The Most Beautiful Fraud: Police, Adjective
“I’m not going on about any law. You’re no good, is all.” (Cristi)
True irony is a very difficult thing to pull off in cinema. Literature allows an artist the freedom to draw out language in order to create and sustain the proper atmosphere for the gap between what is intended and what is delivered to be made painfully clear. Cinema has far less time, and must content itself, for the most part, with visual and dramatic irony. To attain true irony, a director must make risky choices; he must take chances with the pacing and tone that can be fatal. The young Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu makes such a choice in the second half of Police, Adjective, his supremely deadpan police anti-thriller, and it teeters right on the edge of not paying off. The movie transforms what has been a doggedly realistic film, black as industrial run-off, about the frustrating contradictions of life in a country transitioning from authoritarian brutality to modern internationalism into a trickier intellectual exercise that tries to make it a more universal statement about the meaning of law. This comes at the expense of making it talkier, more obviously philosophical, and more deliberately clever — three things that can sink a movie. But I do not think it fails. I think it succeeds through sheer commitment, and because of that, becomes, if not a truly great film, at least one of the most interesting cop movies in recent memory, and an essential example of irony in the medium.
Porumboiu sets Police, Adjective in his own home town of Vaslui, a small city in the far east of the country. Once a boomtown during the period of Soviet industrial expansion, it has fallen into a period of stagnation; its teenagers, as teenagers do, seek escape in rowdy music, the Internet, and smoking dope. It’s one such kid who becomes the target of police detective Cristi — like the director, a younger man who was barely a teenager when the fiendish Ceauşescu regime fell, and a man who has faith that the new era of openness and international cooperation brings the possibility of home and change to his country. Cristi is in many ways the opposite of the idealistic, authority-bucking cop we’re used to seeing in such films; stoic, unartistic, literal-minded and stubborn, he seems in many ways to be more the stodgy chief archetype. But he’s been around — most recently, to Prague. In that city, he saw another former Soviet Bloc regime that has modernized far more rapidly and thoroughly than his own, and he was struck by the fact that its own police didn’t waste their time hounding teens for getting high.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what Cristi has been charged to do, and his own stodgy chief, a holdover from the country’s repressive past and a firm believer in the idea that the most important word in the phrase “police force” is the second, is getting tired of his delaying tactics. Regardless of Cristi’s personal feelings, argues the chief (played by Vlad Ivanov, who made such an impression in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), his job is still to enforce the law, so he’d better swallow hard and do his job. Viewers who have seen The Wire won’t have any trouble making a clear association here; while this is a distinctly European story about the legacy of repression, the promise of internationalism, and the new realities of the Old World, there’s also a pretty unmissable lesson about the futility of the drug war in all its manifestations. Valsui is smaller and less bloody than Baltimore, but no less marked by a sense of industrial decay and an uncertain future, and while Cristi is no McNulty, both are frustrated with destroying young lives for no reason but a reminder that the law is in charge, and with pissing away their talents on assignments that do nothing to make their respective cities a better place to live.
Visually, Police, Adjective is solid and sometimes arresting: the opening shot, of Cristi strolling from the high school to the police station, is cleverly done and has some nice details like him picking up a wet, discarded cigarette off the pavement and deciding after some consideration that it’s too gross to smoke), and there’s lots of well-observed moments in the style of the Romanian New Wave. One nice touch is the costuming; a nice irony of the post-Soviet era is that, absent Soviet uniformity, everyone’s still more or less wearing identical outfits. Another is the presence of outdated phones and oversized 1990s desktop computers in beige casings, which lure you into cheap laughs about post-Soviet deprivation until you realize that Porumboiu is actually showing us every small-town police station in the world, right down to to the cops yanking each other’s chains about sports. The pace is slow and the shots feature little movement, but the filming avoids tedium by populating Valsui with scraggly cops and bored attorneys, a welcome reminder that in the real world, people aren’t picked for their job from Central Casting based on how thin and pretty they are. It’s a film that’s attended by real people instead of actors pretending to be real people.
There are plenty of other pleasures in the film. Again playing against cops-and-criminals cliché, the attorney driving the case against Victor (the small-time doper he wants to turn into a ‘dealer’ for sharing has with his friends), isn’t an over-ambitious creep or a fanatic law-and-order type; he’s actually a friendly, gregarious guy who seems to genuinely like Cristi and has some fun arguing that the government should spend less on crimefighting and more on attracting tourism by gold-plating its churches and renaming its cities for P.R. purposes. It also lacks the dreary self-seriousness that has kept me from enjoying some of the other acclaimed works of the new Eastern European cinema; its humor isn’t as absurdly black and screamingly tense as something like No Man’s Land, working instead a vein of blank-faced observational absurdity, like something Jim Jarmusch would do if he had a social conscience. (There’s a lovely little scene where Cristi is watching one of his suspects shake the crumbs out of a garish leopard-print blanket as an obese woman navigates the sidewalk with her yap-dog; almost nothing happens, but the collective ridiculousness of the accumulated detail makes you laugh in spite of yourself.) Porumboiu also gets away with a neat trick on how he manages to focus the entire film almost exclusively on Cristi even though he’s a bit of an enigma; recently married, he rarely sees his wife, aside from a swell bit where they banter about a pop song she’s obsessed with and another, very telling, one about a seemingly minor linguistic rule.
But its neatest trick is the way it plays around with ambiguity in the service of irony. Cristi so resembles his targest that from the beginning of the movie, we mistake him for one of them; which of the two boys he follows is Victor and which is the snitch, Alex, is kept murky less because it forwards the plot in any meaningful way but because it deepens its conviction that it doesn’t really matter which of them is which. Even the question of what kind of impact Cristi’s principled stand against the law would have is called into question; the prosecutor points out that the kid is from a well-off family and probably won’t serve much time even if he is convicted. The plot also has fun with teasing out our expectations of a crime drama; we’re so accustomed to seeing tense buildups turn into bloody shootouts that Porumboiu gets to pull the run out from under us when Cristi, relentlessly following a girl to her apartment building, finds his way in — only to head back to the office, having found absolutely nothing. It’s a good visual gag, as well as a reminder that the majority of police work, for good or ill, consists of filling out paperwork.
The shift I refer to earlier, the one that might have sunk a less confident film, comes late in Police, Adjective, when Cristi engages in his big showdown: not a gunfight with his suspects, but a duel with his bosses in which they attempt to stall or forward the case by looking up words in the dictionary. Playing such definitional games is the nadir of argumentation in English, but in Romanian, like French a Romance language and just as protective of its purity, the scene makes a weird kind of sense. But because it hinges the direction of what has come before on something of an intellectual gimmick, it runs the risk of entirely derailing the movie, shattering its ironic tone with a too-obvious tactic. Part of the reason this doesn’t happen is because the script cleverly lays the groundwork for this transition all along; never to the extent that it seems obvious, or even natural, but enough that it seems like a culmination rather than a dodge. Scenes that seemed only loosely connected before — Cristi’s needling a pushy co-worker about his athletic skills, the prosecutor’s insistence on the letter of the law over its utility, Cristi and his wife playfully arguing over the YouTube video, the deliberately vague and content-free surveillance reports he files — all seem to inform the ending so that it seems less like an abrupt left turn into a debate over the nature of language and its relationship to law than it does a slow, steady culmination. Whether or not the debate solves anything is irrelevant, making the movie’s story perfectly reflect its subject — Cristi’s pointless but meticulous investigation — and allowing it to achieve the true irony that makes it so rewarding.
Police, Adjective has a few rough patches; its editing can be a bit rocky, and it’s probably about ten minutes longer than it needs to be. If it contains no spectacular performances, it is because spectacle is not called for; even Ivanov keys things down from his insinuating creep in 4 Months. The humor is dry as a bone, though I don’t find that to be a negative; the scene where Cristi (played by Dragoş Bucur, who’s a dead ringer for Jake Gyllenhaal) meets with his informant, who spouts off one eye-rolling thing after another, is funny because it’s so understated. (Even Ivanov’s dickish chief has some moments of fun, insisting that his detectives talk like cops instead of criminals and prodding his well-meaning secretary.) But its faults can be ignored for no other reason than it turns such an amazing trick — turning a police procedural into an investigation into the power of language, the meaning of words, and how they shape our society, laden with literary irony in its best sense — and does it without missing a step in the direction it’s been headed all along. As such, it’s a rare thing: an entry into an established film genre that doesn’t just improve or perfect an existing expression, but creates a new one. It’s cop movie as dialectic, with irony as action.