Director: Corneliu Porumboiu
Viewed: February 9, 2010
Format: Theatrical Print (Landmark Tivoli)
B+ - Corneliu Porumboiu’s willfully staid and yet wholly absorbing new feature, Police, Adjective, operates on two interlocking planes. On the one hand, it is a police procedural of the driest sort imaginable, an agonizingly attentive study of how people, objects, and information travel through a drug investigation in a small Romanian city. In this city, the Eastern Bloc bureaucracy (and furniture) is still firmly in place, as are draconian narcotics laws that the rest of the European Union has discarded. Strictly as a lesson in how dull police work can be, and specifically how dully absurd it can be in a former Communist dictatorship, Police, Adjective is an intriguing work, whose stifling realism serves as a direct refutation to the bombast of the Cop Picture (regardless of nationality). Porumboiu, however, is far too talented and unruly a director to simply engage in a bit of genre revisionism and call it a day. Accordingly, there is another, more impressive level to the film, one absorbed with language and the way it shapes, steers, and constrains us. What truly fascinates about Police, Adjective is how easily Porumboiu grafts what is for all practical purposes an academic treatise on linguistics onto his police procedural, and how the two complement and fortify one another.
The protagonist of Porumboius’s tale—the narrative realities and general tone of the film prohibit me from describing him as a hero—is young plainclothes police detective Christi (Dragos Bucur). Diligent and soft-spoken, he peers out into the gray world over turtleneck collars pulled up high. He carries no gun, but takes meticulous notes on everything he sees and hears. When we meet him, Christi is on his eighth day of a petty narcotics investigation. Tipped off by a high school student who claims that his friend is dealing hashish, Christi spends much of his time following the boys on foot. The remainder of his professional day is occupied with filling out handwritten reports, dodging his obdurate captain (who we do not meet until the film’s penultimate scene), and shuffling from building to building to joust with a succession of clerks, lawyers, and fellow police officers. What we observe of Christi’s home life mainly consists of him pensively eating his dinner, either alone or with his new wife. Bucur’s superb performance is so finely modulated that it barely registers as a performance at all. There is nothing exaggerated about his character; Christi is both serious and jejune, assiduous and ambivalent, a host of subtle contradictions bound within an unassuming whole.
Porumboiu presents roughly two days in Christi’s dreary, regimented routine with a studious gaze. The director relies on the long takes that have become a hallmark of the Romanian New Wave, favoring static shots for interiors and a softly prowling handheld camera for exteriors, the latter mimicking Christi’s anxious pacing as he watches and waits in the biting winter winds. Porumboiu’s previous feature was 12:08 East to Bucharest, a work of wry brilliance that ruthlessly skewered Romanian society. Like that film, Police, Adjective features an extended scene in its third act that serves as, if not exactly a climax, at least a culmination of the dramatic groundwork that Porumboiu has been applying ever so gradually and evenly up to that point. The fact that much of this scene involves a character reading aloud from a dictionary underlines just how unhurried the rest of the film is. To be blunt, Police, Adjective is slow. Really slow. It’s a film about waiting and observing and going through the little obligatory motions that enable us to make forward progress (or maintain the illusion of said progress).
Most crudely, then, Police, Adjective is a retort to the notion that police work is exciting. Porumboiu counters that it is, in fact, dull as hell, but his point is not merely to throw a bucket of cold water on a law enforcement myth. It’s no accident that the film regards Christi’s off-hours activities—slurping soup, flipping television channels, playing football tennis—with the same level gaze as it does his professional duties. The film suggests that police work is dull because, fundamentally, all human pursuits are dull, repetitive, and meaningless. It takes nerve to proffer such a disheartening premise, and it also risks boring the audience in the process of making one’s point. Porumboiu avoids this pitfall, I think, due to his canny instinct for dribbling just enough drama into his story to stimulate our interest. Police, Adjective is not exactly a thrilling film, but it does harbor tingles of anticipatory energy. This energy swirls not only around the outcome of Christi’s case, but around that inevitable meeting with the police captain that he is avoiding. Compared to the visual and emotional lifelessness that characterizes the films of Lisandro Alonso—who is similarly enamored with long takes and the absence of action—Porumboiu’s film practically feels like The Bourne Ultimatum. To those uninitiated in the virtues of “Patience Cinema,” however, it will no doubt seem glacial.
What makes Police, Adjective much stranger and more fascinating than it might have otherwise been is Porumboiu’s decision to add a slathering of academic noodling about the nature and meaning of words. As such, what might have been a bleak portrait of the post-Soviet world becomes a kind of extended conversation, broken up across multiple characters and locales, about linguistics. In some scenes, this logophilia is unobtrusively enmeshed with the narrative. Variations on the phrase, “What do you mean by that?” pepper the script, and Christi’s investigation calls on him to parse out what is hidden by innocuous (and misleading) words like “friend”. Elsewhere the film’s word-fixation is explicit. Christi has just two conversations with his wife that we see: one about a treacly pop song’s nonsensical use of metaphor, the other about a recent change in a Romanian language standard. Most dramatically, Christi’s eventual confrontation with his captain (a cooly menacing Vlad Invanov) revolves around a disagreement over the definitions of “conscience,” “moral,” “law,” and “police”.
Punching up one’s languorous, revisionist police procedural with lengthy arguments about linguistics probably doesn’t seem like a recipe for riveting cinema. What’s remarkable about Police, Adjective is that these logophilic elements do enliven the story of Christi’s investigation, and moreover, they blend fairly seamlessly into it, without coming off as tacked-on bits of graduate student pontification. Porumboiu skillfully draws a line between language and human experience, particularly where life’s most unpleasant aspects are concerned. The film posits that, ultimately, words are the reason that Christi spends his days freezing his ass off, bored out of his mind, watching sixteen-year-olds walk here and there. Words like “criminal” and “duty,” and the agreed-upon meanings of those words, have put him in this situation, whether he likes it or not. Admittedly, the film never discovers the sort of scathing commentary that Porumboiu’s dissections of history and memory yielded in 12:08 East to Bucharest. The implications of Police, Adjective’s grand thesis—that our everyday actions are dictated by the tyranny of language—are more philosophical than political. This is a letdown in some respects, as Porumboiu’s film holds within it the seeds for a withering indictment of the injustices embedded in aspects of criminal law. It also makes the film feel chillier, slighter, and less humane than it might have otherwise been. However, this doesn’t diminish the fact that Police, Adjective is still daring, cerebral stuff, and further evidence of Romanian cinema’s capacity for novel, compelling storytelling.