Review by Mike D’Angelo
Posted on 23 September 2009
Source IFC Films 35mm print
Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival
What does it mean, exactly, to say that a film is “about language”? That phrase frequently gets tossed about in reviews of Police, Adjective, the second feature by Romania’s Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), and it’s not particularly hard to see whence it derives, given that there’s a part of speech right there in the film’s title. Still, let’s delve a little. Can a movie be about language if nobody onscreen is speaking? Difficult to see how. It must depend upon what words are spoken, and how they’re used. Presumably, we’re talking about a film in which the narrative and/or the characters’ behavior hinges to some degree on semantics, then. Different vocabulary, different story. No? And yet, try though I might, I can’t see how Police, Adjective says anything remotely incisive about how language creates/distorts meaning or influences/inhibits action. An intriguing take on the policier, but Orwell’s ghost can rest easy.
On the surface, Porumboiu’s agenda initially looks more like Police, Adjacent. Cristi, a young plainclothes cop, has been assigned to shadow a student accused of dealing marijuana, and spends the bulk of his days walking 50 paces behind the suspect or lurking around corners near the kid’s house and school. Anything but a law-and-order zealot, our hero is understandably reluctant to ruin a promising young life over such a minor infraction, and repeatedly attempts to remove himself from the case or shift its focus to someone higher up the supply line, to no avail. And so Cristi goes about his daily routine: tailing the student, writing up detailed reports of his activity, eating leftovers, watching TV. And all the while we observe with sorrow as his conscience - not exactly what you’d call forceful to begin with - gets slowly eroded by institutional protocol, the enforcers of which eventually do yank out a dictionary for support.
As a director, Porumboiu has an unfortunate tendency to devise a rigid formal strategy and then doggedly stick to it at all costs. 12:08 East of Bucharest, in which three characters appear on a news program to discuss their memories of the ‘89 revolution, abandoned its precise compositions for close-up monotony once it arrived at the TV station—a deliberate ploy, sure, but that didn’t make it any less visually tedious. Likewise, Police, Adjective goes overboard with real-time lethargy, letting shots drag on and on even when Cristi isn’t on the job. Some will no doubt argue that we’re supposed to experience the protagonist’s dreary, effectively meaningless existence both at work and at home, and that’s why we need to see him traverse the entire length of every single hallway and watch him silently chewing his food for five minutes solid. But the whole art-macho, “can you taste the boredom?” thing has been beaten into the ground over the past 10–15 years, to the point where it now seems every bit as clichéd as a peppy song montage.
More than that, though, the film’s attenuated scenes only serve to underscore how little meat is on them bones. From a psychological standpoint, Cristi’s plight isn’t exactly complex—stick neck out slightly, get beaten back down, repeat. Nor is Dragos Bucur, the actor who plays him, expressive or charismatic enough to convey a symphony of unspoken thoughts. No, the only real point of interest here is linguistic, and even that seems to me entirely superficial. Porumboiu alternates endless scenes of stoic silence - Cristi shadowing the kid, Cristi eating dinner - with dialogue scenes that function as blatant mini-essays, as when Cristi argues with his girlfriend about the lyrics of a song she’s replaying again and again on YouTube. Thing is, though, the content of that argument has no bearing whatsoever on the case Cristi is trying to escape and/or undermine. It merely serves as a didactic cue to the viewer that the film is “about language,” lest we begin to conclude that it’s simply a bloated tract depicting the hegemony of The Man.
Police, Adjective’s money scene takes the beat-you-over-the-head approach to an admittedly hilarious extreme. When Cristi takes one final stand, refusing to oversee the raid that will result in his suspect’s arrest, his captain browbeats him with etymology, handing him a Romanian dictionary and instructing him to look up the definition of such words as “police,” “law” and “conscience,” as if personal morality could be reduced to prescriptive grammar. At once funny and appalling, this roughly 20-minute sequence isn’t so much a treatise on language as a perverse variant on the appeal to authority, employed by authority itself. To function as revelatory culmination, however, it needs to echo some of the film’s previous mundane conversations, or bounce off the listless procedural material in some interesting way, and I have yet to find anyone who can explain how it does so. (It’s often asserted, but never explained.) Nor is this finale exactly the height of thematic elegance—Porumboiu might as well have stepped into the frame himself, directly behind a lectern, pointer in hand. “See? It’s about language.” Duly freakin’ noted.
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