Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) was emblematic in the late nineties as a European auteur product rallying against the evils of homogeneous Hollywood style film making. It arrived in Cannes in 1997 to much critical debate surrounding Haneke’s scrutinising of images of violence in the media, and the consequence these industrial reproductions of the horrors of our world are having on the audiences of directors like John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. Over a decade later at the same festival the Romanian director Cristi Puiu would unveil Aurora (2010), a film the radicalizes the expectations of not just Hollywood film making, but the very nature of narrative and classical storytelling. With Aurora Puiu has replaced Haneke’s self-conscious game playing with a genuine revolutionary cinema of ideas that scrutinises the very foundations of representation and realism that form the fabric of the art form.
Like Haneke’s film, Aurora garnered an extreme critical reaction on its arrival at Cannes which set it in immediate contrast to Puiu’s previous film which premiered at the French festival in 2005 The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. This mixed reaction was best surmised in Film Comment in January 2011 where accusations like – “not particularly touching”, “near autistic”, and “frustrating” are concluded with a fatal misinterpretation: “Lazarescu was all about us, and what happens when that fateful day comes; Aurora is only about Puiu.”1 Aurora paints a picture of the unknowable Other that many found difficult to recognise, but the entire film is very much a mediation on communication, and the shades of grey that exist in our realities which cinema so often casts in black and white.
While many were quick to point out Aurora was a marked change in style and tone from the director’s international breakthrough The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), the film actually shares many formal and thematic similarities as well as making links through oppositions. While the first film was defined by a vital and illustrative linearity of narrative, ironically undermined by the film’s revelatory title, Aurora has a fragmented timeline which undermines its own linearity. Following 36 hours in the life of protagonist Viorel, played by the director himself, Puiu structures his film so we are constantly re-establishing exactly what relationships the character is having with the characters around him, as well as exactly what shape the protagonist’s life is in or seems to be taking. The immediacy of narrative and character established in The Death of Mr Lazarescu is completely reversed in Aurora where the domestic space we are initially presented and the familial characters wherein are recast and realigned in their relationship to Viorel each time we see them, and as we continue to observe his behaviour and environment.
Where Lazarescu used an observational naturalism to highlight problematic communal society, Aurora presents a terminal portrait of individualism, both films underlining the opposing difficulties of human communication. Both Lazarescu and Aurora make use of a long take style and structural duration to project a particularly mode of immersive realism, but the more illustrative and compositional dialogue and action of the first film is inverted by a kind of masking of significant plot events; long sections of action without dialogue observing Viorel as well as dialogue scenes with characters inserted without prior narrative foundation.
In an interview given after Aurora’s release Puiu discussed listening to the stories of criminals in a Bucharest prison both part of his script research as well as conceiving it as statement against classical or traditional cinema narratives and plotting. As well as inferring the film could be an answer to the Hollywood philosophy of character psychology by claiming Murnau’s Sunrise as “wishful thinking” Puiu clarifies his objective by stating that “Aurora was an answer to Taxi Driver and the voice-over of Travis Bickle – that doesn’t work!”.2 The images of its protagonist the film present conjure a pure distillation of loneliness, isolation and disaffection in keener and more unique ways than cinema has ever managed previously. The everyday realism created from the repeated shots of Viorel scurrying across train tracks, his menacing rituals of quite literally peeking behind parked vans, hanging around bus stops at dawn and twilight are unmistakably sinister even if the subject of his voyeurism is not explicit. The narrative is communicated by the rich mise en scene, the locations are endowed with elements of the character’s past and the depiction of ambiguous domestic and work spaces reveal much of Viorel’s trajectory in his interactions and behaviour. This is particularly true when we observe him in his flat, a small dwelling of bare floors and stripped walls, the most obvious indication of his life’s significant transition. A tense scene involving a disagreement with removal men and the separation of his flat’s contents introduces an exchange between Viorel and an older gentleman where a painful recent past is hinted at, but we will not confirm the identity of this man, nor his relationship with Viorel until much later in the film in tragic and shocking terms.
Among the banalities of repeated scenes of Viorel eating, showering, or driving around are inserted obvious motifs foreshadowing the violence to come, and the formal style of the film creates an inexplicable sense of suspense throughout. When half hour into the film we are shown our protagonist cleaning and assembling a rifle amongst the renovations of his flat Puiu is clearly having fun with the conventions of the thriller genre. However, as events and violent revelations unfold the only clarity is the grinding, every day dullness and nihilism of the central character’s existence. The film’s colour palette carries an icy patina in the blues, greens, grey and browns of late autumn light complimented by the expressionless stoicism of Puiu’s portrayal. Observing Viorel from scene to scene often in long sequences soundtracked only by the distant rumble of city roadsides and the odd suburban dog bark we can sense an expression of despair and impending tragedy. Puiu completes his mediation on communication in life and cinema with the long final scene in which Viorel voluntarily enters a police station to confess the crimes to which the film has bore witness. All details of the preceding action are revealed and confirmed calmly and sincerely, but we certainly gain less from this in understanding the story and characters than we have from the uninitiated journey taken from the start within Viorel’s head.
Aurora (2010, Romania, 181 minutes)
Prod Co: Mondragora Prod: Anca Puiu & Bobby Paunescu Dir: Cristi Puiu Scr: Cristi Puiu Phot: Voirel Sergovici Ed: Ion Ioachim Stroe
Cast: Cristi Puiu, Clara Voda, Catrinel Dumitrescu, Luminita Gheorghiu, Valentin Popescu.
- Serban, Alex Leo, “Bucharest Journal: Bridging the gap”, Film Comment (Jan 2011) p. 12. ↩
- Konstanty Kuzma and Moritz Pfeifer, “Cristi Puiu about Art, Cinema, and Acting”, East European Film Bulletin (July 2011) http://eefb.org/archive/july-2011/interview-with-cristi-puiu/puiu-about-art-cinema-and-acting/. ↩