One of the progenitors of the Romanian New Wave returns to the Cannes competition with a rambling family drama.
There’s a famous 1972 film by Luis Buñuel called The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. It focuses on a group of well-heeled jet setter types whose plans to embrace common civility and sit down to eat a meal together are always foiled at the very last second by some farcical interruption which they absolutely have to attend to. Where that film was unequivocally framed as withering satire, the new work by Romanian director, Cristi Puiu, plays out a near identical scenario, though here it’s in the mode of hard, rambling, fastidiously detailed realism.
Over the course of three punishing hours, Mimi Branescu’s Lary plays the reasonable and unassuming connective sinew of a family joining together (under barely-concealed duress) to mourn the passing of Uncle Emil. This communal rite does not adhere to any logical order of play, instead rolling on and on into the night as the members of this extended family find it seemingly impossible to focus their attentions on the recently deceased. Simply put, Puiu wants to show what it’s like to be part of a family, and also prove that intimacy can breed contempt just as easily as it can an almost decorous brand of back-slapping fondness. The film succeeds on this level.
Sieranevada is essentially a single fragment of a never-ending daisy chain of fractious arguments. The opening scene sees Lary’s wife go ballistic because he purchases the incorrect costume for their daughter’s Disney-themed school play. And then, without even noticing it, we segue into another argument about holidays, and then another about whether it’s worth stopping off to buy some food for breakfast. Puiu seems to believe that all human interaction is based on subjective antagonism – in his world, two negatives make a negative. No-one is right, no-one is wrong, everything is an opinion couched entirely in personal experience. Essentially, we’re all doomed.
For the most part the anti-drama plays out in the cramped apartment of a widow who is too worried about her depressed sister to show any emotion towards her dead husband. The camera lingers in the hallway swerving around, peeking in doors, catching snatches of banal conversations, glancing over the shoulders of characters as they whine and whinge. Aside from Lary, it’s hard to know whether Puiu has any empathy for these people, each being a mixture of self-obsession and ingrained ignorance. That he would spend so much hard labour building these characters is in itself a paradox. Why does he insist we spend time with this family and their petty trivialities?
It’s stiflingly rigorous filmmaking, formidable in its own strange way, but wantonly repellant also. Puiu tamps down anything that might be construed as a dramatic high or low by either pulling away before the episode has ended, or switching focus to a non-integral character. Life is a vortex of despair, suffering and bewilderment, and just as something that might be an answer comes into view, we blink and miss it, or we’re just too bored to notice. There’s too many people in the world so nothing will ever get done. Facts buffet against counter-facts, voices are raised and communication is broken. When things get too complex, the doors are there to be closed. The hell of overheard conversations is magnified when you’re made to consider the ones you can’t hear.
At the film’s mid-point, a priest tells an anecdote about how he once became depressed when he pondered whether Christ had returned to Earth and passed on unnoticed. Puiu plays a similar game with the meaning of Sieranevada. He forces us to constantly question what the film is, where it’s headed, what statement it’s making (if any), why it begins and ends where it does, and what we could possibly be waiting for to resolve itself. It’s possibly a very monotonous, meandering and non-magical version of John Cassavetes’ Love Streams from 1984. And, most infuriatingly, what in the world could possibly be more important, more vital, more demanding of attention than a hearty meal? Buñuel made that concept work, but Puiu cynically infers that we’d starve ourselves if it gained us access to the intellectual high ground.
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