The new film from one of Romania's foremost cine-ironists, Radu Jude, is a glorious, poisonous, everything-in-the-pot treatise on the state of the world today.
Car culture is neoliberal culture: The promise of personal liberty, of mobility and agency in navigating the world, means trading away the commons for competition, every man for himself on sprawling roads choked with other radically empowered, radically atomised free-market actors.
Director Radu Jude recreated the brutality of Romania’s feudal past in Aferim!, remembered the shameful ethnic animus of the World War Two years and noting its erasure by latter-day ethnonationalism in I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, and logged the madness of lockdown-era viral culture and paranoia in Bad Luck Banging. With his new film, Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, he has made one of the great anti–car culture films, which means that the vicious, hilarious satirist of contemporary Romania has now turned his attention fully onto the nation’s relationship to the European Union.
An opening title card describes Do Not Expect… as a film “in conversation” with Angela Moves On, a Romanian film from 1981 about a female taxicab driver, which the critic Flavia Dima has praised for its feminist depiction of a self-sufficient working woman. In plentiful excerpts from the older film, we see Angela (played by the iconic Romanian actress Dorina Lazar) behind the wheel, making her way through the world, often traveling the same streets as another, modern-day Angela, played with a similar but more vocal no-nonsense affect by Ilinca Manolache.
Manolache and Jude’s Angela is a production assistant, and the majority of the film follows her over the course of a single, 16-or-18-hour workday, crisscrossing the city in her own car, on constant errands that give a cramped, neck-craned-out-the-window neorealist view of contemporary Bucharest, its billboards and global corporate HQ office-towers, construction and demolition sites and weedy poor neighbourhoods.
Angela’s set of wheels signify anything but independence: she’s cut off, honked at, catcalled, and constantly slamming brakes, swearing, and flipping off other drivers. HQ keeps her on a leash (her ringtone, signaling the arrival of yet another task, is Beethoven’s 9th, the official anthem of the EU), appealing to her team spirit — and, implicitly, her economic precarity as a project-based worker — as they send her over to the airport to pick up a foreign guest, or to pick up lenses from a backlot where Uwe Boll is shooting a cheap nonunion monster movie. (Yes, you read that right. The film’s picaresque structure yields many such one-off setpieces.)
Angela’s main project is to visit the homes of injured workers. Her production company has taken a contact to produce a workplace safety video for an Austrian furniture manufacturer; she must record brief interviews with laborers who have variously suffered paralysis or dismemberment while working unpaid overtime in shoddy conditions, and her bosses will select one to appear in the film and implore their ex-colleagues to please take responsibility for their own safety.
The marketing executive commissioning the video is played by Nina Hoss, in another iteration of Sandra Hüller’s role in Maren Ade’s 2016 film Toni Erdmann: an über-cold executive enduring stilted global English with her obsequious Romanian subcontractors, in this case in an extended meeting in which her disembodied head floats like Zardoz against a Zoom backdrop on a conference-room monitor.
In a brazen irony typical of Jude, Angela chugs astronomical amounts of caffeinated beverages in order to stay awake and alert as her day on this job stretches into night. To stay sane, she records TikToks, while driving or waiting for appointments: she has an influencer persona, a manosphere guru named Bobita achieved via an Andrew Tate filter, with greasepaint eyebrows, shiny bald head, and chin soft as a poached egg; the filter flickers on and off during her grotesque rants on misogyny and materialism. (A vagina, Bobita tells his followers, is like Romania: eager to be fucked.)
When pressed, Angela explains that her micro-viral persona is a satire. (In fact, Bobita is Manolache’s own creation.) But the satire has an edge that she walks right up to with her carapace of professional bluntness and Bobita’s release-valve scatology. Even still, she cultivates her own highbrow literary interests (when not dropping obscene double-entendres about Muriel Spark when in character), and subtly engages with the working-class families whose homes she visits, with delicate agreeability redirecting their political grievances towards larger systemic issues and away from, say, gypsies.
As in Barbarians and Banging, Jude takes an exaggerated-or-is-it look at the casual prejudices in contemporary Romanian society, in farcical extended scenes in which characters blurt out Covid conspiracies or racial slurs at inopportune moments. His capacious sense of humour also encompasses shaggy-dog stories and half-remembered anecdotes, knowing meta-commentary about filmmaking, and riffs on current events unfolding over the late summer and early autumn of 2022, such as the death of Elizabeth II (Bobita, with one eye always on the world beyond Romania’s borders, claims to have double-teamed a few skanks with Charles III.)
At 163 minutes that fly by, the film is an endless scroll of ironypilled political incorrectness, disjunctive absurdism, inside jokes, riffs ripped from the headlines, and leftist anger trying not extinguish itself in despair. All of this marks Jude as one of our most Extremely Online filmmakers — with the happy caveat that his freewheeling formalism means that when one finally look up from Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World, one feels energised rather than enervated.
Published 10 Sep 2023
By Matt Turner
A school teacher goes viral for all the wrong reasons in Romanian director Radu Jude’s salacious social satire.
The 2007 Palme d’Or winner returns to Cannes with another gripping and meticulous drama.