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Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn: an arthouse comedy about a viral sex tape

Romanian auteur Radu Jude talks winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, making polarising art critics call ‘too progressive’, and Pizza Hut buffets

“In the UK, there’s maybe a Victorian Era heritage in your morals, where you’re very prudish,” Radu Jude suggests to me in The Mayfair Hotel during the London Film Festival. “But the film is what’s around the porn video. It’s a juxtaposition. It’s necessary to see the video in order to compare it with other things: is this obscene, or is this other reality obscene?

Jude, 44, is a Romanian auteur known for pushing boundaries, both formal and related to comfort levels. His early features, such as the low-key thriller Everybody in Our Family and the black-and-white western Aferim!, were festival darlings, the latter snagging the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. From there, he reinvented himself for each film, discovering new methods to baffle even the most willing of spectators. His absorbing, 141-minute period-drama Scarred Hearts follows a dying patient who spends all day on his back; it’s entirely shot, counterproductively, with a 4:3 aspect ratio, shoving the bed towards the bottom of a narrow frame. In The Dead Nation, Jude presents a series of photographs from the 40s and 50s to investigate Romania’s antisemitic history. In I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, he more directly interrogates, via metafictional twists, the 1941 Odessa Massacre.

When watching Radu Jude’s new comedy in a crowded cinema, you may find yourself instinctively trying to slam a non-existent laptop lid. For its first few minutes, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Jude’s tenth feature, unfolds as uncensored, hardcore pornography: a groaning, moaning, heterosexual Romanian couple going at it, the dirty talking subtitled for English-speaking viewers. True, the self-shot amateur sex tape, presented without edits, is relatively tame compared to what can be streamed on, you know, websites banned by Starbucks’ Wi-Fi filter. But in a dark room surrounded by strangers, it’s first excruciating, and then perplexing: why should witnessing a natural act be embarrassing?

For instance, if you stream Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn at home with friends, you’ll probably cackle as a group; the fornication is even comically interrupted by a family member yelling questions from the corridor outside. Yet at a deadly serious press screening at BFI Southbank, the stony-faced critics sat completely still, afraid to react, except for a few who scribbled down notes – presumably for a review, though perhaps for spicing up their own bedroom technique later.

An exclusive clip from Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

With Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, Jude is similarly provocative, continuously shifting genres – the X-rated, um, opening is just foreplay – and then climaxing with a delirious, fantastical scene that, if I were to describe it, you would assume I was lying. “Contrary to other things in life, art should split people,” the writer-director says, under his mask. “It’s good when a film is rejected by people, because that rejection is the first step for a possible acceptance. There are films, books and paintings that were violently rejected years ago; then, after thinking about them, gradually you change, and you love it.”

However, Jude’s latest feature has already proven to be a critical success. At the 2021 Berlin Film Festival, it won the top prize, the Golden Bear, and he’s in London ahead of a handful of sold-out festival screenings. “I’m happy for the people who worked on the film,” he says. “But I’m like a football manager who gives his team permission to be happy about a victory for only one day. I’ve made films that weren’t successful, and I don’t believe they weren't good. I don’t read a book and think, ‘Oh, this author won the Nobel Prize.’”

“It’s good when a film is rejected by people, because that rejection is the first step for a possible acceptance. There are films, books and paintings that were violently rejected years ago; then, after thinking about them, gradually you change, and you love it” – Radu Jude

After its pornographic prologue, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn divides itself into three chapters. In the first, Emi (Katia Pascariu), the woman in the video, walks around Bucharest, stressed out of her mind. Emi, a teacher, has learned that her husband leaked their sex tape online, and her pupils’ parents want her sacked. In the second chapter, the film transforms into a slideshow about language, politics, and Romania’s murky history. For the final act, the anticipated PTA meeting is depicted in the broad style of a gag-heavy, 30-minute sitcom.

“You can compare it with a Cubist painting and the splashes on the canvas,” Jude says, in regards to how the three chapters complement each other. “Or like a Pizza Hut salad, where you have the tomatoes, cucumber, mustard and cabbage. You, the viewer, create the salad.” I ask if they have tastier Pizza Huts in Romania, because he’s risking turning off a few UK viewers. “In the last 20 years, I haven’t been to Pizza Hut. But in the 90s, (getting a Pizza Hut) was a big event in Romania.”

In the first helping of Jude’s cinematic Pizza Hut salad, the director captures Romania during the pandemic. Shot as a docudrama, Emi’s storyline will occasionally pause as the camera spins around 360 degrees to observe pedestrians adjusting their masks and living their lives. “I said to myself: it should be a film that’s contemporary, but done like a historical film. I’m amazed by Romanian films that were made at the same time that decided to hide the pandemic.” He laughs. “And I think: what? This is our reality!”

At one point, a woman enters the frame and turns to the camera to mutter, “Eat my cunt.” She was simply a stranger walking past. “If you’re open to what happens around you, things happen and fit,” Jude explains. “Carlo Ginzburg, the Italian historian, said he likes to search things randomly. Sometimes he’d just open a book and find things this way.”

For the most part, Pascariu, whose only other movie credit is as a nun in Beyond the Hills, also acts with a mask, playing her comedic and emotional exasperation through hand gestures and eye-rolling. During Emi’s debate with the parents, it’s inherently funnier that everyone’s wearing a mask – civilisation is on the precipice, yet here’s a public gathering to discuss an innocuous clip on Pornhub. “A lot of distributors were tempted to dub the film because they say it’s so easy to dub (if they’re wearing masks),” Jude reveals. “I said no.”

“You can compare it with a Cubist painting and the splashes on the canvas. Or like a Pizza Hut salad, where you have the tomatoes, cucumber, mustard and cabbage” – Radu Jude

As a sign of double standards, Emi is the one who’s slut-shamed, not her husband, the initial uploader, and the almost-cartoonish arguments of Emi’s detractors make clear which side Jude supports. But while the film argues that there’s nothing wrong with shooting a sex tape, Pascariu understandably didn’t get nude herself. “Katia was very brave, and she said she was able to go the full way. It was me who said, ‘No, please, we’ll use body doubles for the penetration scene.’ But she didn’t have any problems with that. She’s a political theatre actress, normally; a very serious person.”

For the middle section, subtitled “A Short Dictionary of Anecdotes, Signs and Wonders”, Jude shuffles through words and facts, each accompanied by a still image or video clip. Pollution, fascism, and historical atrocities are all on display, as well as shocking statistics about domestic violence in Romania. Yet interspersed are more light-hearted digressions, including a visualisation of a “blonde joke”, and, in a set-up to a later punchline, the apparent revelation that “blowjob” is the most searched term in the online dictionary – “empathy” is behind in second-place.

When I describe it as “pornography for the brain”, Jude bristles – he also dislikes terminology such as “food porn”, “car porn”, etcetera. As an alternative, he offers, “It’s a literary device made into cinema. A literary montage of quotes, images, and sounds. The first part is the geographical context, and this second part is the context of the ideas for where the story takes place.”

The third part, though, is the unlikely diversion into sitcom territory, set entirely outdoors as Emi defends her job in front of the head teacher and backward-minded parents. As a running gag, the sex tape is played constantly on a laptop; it’s studied, critiqued (including remarks that Emi deserves extra punishment for giving head), and then rerun from the start at full volume for latecomers. “In Romania, it’s a very sexist and misogynistic society. A woman has to fulfil more of the strict expectations than a man.”

“In Romania, it’s a very sexist and misogynistic society. A woman has to fulfil more of the strict expectations than a man” – Radu Jude

The rhythm of the loose dialogue, all without a laughter track, toys with repetition, over-the-top line delivery, and the delight of watching Emi cuss out other adults. Curb Your Enthusiasm seems to be a fair comparison. “I appreciate Larry David,” Jude says. “But I’m a little against the aesthetic of sitcoms and TV series. Sometimes it can be brilliant like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it can feel like a cheap product, in terms of the aesthetic and pleasing a wide audience.”

During the dispute, Emi’s opponents reveal themselves to be hypocrites and full of prejudice, including one mother who admits to bribing a teacher for higher grades. Their outrageous behaviour, Jude says, isn’t far from his own encounters as a parent in Romania. The director has two children (he came straight to our interview from the Lego store in Leicester Square) and is appalled when other adults disguise their racism and sexism as concern for their kids. “When you go to parent/teacher meetings, the parents always lose their mask, and say what they think. I don’t say anything, because I would probably start a fight.”

However, as a filmmaker, Jude is outspoken. Upon winning the top prize at the Berlinale, in turn beating Céline Sciamma and Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Jude criticised “the bullshit of red carpets” at festivals. On reflection, he adds, “In many cases, there’s not a lot of attention paid to the films themselves, but to the glamour, the costumes, the shoes, the stars. I understand that a premiere can be a celebration of the work, but it’s a copy of the Oscars. At these events, cinema is forgotten. You feel like you’re the end of a chain of capitalistic things, where everything’s for the sponsors.”

In Romania, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn has received its own heated response, some of it for being “too progressive”, Jude says, and also for “showing the bad parts of Romania.” That was all anticipated by the director. “But what I expected less was for the film to be attacked because of its form, and people saying, ‘This is not a film. Whatever it is, this is not a film.’ That just shows we need a lot of education – not only in cinema, but in images of any kind. We don’t know how to judge them.”

“If people watch porn, it’s intimate. I can see that, for some people, it’s like they’re being forced to watch something. But at the same time, it’s a question of the image” – Radu Jude

For the London Film Festival screening he’ll introduce shortly after our interview, Jude doesn’t plan to watch with the crowd. He still hasn’t attended a public viewing and so can only guess how audiences respond to his various provocations – including the more hardcore aspects. “Arthouse cinema usually doesn’t have these scenes,” Jude says. “If people watch porn, it’s intimate. I can see that, for some people, it’s like they’re being forced to watch something. But at the same time, it’s a question of the image.”

“It’s affecting our life nowadays. We are more and more in a digital world. What is the digital world? It’s not a real world. It’s a world of images. What’s the relationship between the images and reality? All these questions appear when you watch a video like that. If people feel uncomfortable? Well, I think it’s OK for people to feel uncomfortable. Why should you feel comfortable when you watch a film? It’s important for art to provoke and challenge perceptions.”

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn opens in UK cinemas on November 26