More Love from Critics as POLICE ADJECTIVE & FISH TANK Expand
Posted on Monday, January 25th, 2010 by IFC Films News
Tags: FISH TANK, POLICE ADJECTIVE, Reviews
Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe‘s rave four-star review of Corneliu Poromboiu’s POLICE, ADJECTIVE – now playing in Boston at Kendall Square:
The definition of riveting: Romanian police drama finds its thrill in words, not high-speed chases
Certain movies provoke critics to plead with an audience to be patient. It’s a pitiful but sometimes necessary last resort. “Police, Adjective,’’ from Romania, is a case in point. This startling, shrewd film rewards your loyalty with its wry intelligence. The usual emphasis in a detective film is upended so that procedure, thrillingly, is more important than action. In its own way, this is one of the most intense cop movies you’ll see.
A Bucharest detective named Cristi (Dragos Bucur) is trying to close out a simple drug case involving a teenage boy and the boy’s connection to a dealer. In seemingly minute-by-minute detail, we watch Cristi walk the damp streets on cold, gloomy days, trailing the young man through a parking lot and to school. Cristi lurks outside the convenience store across from the boy’s family’s home and picks up discarded cigarette butts and inspects them for traces of hash. That’s familiar procedural stuff, rendered here in painstakingly observational fashion. We are there.
What happens between Cristi’s one-man stakeouts is more striking. It, too, is mundane. But you gradually see a character develop. Early, at his office, Cristi tells a tubby co-worker he doesn’t want to play foot tennis with him. The rejection is purely deductive. Since the co-worker is bad at soccer he must be bad at foot tennis. All the two sports share is the kicking of a ball, but never mind. The co-worker is perplexed: “It is written down somewhere?’’ “No,’’ Cristi says, dismissively, “but it is a law.’’
The writer and director Corneliu Porumboiu approaches moviemaking with the rising structure of some superbly told stories. He has a gift for foreshadowing. That conversation between Cristi and his co-worker provides an insight into Cristi. This young plain-looking man is a model of snobby certitude and literal-mindedness. In most instances, he’s probably right. But he’s also imprecise. And that intellectual imprecision leaves him open to incrimination when it comes to this drug case. His bosses want to end Cristi’s investigation and just stage a bust. He objects. The kid he’s been following will go to jail for drug possession. And that, in Cristi’s words, would be stupid.
Nowhere else in Europe can you be arrested for smoking pot, he insists. But this, the movie argues, is not Europe. It’s Romania. And the crop of keen young filmmakers that emerged at the end of the last decade has seen fit to reconfigure their homeland as a Twilight Zone. In “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,’’ “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,’’ and Porumboiu’s own incisive critique of nostalgia, “12:08 East of Bucharest,’’ these directors assess the country’s grimly comic (or grimly grim) institutional dysfunction and show how that dysfunction has come, in some way, to shape the national character. With a rare balance of feeling and irony, their movies suggest that psychically Romania remains under the thumb of the former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. On a second viewing, the exchanges in “Police, Adjective’’ become freighted with meaning. Although by the time Cristi heads to his apartment for dinner with his wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), the stubborn nature of his personality is apparent enough to suspect it will eventually bring him grief. Over and over, his wife plays a video of a popular ballad by the Romanian singer Mirabela Dauer. Exasperated, Cristi mocks the song’s sentimentality. Life goes on, sings Dauer. “Can it go backward?’’ he asks Anca, slightly amused with himself. She explains the images are symbols. Then, “why not say it directly?’’ he says.
A policier that turns into a comedy about figures of speech and the letter of the law counts as an act of subversion. The subject is not crime. It’s communication. A usage error arouses more suspense than the drug case. At various intervals, the camera scrolls down Cristi’s reports as if they were dictionary entries. The attention to grammatical and figurative detail around the police precinct completely alters the very meaning of “procedural.’’ The movie culminates in a conversation that hinges on pages being flipped in an actual dictionary. It’s just three men sitting around a book. And yet rarely has such high drama been leveraged against such a humdrum scenario.
In this witheringly funny encounter, Porumboiu manages to find another incarcerating facet of the Romanian character, hinged simply on how Cristi is able to define his job. How can he be permitted to operate outside the dictates of his superiors when he can’t clearly express why bending the law is morally wrong. We’re forced to question the value of the job we’ve been watching Cristi perform: Is this thorough police work or a waste of money and time?
Here the difference between instinct and self-articulation is vast and yet not as fixed as it would seem. As Cristi looks up words (“conscience,’’ say) at the command of his imperiously cruel boss (Vlad Ivanov, the abortion doctor from “4 Months’’), meaning suddenly seems arbitrary. Anyone who’s ever been forced to define a word under duress will spend the final 15 minutes in spine-tingling empathy with Cristi. The dictionary is booby-trapped so that its contents can be used to oppress and humiliate. The language police here operate their own dictatorship.
People tell us who they are by how they behave. Ten minutes or so into Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank,” we don’t yet know what the young English heroine is up to, or even her name—this remarkable film dispenses plot information like a slow-release tablet dispenses active ingredients—but we already know lots about her. She’s seething with anger, likes to dance, has too much time on her hands, is fearless or foolish or both, and gives away her loneliness by taking in the gritty world around her with a yearning, devouring gaze.
In fact, her name is Mia, she’s 15 years old and she’s played phenomenally well—indeed, almost unaccountably well—by Katie Jarvis, who’d never acted before, or, for that matter, done any dancing. (She was discovered at a train station in Essex, arguing with her boyfriend.) “Fish Tank” is a coming-of-age story for Mia, who will at least have a shot at happiness, and a coming-into-mastery story for the writer-director, Ms. Arnold, whose prospects seem limitless.
For those familiar with British film history, gritty may instantly equate with working class and realistic. In this case it does and it doesn’t. Does because Mia’s surroundings fill the bill—a cheerless housing project that she, her prickly mother and kid sister call home; a landscape mostly, though not entirely, distinguished by blank horizons and vestiges of vanished industries. Doesn’t because Ms. Arnold relieves the grittiness with interludes of intense pleasure (during one of them, Mia watches her mother’s handsome boyfriend catch a fish with his bare hands), and transcends realist conventions with tough-minded poetry. (The spirit of Fellini seems to hover over an exquisite, ritualized dance toward the end.)
Be forewarned that the accents are occasionally thick enough to make you wish for subtitles, but rest assured that you’ll never have any doubt about what’s going on. The intensity of Mia’s gaze goes off the charts when her mother’s boyfriend, Connor, first shows up in their tacky flat. He’s played by Michael Fassbender, who sustains an impressive star presence while staying within the bounds of Connor’s amiable, seemingly gentle character. Here again, the film is in no hurry to reveal his character in full, so the question that sustains the dramatic tension is whether Connor will stay within the bounds of propriety as he becomes an increasingly intimate part of a family with an alluring Lolita in its midst. What’s immediately clear is that he has the heat to thaw Mia’s chilly demeanor, though her innate hostility reasserts itself whenever she feels threatened by the loss of his attention.
As heroines go, Mia is a hard case, and Ms. Arnold declines to make her a softer one. We come to like her only by fits and starts, come to see her vulnerability very slowly. The one time the story flirts with sentimentality is when Mia is smitten by the spectacle of a white horse chained to a cement block in a junk-strewn lot. Even then, her concern is so obsessive that she takes scary chances to set the poor nag free.
Despite her hooded personality, she’s capable of stunning surprises. It’s been a good while since I’ve seen a movie whose most powerful sequence was both unforeseen and entirely unpredictable as it played out. Or, for that matter, a movie whose climax ran so counter to carefully nourished expectations. I’d already imagined the outcome by the time Mia went off to confront her fate, but the filmmaker had a much better idea. (She also had a fine cast that includes Kierston Wareing as Mia’s mother, and strong support from the cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, who has a great eye for industrial landscapes, the production designer, Helen Scott, and the editor, Nicolas Chaudeurge.)
My first encounter with Ms. Arnold and her work was more than five years ago at the Telluride Film Festival, where she showed “Wasp,” a harrowing 26-minute featurette about a young woman strung out between kids she can barely care for and affection she can’t find. Everyone who saw it at Telluride knew the director would go on to bigger things, though perhaps not as quickly as she did; “Wasp” won an Oscar as the best live action short of 2004. Her first feature, “Red Road,” was a 2006 thriller set in Glasgow; it was conceived as part of an experimental project inspired by the Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. No such artistic debts were involved in the making of “Fish Tank.” It’s her creation from the very first commanding shot—Mia facing the camera—and it’s a fine one.