Locarno 2013. Limits of Control: Corneliu Porumboiu's "When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism"

Porumboiu's latest is another crawling comedy, slow but accumulative in its subtle satire, a self-serious critique of self-seriousness.
Adam Cook

The slow-burning comedy of Corneliu Porumboiu, dryer than toast and strictly intellectual, can be very rewarding if limited—but indeed, limitations are this film’s foremost concern, both in form and content. When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism opens in a car with the two principal characters, a director, Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), and an actress, Alina (Diana Avramut), who are involved in an affair while shooting a film. Paul brings up how digital filmmaking removes the limits imposed by working with film and how this, for him, defeats the purpose of cinema. He describes how with film you can never shoot longer than 11 minutes in a single take, arguing it is “rules” such as these that define the art form. In 50 years, he says, people will still be watching something they call “movies,” but they will no longer be movies, not as they exist now.

What ensues is a take which surely must be about 11 minutes long, and indeed the remainder of the film is mostly composed of long takes that capitalize on, but work within, this limit of celluloid. However, Porumboiu’s film is not so simply a declaration of cine-principles followed by a petty demonstration of them. Rather, it is at once a lamentation for cinema and a critique of this very material stubbornness, as well as the rigid view of movies that accompanies it. Paul and Alina, who appear on screen together almost the entire film with very few others joining in, have a master-slave dynamic in which the director controls the actor, and patronizingly pontificates about the cinema. In one of the film’s best scenes, a friend compares Alina to Monica Vitti, leading to the discovery that she doesn’t know who that is nor has she seen an Antonioni film. Shocked, Paul lists Antonioni’s films, insisting she must see them; in the static long takes of this universe, where "cinema" seems to only exist for this one man, he seems ridiculous, stranded in a world where his precious rules lose their meaning.

They are mostly seen discussing the film they’re making, eating, sleeping, rehearsing—we hardly see evidence that they’re even making a movie, and no one seems that particularly happy about doing it, especially the film’s frustrated producer, but also the director himself, whose gloomy disposition suggests a lack of conviction in the very philosophies he asserts are vital. As the film goes on, the more pronounced the satirical side of the film becomes, as Porumboiu’s rigor begins to emphasize not its own existence but its very arbitrariness. There's an awareness in the film of the Romanian New Wave, with Porumboiu poking fun at this master shot, long take style, appropriating it to anemically cinematic settings and scenes, and to a reflexive discussion of itself. The technique is a conceptual exercise that can really go nowhere. What does it add to cinema? Nothing; but When Evening Falls on Bucharest is a sort of perfect record of a strange time in the world of cinema where the rules of the game stay the same even as the game itself changes, and this thing we call cinephilia clings to itself, lonely and insecure—an anticipation of a post-cinema cinephilia.

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