“Things are going to slide, slide in all directions / Won't be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore / The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold / And it's overturned the order of the soul”
Leonard Cohen sang those words all the way back in 1992 on the title track of The Future, written in the wake of the Berlin Wall collapsing and the sense of triumph that seemed to buoy much of the Western democratic project in 90s as it imposed itself across the formerly communist Eastern Europe that decade. As befitting his wry, outside-the-looking-glass approach, Cohen positions himself in the song as being apart from the prevailing ideological winds, warning prophetically of an underlying shift in the sands of our collective psyche.
Almost thirty years later, and it feels like much of what Cohen sang about has come true. Our sense of self has been upturned wildly by the pandemic, by a looming climate breakdown and the all-encompassing wrath and power of capital. With conspiracy theories, digital oversaturation and culture wars part-and-parcel of daily life, Radu Jude’s Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn attempts to wrangle through that chaos in search of some logic. He finds none of it, despite deploying three different styles across the film’s three parts: a walk through Bucharest with our protagonist, schoolteacher Emi (Katia Pascariu); an essayistic Pictionary using images overlaid with often ironic text; and a denouement that returns to Emi, as she faces down a crowd of angry parents, furious that a private sex video of hers has been leaked online.
Throughout, Jude returns to the legacy of both Communism and the democratic revolution in Romania, which culminated in the execution of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu on 25th December 1989. In theory, the ‘90s were supposed to usher in an era of democracy and capitalism, both arriving to liberate the formerly Communist Eastern European states, but the reality for many fell short of the promises. Privatisation saw cronyism and corruption run riot through industry, whilst faith in democratic or government institutions remains low in Eastern Europe.
The framework and infrastructure of authoritarianism, built by Communist regimes, has survived just long enough in both physical structure and ideological conceptualisation that far-right leaders and parties such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Law and Justice party are able to adopt its structures and redeploy them to their own ends. Romania, for its part, has contended with long-standing corruption cases (as described in the 2020 documentary Collective, directed by Alexander Nanau).
But Bad Luck Banging is not concerned with the facts of such issues, but rather their underlying philosophical causes, rooted in the shape-shifting ideologies of post-Communist Romania and wider Eastern Europe. The network of symbols and meanings that permeated through in the background of Ceaușescu’s reign, giving power and weight to its ideologies, was meant to have been replaced by democracy. The reality for many is that nothing at all ever came to replace it, and certainly not by the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ logic of neoliberalism.
Bad Luck Banging describes a world in which there is no concrete position a human being can take that has its own internal rationality and logical coherence. Characters switch from being nostalgic for the Ceaușescu era before heralding the new age. Others proclaim Covid masks to be the ‘muzzles of slaves’ before demanding the most authoritarian actions be taken as punishment for Emi. Moralism – as opposed to morals – runs riot. People chant the slogans of their political ideology as if they’re football fans on the terraces.
Jude places us with Emi, apart from all this collective psychosis, but deeply shaken by it. Bad Luck Banging achieves a difficult tasks for any political cinema: it shakes off the ideology which produces it, standing outside, clear-eyed and perceptive about the madness going inside. It does not just depict or criticise, it sees beyond, into the power structures that empower the collective narrative.
In this respect, the film harks back to the Czechoslovak New Wave and Yugoslav Black Wave, two movements which in the late ‘60s emerged from their respective socialist states with a fresh, irreverent vision of the world that also saw beyond the ideological strictures imposed upon them by orthodox Communist philosophy. Where Jude’s critically-acclaimed peers amongst the Romanian New Wave – most notably Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2005) and Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 2005; Malmkrog, 2020) – have a reputation for austere solemnity and serious-minded realism, Jude is a prankster, closer in line to the anarchy of Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (Czechoslovakia, 1966) or Želimir Žilnik’s Early Works (Yugoslavia, 1969), both films that sought to tear down the walls of their ideological prisons through whatever means they saw fit – cinematic bricks thrown through the windows of the state’s glass house.
Despite their idealism and hope, both the Czechoslovak New Wave and the Yugoslav Black Wave eventually met with the cold hard reality of political power. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn probably won’t suffer a similar fate, but it will be met with heckles and shock. It recognises that it is preaching largely to a converted crowd, and instead of solemnly agreeing with that crowd, it attempts to provoke and tickle that crowd out of its collective moralist complacency.