In the opening of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn—a new Romanian comedy every bit as brash, unwieldy, and defiantly outre as its title—a boyfriend filming a sex tape looks down at himself and exclaims, “look how hard I am just from turning the camera on!” It’s certainly a way to throw down the gauntlet; this is a film that earns an NC-17 rating within the first 5 seconds (assuming they even bother to ask the MPAA at all) and then keeps you perpetually on your toes. Subtlety is not on its agenda, but self-reflexivity is. So as the film unfolds, you should note how that off-screen voice’s giddy, mookish, immature joy at getting to whip out a camera and film a taboo is not remotely limited to matters of sex.
The director, Radu Jude, has been busy on the festival circuit, regularly offering sardonic critiques of his native land. (Sample title: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians). I must confess I have not kept up, but I was a great admirer of his 2015 film Aferim!, for the way it combined the medieval atmosphere of Andrei Rublev with a fantastic eye for absurdist comedy. With Bad Luck Banging, he sets that eye on 2020—warts, coronavirus, and all. The film’s story, to the extent that it has one, is about a teacher (Katia Pascariu) whose life is upended after a sex tape of her gets leaked online. But this cringe comedy’s true object of embarrassment is a society at large, and at its best, Jude captures the heightened temperature of our COVID era like no film so far. The first act can feel up to the minute: people out and about in masks, tensely snapping at one another. It may be the first piece of COVID-era cinema to be worthy of attention, uncomfortable but cathartic even if you’re understandably burnt out by the real thing. From there, the film breaks down into an ersatz Godard video essay that riffs on history, sex, economics, and culture, before arriving at a distended, day-glo kangaroo court that takes a social media trial and manifests it in the flesh.
In short, it doesn’t skimp on ideas. And the best is the metaphor it keeps circling back to: that of a sex tape itself. For if we define “sex tape” as “amateur video of an expression of the id usually kept as a quiet, open secret”, haven’t the last 18 months been offering a kind of collective sex tape on a regular basis? A kind based not in attraction but in loathing? Every iPhone video of a clash at a protest, or a fight on an airplane, or an outburst of racial animus or fascist sympathy is grainy proof, ready to be consumed with morbid fascination, that yes, this is us, we do indeed do this.
It’s a fertile parallel, which makes it disappointing that the film is such an emotionally hollow experience by the end—less a serious inquiry than an underachieving teenage prank. The film won the top prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, where every member of the jury was the director of a previous Golden Bear winner themselves. This is not the norm for festival juries, but it does offer an interesting case of filmmakers getting to choose someone to join them in their particular pantheon. And it’s definitely worth considering how they chose a work that, by its own self-description in the opening credits, is less a film than an assemblage of ideas for a film, as if our dismal state of affairs has necessitated a return to Year Zero. Still, I’m not convinced that this particular act of confrontational sarcasm is the way to meet the moment. Bad Luck Banging may indeed point to something essential. It flaunts an exhilarating sense of cinematic freedom, and it tackles topics that deserve the attention of a (metaphorically) horny cameraman. But perhaps because its attitude towards people is so uncharitable, or because it saves its draggiest, least effective setpiece for the end, Jude’s tour-de-force of cynicism breaks its own spell. The longer it goes on, the narrower its perspective seems to be.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn opens in America this November. God knows what the state of the world will be by then. But between the Golden Bear for this and the Palme d’Or for Titane, Venice has the chance to make 2021 the most perverse triple crown in festival history.