forced into this ethical-rhetorical game, in which the lie of linear cause-and-effect historical narrative is replaced by relative, discursive, and free-associative interpretation of politics and war, then cinematic matters of genre, tone, and structure—not to mention the lines between pornography and mainstream film—also start to feel productively inconsequential.
In a New Years’ address in January 1990, Vaclav Havel, in his first major speech as President of post-communist Czechoslovakia, reminded the nation’s citizens that they cannot blame former leaders for the wrongs of their country, past and present, stating they were all in ways, large or small, responsible for the totalitarian machinery in which they were caught. “We cannot blame the previous rulers for everything, not only because it would be untrue but also because it could blunt the duty that each of us faces today, namely, the obligation to act independently, freely, reasonably, and quickly.” It strikes me that there’s something of Havel’s cautionary admonition in Jude’s project, which ultimately diagnoses contemporary culture as very sick indeed, but decentralizes the blame, putting the onus on the moralizing, outrage-prone hordes for allowing a new kind of rabid conservatism to take hold. Politicians cravenly mislead us for their own gain, but it’s the masses who give them power by willingly taking on their mantle. Bad Luck Banging is indeed a film about the global reality of a reascendant right-wing, yet Jude’s also too sly, and clearly too aware of the ruthless ebbs and flows of political and social histories to so easily identify his villains.
In the third and final chapter, Praxis and Innuendos [sitcom], Jude returns to a linear narrative shape, staging Emilia’s extended confrontation with her students’ parents as a climactic trial set piece. Set “safely” in the school’s outdoor courtyard, the meeting is constructed of static shots taken from around the baroque premises, which are adorned with fountains bathed in garish blue, red, and green lights, looming lion statues, lit torches, and lorded over by a domineering bust of Mihai Eminescu, Romania’s beloved national poet (who had made an appearance in chapter two, his handsome visage appearing on Romania’s 500-note leu, and sarcastically mocked by Jude as “our Morning Star, the complete man of Romanian culture” and “a lyrical summation of Voivodes”). A visually dramatic tableau—one might say Riefenstahl-ish—but after all, as the headmistress reminds the parents, this is “a situation unusual for our prestigious school.” The grandiose visual cues, the dynamic formality of the setting, and the increasing opprobrium of the moralizing parents, given to piglike chortles, incessant hand sanitizing, Woody Woodpecker laughs, and pea-brained arguments painting Emilia as a danger to their precious children, give off unmistakable echoes of a more literal form of historical fascism, signaling that Jude’s targets are at once parodic and dead serious. To bring us up to the present, there’s even a parent, Mr. Otopeanu, dressed in a military uniform, who decries the “pandemic dictatorship” upon having to wear his mask during the meeting.
It’s in these scenes that Jude’s film reveals itself to be as much about the breakdown in standards around children’s education as it is a diagram of widespread sexual hypocrisy. This kangaroo court of moralizers, obsessed with what’s “bad" for the kids while remaining disrespectful of knowledge and science, use Emilia’s apparent transgression to branch into a litany of complaints about her teaching methods, ranging from the horror that their kids have to memorize dates (a crucial neuroscientific exercise and a successful educational tactic, she calmly retorts) to the accusation, from both Mr. Otopeanu and a priest (wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” mask that has horrifyingly lost its reference point), that she’s “indoctrinating” the students about the Holocaust. The parents become a Greek chorus of intolerant thought, many of them suspiciously fond of the word “propaganda,” yet Jude also reserves ire for a bloviating, bespectacled liberal dad, a seeming defender of Emilia’s rights whose defense of nudity and pornography ultimately only masks sexism. Jude’s portrayal of social outrage, embodied in this hellish PTA meeting, isn’t a matter of equal opportunity satire so much as an expression of the breakdown of civility resulting from the loss of history and knowledge—something that anyone who peruses Twitter on a regular basis certainly knows something about. And how does one escape? Jude knows there is no way out of our modern whirlpool of puritanical ahistoricism and political ignorance, so he serves up three possible outcomes for Emilia, each more implausible than the last, ending on a moment of false—and in its superheroism, utterly 21st-century—catharsis.
As early as 1944 George Orwell wrote an essay in which he delcared that the word fascism no longer held any meaning. This was due to its assimilation by groups with diametrically opposed belief systems and its wildly undisciplined usage (“I have heard it applied to farmers, shopkeepers, Social Credit, corporal punishment, fox-hunting, bull-fighting, the 1922 Committee, the 1941 Committee, Kipling, Gandhi, Chiang Kai-Shek, homosexuality, Priestley's broadcasts, Youth Hostels, astrology, women, dogs, and I do not know what else”). This doesn’t stop contemporary writers in The Atlantic and The New York Times from bemoaning the “loss” of the word—at least as they know, or knew, it. Fighting over ownership of such a word certainly signifies the derangement that’s resulted from extreme binary political thinking, but it’s nothing new. If Bad Luck Banging is a film about Orwell’s dreaded “f” word—a word that has as little tenable meaning today as “Orwellian”—then it mostly concerns the way that what we once called fascism has become simply a form of cultural capital, and part of the fabric of contemporary life. Jude signifies this swiftly and tellingly in his opening scene, in which he sets Emilia’s “actual” pornographic video in all its explicit silliness to the infamous “Lili Marleen” as heard in Fassbinder’s 1981 film of the same name—a classic German love song co-opted by the Nazis during World War II as a nationalistic anthem.
Defining (and redefining) contemporary fascism may be a losing game, but identifying the destructive forces of moral conservatism remains as depressingly easy as ever. One thing that also always remains vivid: the misogyny at the corrupt core of modern patriarchal life. And this is perhaps the central idea of Jude’s film, in which a woman is made a pariah for the presumed good of society. The one-way street, the signs and wonders of history, the sitcom: all are united by the disgust and loathing of the woman’s body and mind. What better vessel for outrage and condemnation than a moving image of her engaging in a consensual sex act—but uploaded non-consensually for all to see, so that has conveniently lost power over her own image? In his productive didacticism, in his equating of sexual intolerance and moral outrage with historical forces of violent oppression, Jude positions himself as an heir to Yugoslav director Dusan Makavejev and puts into stark relief how few filmmakers bother to take risks anymore. To use terms most often uselessly dashed across marketing materials, it’s a movie that feels persuasively, miraculously “powerful” and “provocative.” But what are words?