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Fictions of Everydayness: Focalization Patterns and Narrative “Reality Effects” in Police, Adjective and Other Films from the Romanian New Wave

Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009)


Critics and scholars agree that the history of the Romanian New Wave begins with Cristi Puiu’s Stuff and Dough (Marfa şi banii, 2001). After the so-called “year zero” of 2000, in which not one single feature length film was produced in Romania, Puiu’s film promised a new beginning. Using a small cast, a hand-held camera, and telling a simple story with dialogues imitating everyday speech, the film created a new style in Romanian cinema. Alexandru Leo Șerban,Șerban died at the age of 51 in 2011. For a short obituary see: one of Romania’s most important film critics, wrote retrospectively:

[T]welve years after the 1989 Revolution, Puiu tried (and achieved) a ‘revolution’ within the local cinema, but many failed to see its point. The slice of life carved by Puiu […] bothered many in the CNC [Romanian National Film Centre] establishment, although, to tell the truth, the film was not manifestly political but rather ‘just’ an aesthetic manifesto. Nine years ago, then, the boundaries of Romanian cinematic ‘minimalism’ were already set: small budget, hand-held camera, direct sound – and a simple, true and powerful story which rendered all the ploys of ‘traditional’ cinema useless. (Șerban 2010, 15)

In the years to follow, films such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lăzărescu, Cristi Puiu, 2005), The Paper Will Be Blue (Hîrtia va fi albastrã, Radu Muntean, 2006), 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n’a fost?, Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile, Cristian Mungiu, 2007) and Child’s Pose (Poziţia copilului, Calin Peter Netzer, 2013) premiered to great acclaim at international film festivals. Due to a set of shared narrative and stylistic devices—long takes, naturalistic mise en scène, refusal of nondiegetic music, restriction to a short period of story time—these films and many others were said to belong to the same movement, the so-called Romanian New Wave.

In almost all accounts of this movement, the Romanian New Wave’s films are characterized as being “realist” or “neorealist”. Șerban, for example, says he prefers the “neorealism” label to “Nouvelle Vague Roumain” (2010, 12); Rodica Ieta talks of a “realism of impressions” able to “establish a relation between experience and memory” (2010, 23); Emma Wilson describes the mode of narration of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Months as a “register of the everyday” and as one of “matter-of-factness” (2008, 23); and Bert Rebhandl calls the films of Corneliu Porumboiu “neorealist in an almost paradigmatic sense” (2010, 122).

In what follows, I will focus on certain narrative characteristics of the New Romanian Cinema that contribute to its overall impression of realism, but may appear less obvious than the stylistic devices enumerated above. First of all I want to grapple with the question of point of view, and will be drawing on Gérard Genette’s concept of focalization to discern a specific pattern that recurs in many new Romanian films. Then I will introduce Roland Barthes’ notion of the “reality effect” to refer to micro-events with no pragmatic function for the construction of the films’ story. The analysis of these two techniques – a pattern of focalization that leads us from an external to an increasingly (although never complete) internal point of view, and the integration of narrative “reality effects” –goes some way to accounting for the impression of everydayness in recent Romanian fiction films.

Focalization patterns

Genette’s concept of focalization describes the story’s organisation of the relation between a character’s knowledge and narrative information obtained by the narratee. In the case of “zero focalization” the reader or viewer knows more about the stream of events and states of mind that matter to the story than any single character. When she has access to the same amount of relevant information as one of the characters we can speak of “internal focalization”. And when she disposes over less relevant knowledge than the character, this is a case of “external focalization”. Focalization thus functions as a sort of filter, an “information-conveying pipe” as Genette calls it:

So by focalization I certainly mean a restriction of ‘field’ — actually, that is, a selection of narrative information with respect to what was traditionally called omniscience. […] The instrument of this possible selection is a situated focus, as sort of information-conveying pipe that allows passage only of information that is authorized by the situation. (Genette 1988 [1983], 74)

During the process of watching a film, the viewer is able to construct a story from the pieces of information which the film lays out. These pieces of information can appear to be more or less linked to a character’s knowledge and perception: “Focalisation is therefore the result of the activation of these cognitive operators. It refers to the cognitive position of the viewer, or more exactly, the system of relations established between the viewer’s and the characters’ knowledge” (Beylot 2005, 204; my transl.).

François Jost (1983) and Markus Kuhn (2012) have argued that in the case of audiovisual narrations it is important to distinguish focalization (concerning relations of information) from ocularisation (concerning relations of vision) and auricularisation(concerning relations of acoustic perception). In one scene we may know as much as the character regarding important story information (internal focalization), but see more than her, because she has her eyes closed (zero ocularisation) and hear less than she does, because she is wearing headphones (external auricularisation).

Over the course of a film, narration can adapt itself to the knowledge of various characters. For internal focalization, Genette differentiates between variable (different events form different perspectives) and multiple focalization (the same event from different perspectives). But a narration’s focalization can also change into a variety of other directions: it may start with internal and then switch to external focalization; it may incorporate various phases of external perspective into an otherwise “zero focalized” narration; or an initially “zero focalized” narration can be narrowed down to the point of view of one single character; and so on. Therefore, it makes sense to speak of “phases of focalization” and of “focalization patterns” that describe the structures of relations between different phases (Orth 2009).

In order to analyze focalization patterns, we need to compare the visually or acoustically transmitted information important to the understanding of the story with the characters’ knowledge of the same pieces of information. Suspense sequences, for example, are always zero-focalized, because here we know more than the endangered character, even when the film is more o less internally focalized as a whole.

Classical melodramas, on the other hand, often make use of internal focalization in order to align us with the protagonist and to ensure our allegiance to her (Smith 1995). This is true not only for how much we know and understand about a particular situation, but also for how little: The alignment with Cary in All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, USA 1954), for instance, is reinforced by the fact that the film leaves us in the same state of doubt as Cary concerning Ron’s relation to the young and attractive Mary-Ann. Only late in the film, and at the same time as Cary, do we learn that Mary-Ann is only a friend to Ron and that she is getting married to another man soon, so that Cary’s jealousy was unjustified. This is a good example for how efficiently internal focalization can emotionally attach us to the main character.

External focalization is rare in classical narration. As it denies us crucial information, we are not able not fully grasp what is going on in externally focalized stories. We merely watch a character doing whatever she does without understanding what motivates her actions. Regarding their narrative form, films that keep us at a distance to the inner life of their main character, for the duration of a film, border on the experimental. This is the case of Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010) and, albeit less radically, of Corneliu Porumboiu’s When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Când se lasa seara peste Bucuresti sau metabolism, 2013).

Most other new Romanian films establish a pattern of a slow and successive shift from external to internal focalization. They begin with a rather observational perspective – having us watch the protagonists’ activities without explaining them – only to lead to a progressively better understanding of the characters while the story unfolds.

In the first minutes of Everybody in Our Family (Toată lumea din familia noastră, Radu Jude, 2012), for instance, we see Marius, the protagonist, get up with a hang over, try to make a phone call, install an infant seat on the back of his bicycle, where he then places a stuffed toy and ride his bike through a city. In the first minutes we neither know who he is nor what he is up to. The film denies us all access to his thoughts. No word is spoken expect for his murmuring “you fucking cunt” when the person he is trying to reach doesn’t pick up the phone. Only later we can guess to whom this curse refers.

The filmic mode of observation maintains this “behaviourist” stance in the following sequences. Every bit of information is motivated realistically through the respective situation in the story world. For example when Marius stops at his parents’ house to borrow their car, we learn that his father doesn’t like Marius’ ex-wife, but we do not get to know why. Only bit by bit, and always through dialogue that coheres with the diegetic situation, are we told about the characters’ backstory. Successively we understand Marius’ motives and feelings. The focalization thus shifts from the initial external position to a more and more internal mode, although this shift is never fully completed, because our access to Marius’ thoughts remains limited throughout.

A close attachment to one character and a successive shift from very little to more and more access to her inner life, is also characteristic of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Otilia, who helps her friend Gabita have an illegal abortion, is the narrative centre of the film. The only exception is the moment when Otilia is sexually abused by the abortionist in exchange for his “services”. Here, the camera follows Gabita down the hotel corridor – a typical case of what Genette calls an “alteration” from an established mode of focalization (1980 [1972], 195). In the beginning of the film, we watch Ottilia make a series of preparations for the abortion. However, we only come to make sense of her actions (packing a bag, buying cigarettes that will later serve as bribes, making a hotel reservation) some thirty-three minutes into the film, when the word “abortion” is first uttered.

Similar patterns of a gradual change from external to internal focalization (without ever attaining an “unnatural” degree of direct access to a character’s subjectivity) can be found in Radu Muntean’s Boogie (2008) and Tuesday After Christmas (Marţi, după Crăciun, 2010), in First of All, Felicia (Felicia, înainte de toate, Melissa de Raaf & Razvan Radulescu, R 2009) and If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (Eu cand vreau sa fluier, fluier, Florin Serban, 2010), to name only a few. Porumboiu’s Police, adjective is a particularly interesting case. Here, as in the above-mentioned films, narration has us discover bit by bit the protagonist’s thoughts and motivations: the policeman’s mission to observe a teenager suspected of dealing marijuana and his moral qualms about arresting him.The closest the film comes to internal focalization is at minutes 39 and 77 when Cristi writes the report on the process and the results of his investigation. But the filmic implementation of this pattern is special. As a whole the film can be seen as an attempt to make the viewer emphatically experience the everyday routine of police work, an attempt to align us almost somatically to the duration of observation. In one shot, in minute 17, we see three teenagers in a schoolyard, one of whom is Cristi’s main suspect. They appear to be smoking a joint or sharing a cigarette. We see them from a distance, behind a grid; in the foreground there’s a group of younger children playing soccer. Due to this composition, the shot appears to be a genuine point of view shot from Cristi’s perspective (internal ocularisation). When the three teenagers start to walk to the left, the camera’s gaze follows them in a reframing pan – until suddenly Cristi enters the frame. This comes as a surprise because we thought that we had been watching the scene through his eyes. The camera then follows Cristi to the place where the two boys and the girl had previously stood, picking up the butt of their joint. Now we observe him from the same distance as we had previously watched the adolescents. The diegetic motif of observation is thus doubled stylistically:

The same technique is reiterated in the film. Only some minutes later, we see one of the boys coming out of the school entrance. Again, the camera tracks him in what Christopher Wagstaff calls a “follow shot”, to distinguish it from other kinds of pans:

Simple panning with the camera is rhetorical display. It is something the director does to lay out the pro-filmic before the viewer. […] In the ‹follow shot› it is the character or the pro-filmic that moves the camera. The ‹follow shot› is a movement of the camera deriving from the narrative, rather than from the director’s pictorial flourish. (Wagstaff 2007, 333)

The “follow shot” enhances the “anthropomorphic” quality of the camera (Brinckmann 1997), and in the context of Police, Adjective it engenders the impression of watching through the policeman’s eyes. But here again, when the camera pans to the left, Cristi suddenly steps out of a house entrance and into the very image we had thought to be his POV. In this way, the film image becomes a sort of “second order observation” (an observation of observation), as Lukas Foerster (2011) has called it, albeit (or rather, because) we are not dealing with a congruent optical perspective but with a structurally identical mode of perception.

Later, the emphasis in the surveillance sequences shifts further towards Cristi and his experience of passing time. Minute after minute we see him do nothing but watch (and drinking tea, smoking a cigarette, glancing at his cell phone to check the time). In its treatment of time, the film borders on the absurd and one may be reminded of Samuel Beckett’s plays. One critic has appropriately called Police, Adjective a “burlesque in slow motion” (Thabourey 2010, 36). But at the same time as creating comical effects, Porumboiu’s time regime is also realistically motivated, self-consciously demarked from generic representations of police work:

[W]hen I started to write the script, I was thinking of the policier genre. The first draft was more like a classical policier. When I began to research the daily life of a policeman, the structure of the movie began to change. In a traditional policier, there’s always cutting on action – and it’s the action that generates the story. In this film, I wanted to focus on the process of waiting and surveillance. (Porumboiu in Porton 2010, 27)

In another interview Porumboiu stated that in his preparatory research he found out that the kind of “action” conventional policiers focus on does not represent more than ten percent of a real policeman’s work (cf. Corless 2010, 41). His emphasis on the duration of surveillance is thus the result of an attempt to create a close structural homology between diegesis and reality. The construction of such a homology can be said to be one of the necessary conditions of realism in film (Kirsten 2013, 162-7).

Narrative ‘Reality Effects’

In many of the surveillance sequences, Police, Adjective “is conceived as the exact opposite of that ‘art of ellipsis’” to which film is often thought to be devoted, to use André Bazin’s words (2011 [1952], 116). Bazin had originally written this apropos Vittoria De Sica’s and Cesare Zavattini’s Umberto D. (1952). This filmis a useful reference, because Porumboiu’s work resembles it in more than one respect.

Umberto D. is notorious for how much time De Sica and Zavattini spent showing everyday events with no particular narrative function. The most famous scene—which Bazin expected to “remain one of the high points of film”—is probably the one in which the chambermaid gets up to make coffee. Bazin’s appraisal reads as follows:

The narrative unit [of Umberto D.,] is not the episode, the event, the sudden turn of events, or the character of its protagonists; it is the succession of concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than another, for their ontological equality destroys drama at its very basis. […] [T]he unit event in a classical film would be “the maid’s getting out of bed”; two or three brief shots would suffice to show this. De Sica replaces this narrative unit with a series of “smaller” events: she wakes up; she crosses the hall; she drowns the ants; and so on. […] We see how the grinding of the coffee is divided in turn into a series of independent moments: for example, when she shuts the door with the tip of her outstretched foot. As it goes in on her the camera follows the movement of her leg so that the image finally concentrates on her toes feeling the surface of the door. (Bazin 2011 [1952], 116)

There are many instances reminiscent of this kind of mise-en-scene in the films from the Romanian New Wave, for example in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, whose “wealth of accumulated details” Richard Porton (2008, 35) has remarked upon. Dudley Andrew has stressed the similarity of the sequence when Otilia makes preparations for her friends’ illegal abortion to Umbero D.:

While much does happen in his film, Mungiu, like De Sica, stands ready to expend precious time on mundane micro-events. He gives us the equivalent of the scene Bazin had singled out in Umberto D., shot in real time, in which the pregnant housemaid sits to grind coffee, turning the handle of the mill again and again. In 4 Months, he has Otilia lead us down the hallway of her dorm, ducking into the shower room, locating friends in another room that serves as a black market for cosmetics, stopping to pity a kitten temporarily being sheltered by a student we never see again. (Andrew 2010, 54-5)

Similar scenes depicting micro-events without any evident dramatic function can be found in Mungiu’s last film Beyond the hills (După dealuri, 2012), but also in the works of Puiu, Muntean, Jude and, of course, Porumboiu.

In one scene, after 19 minutes into Police, Adjective, we watch Cristi coming home and having a small lunch:

We see, and hear, Cristi come home, opening the door into his apartment and eating the reheated soup. The short sequence is comprised of three shots. The first shows Cristi walking down the street to his house, again filmed in a “follow shot”. This reframing camera movement is picked up in the second shot when Cristi enters, disposes his documents on the shelf above the coat rack and moves on to the kitchen. Then there is a small ellipsis of the time it took Cristi to heat the soup before the last and longest shot in which the camera remains almost static.

On the denotative level, all three shots are made up of small micro-actions: changing the papers from one arm to the other in order to take the keys out of his pocket while walking, hanging up his coat, glancing briefly at his cell phone, crumbling pieces of bread into his soup and so on. None of these micro-actions are causally linked to other events, nor are they in any other way essential to be able to understand the story. All in all, they are obviously quite close to the elements described by Bazin for Umberto D.

Bazin’s proto-narratological argument about a new kind of unit in cinematic storytelling can be fruitfully compared to Roland Barthes’ observation on what he named the “reality effect”. His famous essay of that title (1968) begins with the self-critical remark that not all of the details which he had subsumed under the category of “catalyses” in his “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative” (1966) could rightfully be assigned an “indirect functional value insofar as, cumulatively, they constitute some index of character or atmosphere and so can ultimately be recuperated by structure” (1975 [1968], 141). He gives two examples: a description of an “old piano [that] supported, under a barometer, a pyramidal heap of boxes and cartons” in Gustave Flaubert’s short story “A Simple Heart”, and the mentioning “of a [painter’s] gentle knock at a small door” in Charlotte Corday’s prison cell in Jules Michelet’s Histoire de France. Both elude structural analysis, because they don’t seem to have the slightest symptomatic value:

[S]uch notations are scandalous (from the point of view of the structure), or, what is even more disturbing, they seem to correspond to a kind of narrative luxury, lavish to the point of offering many “futile” details and thereby increasing the cost of narrative information. For if, in Flaubert’s description, it is just possible to see in the notation of the piano an indication of its owner’s bourgeois standing and in that of the cartons a sign of disorder and a kind of lapsus in status likely to connote the atmosphere of the Aubain household, no purpose seems to justify reference to the barometer, an object neither incongruous nor significant, and therefore not participating, at first glance, in the order of the notable. (Barthes 1975 [1968], 141-2)

After a short excursion to more classical, mostly aesthetic, functions of ekphrasis and description, Barthes finally argues that the function of the functionless detail is to create a ‘referential illusion’. This illusion lies in the seemingly direct collusion between a signifier and a referent, bypassing the signified and connoting the general category of “the real”:

The truth of this illusion is this: eliminated from the realist speech act as a signified of denotation, the “real” returns to it as a signified of connotation: Flaubert’s barometer, Michelet’s little door finally say nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of “the real” (and not its contingent contents) which is the signified (ibid., 148).

Barthes’ concept was soon adopted in French film theory. But the way in which Jean-Pierre Oudart (1990 [1971]), Michel Marie (1975), Jacques Aumont (1990) and others appropriated it was based on the assumption that the “reality effect” was a co-efficient of cinematic technique (or its standard use). The camera, it was argued, was built in such a way that it would necessarily capture details without concrete function. As Seymour Chatman put it: “The effet de réel is intrinsic to the medium: film cannot avoid a cornucopia of visual details, some of which are inevitably ‘irrelevant’ from the script plot point of view” (1990, 40).

However, this understanding of the term is not without its alternatives. With regards to Barthes’ argument it seems more apt to reserve it for specific micro-actions without immediate narrative function. Those details are not intrinsic to the medium and are not part of just any film, but constitute one of the typical devices of realist modes of narration. We thus have to distinguish media reality effects of camera and dispositif, that contribute to the “impression of reality” as conceived of by Albert Michotte (1948) and Christian Metz (1974 [1965]), from the kind of narrative reality effect that Barthes and Bazin refer to.In his last film, The Second Game (Al doileac joc, 2014), in a conversation with his father, Porumboiu comments on the recording of a football match from Romanian TV in 1988: “It looks like one my films, no? Long takes and nothing happens.”

The narrative reality effect in film consists of micro-actions that do not contribute information which is necessary to the story for the story but suggest the realistic character of the story world. As Genette once put it, they create the feeling that the detail is realistic, because it doesn’t come across as being made up (1988 [1983], 47). However, in their workings, narrative reality effects depend on a “realist reading”, as I have argued elsewhere (Kirsten 2013, 167-76). Putative functionless details like Cristi’s bread crumbling and slurping don’t create the effect in themselves, but they will only do so if conceived of in this way by the viewer. In principle, it is always possible to attach some other kind of meaning or association to it. Only when and if the audience accepts the micro-events as contingent elements of the diegesis do they contribute to the film’s impression of realism: by loosening the chain of events, they then enhance the phenomenological density of the story world.

Two kinds of realism

I have focused on narrative devices that recur in films of the Romanian New Wave and that contribute to the impression of realism they often evoke. As we have seen, many of them implement a focalization pattern that leads from external – a purely observational stance – to a progressively internal focalization, albeit without ever completely subjectivizing the point of view. This pattern has an obvious connection with the “realistic regime” of many of these new Romanian films: The audience’s process of getting to know the protagonists’ secrets and the motivations for their actions resemble the actual making of someone’s acquaintance. It seems less artificial than a compact exposition at the start of the film or an “omniscient” point of view.

Narrative reality effects contribute to realism by incorporating seemingly “insignificant” details and micro-actions into the plot. By dwelling on mundane happenings that belong to the character’s everyday life, realist storytelling enhances the verisimilitude of its representation and the plasticity of the characters who thus appear to be more then mere “pawns in a game” made up by the filmmaker.To my knowledge, the first to introduce the distinction of media and narrative reality effects was Christian von Tschilke in his study on “filmic writing” (2000, 72-3); cf. Rajewsky (2002, 200-1).

With its focalization pattern, its reality effects, and its focus on the dullness of police work, Police, adjective is a prime example of a “poetics of everydayness”. However, there are also moments when the film’s realist regime gets transcended (cf. Nasta 2013, 1972). I’m thinking in particular of two scenes in which Cristi discusses an orthographical question and the lyrics of a pop song with his wife, and the long sequence at the end of the film in which the police chief convinces Cristi of the necessity of conducting a sting operation in order to arrest the suspect. These scenes, the latter in particular, do not seem thoroughly realistically motivated. Instead of representing aspects of a realistic diegesis, they question the very foundations of our image of reality by laying bare the connection of language and power.

The police chief has Cristi look up the words “conscience” and “qualms of conscience”, “law”, “moral” and “police” in a dictionary. He wants to prove that Cristi is mistaken about his moral doubts, that being a policeman he must not have this kind of conscience crisis. The discussion between Cristi and his superior about their different ideas of police duty is an example of the kind of fundamental disagreement which Jacques Rançière (2004 [1995]) has called the mésentente – a disagreement not only on the meaning of words, but also on the “order of things” represented by them. At one point the police chief asks Cristi: “Are you sick? Don’t you know the meaning of the words you use?” and some moments later he says: “I think we’re talking different languages.” However, this disagreement does not become politicized, because it is resolved by the power alliance between the police chief and the authority of the official definitions from the dictionary. It is thus a film about “police” in the Rancièrian sense, too.

By adding a political discursive dimension to its realism, Police, adjective becomes reflexive.The “reality effect” can be read politically, too. As Jacques Rancière has suggested, it can be regarded as an “equality effect”, because it tears down the classical barriers between the representable and the non-representable. Cf. Rancière 2011. It achieves more than a mere portrait of the daily routines of police work in a Romanian small town: it opens up space for a reflection on the interconnectedness of language and power. The film’s strength lies in this combination of two kinds of realism: a phenomenological and a reflexive one. It enables the viewer to both emphatically experience the daily routines and moral dilemmas of its protagonist and to politically question the foundations of his, and our, social reality.


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