It’s rare that European cinema impacts on Hollywood but it’s exciting when there’s a trickle-down effect, like the connection to be made between Denmark’s stripped-down Dogme movies, which launched in Cannes in the late ’90s, and Steven Spielberg’s decision to go back to basics (well, for him) with Catch Me If You Can a few years later. It’s a moot point how many will ever see Romanian director Radu Jude’s follow-up to his 2021 Berlinale winner Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, but, like Bob Dylan going electric or the Sex Pistols making their ramshackle debut at a London art school, this wilfully uncommercial but bloody-minded film could be genuinely seminal in its anarchic and totally individualistic approach, slipping discordant, Godardian subversion into a darkly comic, Ruben Östlund-style human drama.
The intro suggests a boring academic exercise, positing the first half (“A”) as a “conversation” with a 1981 Romanian film called Angela Moves On. Surprisingly, in a world where we’re used to the cliché of visual artists providing a “response” and critics engaging in a “dialogue” with other people’s work, Jude’s film is actually what he says it is, using a 1981 film by Lucian Bratu (Angela Moves On) as its jumping-off point. That film stars Dorina Lazar in the title role as a taxi driver, and perhaps Radu’s film’s chief conceit is how surprising and modern it seems today, with its light, verité-style, Kodak-pastel portrayal of a country where a single woman could not only be a taxi driver but the main character in a movie — two things were still comparatively rare anywhere in 1981, let alone the land of Ceaușescu.
Radu interrupts and interpolates that portrayal of Bucharest with his own film and his own leading lady, also called Angela (Ilinca Manolache), an equally independent woman whose scenes are (almost) all shot in a less rose-tinted hue: stark black and white. Like the Angela of Angela Moves On, she pretty much lives in her car, but in this instance it’s because she’s a put-upon production assistant, working for a cheapskate film and video company, driving around Bucharest filming potential candidates for a health and safety video. No one else is available, since there’s a big, green-screen sci-fi movie in town — Canis Majoris Attacks! — directed by Uwe Boll (“A crazy German who beats people up”). So Angela has to suck it up, driving through the crowded streets of the capital, slugging coffee to get from A to B. As a female driver, like the Angela of the ’80s, she has run-ins, but these confrontations, once merely chauvinistic, are now frighteningly misogynistic and, sadly, she’s become hardened to them.
Both films are rich with detail, much of it specific to Romania, but a lot of Do Not Expect… is surprisingly worldwide-topical. Angela has an online presence as “Bobita”, a sexist, foul-mouthed, satirical alter-ego she creates by superimposing Andrew Tate’s features onto her face by the magic of the iPhone. Meanwhile, King Charles has just been crowned, Revolut is a thing, and the war in Ukraine is decried as a premise to inflate energy bills (it’s a wonder the Barbie movie didn’t merit a mention). In a bonus, post-modern twist, Angela even meets the other, fictional Angela (Lazar herself) in a wonderful piece of meta-texuality that brings the two together in a poetic symbiosis: there’s the Boomer version, resigned to living out her once-colorful life in monochrome, and the millennial who’s never known anything but.
The younger Angela’s barely concealed anger about her work situation, and her not-at-all-concealed thoughts about the world and local politics, keep the first two hours on the boil, and the camera’s detached distance (as well as the film’s length) suggests this might build to be a kind of a sister piece to Cristi Puiu’s sardonic observational drama The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). But after that, Jude’s film unexpectedly jumps the rails when one of the subjects that Angela has scouted starts to film his testimony. Now we are in one-take territory, and, in that peculiar way that Romanian cinema likes to wrap things up by un-wrapping things up, we are in Police, Adjective territory, a reference to Corneliu Porumboiu’s provocative 2009 Cannes Un Certain Regard prize-winner that… Well, if you know, you know, and if you don’t, it’s to your credit that you’re interested enough to read this far.
These final 40 minutes (“B”), though interesting and engaging, thus take us to a place we weren’t quite expecting: Although bathos is very much a feature of Romanian New Wave, given Angela’s attitude and her principles, her interactions with her paymasters’ visiting Austrian client (a very generous cameo from Nina Hoss) don’t pay off in a particularly satisfying way. But it’s a testament to Manolache’s unpredictable, matchhead presence that we want to see more of her, since she carries, on her shoulders alone, a complex and often hilarious arthouse experiment that conflates the present and the past to leave us pondering its initially funny but ultimately troublesome title: Is it really all downhill from here?
Title: Do Not Expect Too Much From The End Of The World
Festival: Locarno (Golden Leopard Competition)
Director/screenwriter: Radu Jude
Cast: Ilinca Manolache, Ovidiu Pîrșan, Nina Hoss, Dorina Lazăr, László Miske, Katia Pascariu
Running time: 2hr 43 min
Sales agent: Heretic