Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter (2015)
Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Transilvania International Film Festival. For more information visit http://tiff.ro/en and follow TIFF Romania on Twitter at @tiffromania.
We needn’t see the special thanks afforded Cristi Puiu in Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter to feel the influence of that titan of Romanian cinema on this ambitious early effort. Wilfully casting itself in the mould of the Romanian New Wave, capital letters and all, this is the kind of film—for all its earnest achievements—that demonstrates categorically the increasing issues with that appellation’s ease of access. Proffering protracted takes aplenty as though they were a shortcut to the sublime, sophomore director Ana Lungu has created a film at once suffused with subtle takes on gender and national identity and blissfully beholden to a visual grammar that ironically deprives it of any individuality of its own.
…sophomore director Ana Lungu has created a film at once suffused with subtle takes on gender and national identity and blissfully beholden to a visual grammar that ironically deprives it of any individuality of its own.
It might almost seem a canny conceit, in some sense: Lungu’s tell-tale title proposes her twenty-something PhD candidate protagonist Cristiana as deferentially defined by her forebear’s expectations, and it’s not hard to imagine any Romanian up-and-comers feeling quite the same. Puiu and others of his ilk have established an efficient aesthetic identity for national representation on-screen since the turn of the century, so much so that international accessibility of local output seems predicated primarily on their fitting flush. It’s tempting, then, to read this Self-Portrait as precisely that: as Lungu’s lament for the insufficiencies of individual expression afforded the country’s emergent youth, in senses cinematic as much as social; a show of solidarity with Cristiana’s silent, subtle sadness from a place that truly understands.
All that might act as a more convincing apologia were it not for the fact the film’s mostly a mess, in practice; it takes especially overzealous inference to construe Cristiana’s character as anything much more than a blank canvas onto which viewers may project at will. Lungu has the camerawork capability to disguise the void admirably, but all the astute framing in the world can’t overwrite a script that sloppily shoehorns every social issue under the sun into the narrative of this essentially uninteresting silhouette. “You tend to waste time with crap and ignore the important things” she’s told in one of the few scenes that can lay claim to genuine dramatic weight; if not perhaps a wholly fair criticism of the film as a whole, it’s a line at least assured of earning an ironic titter or two.
The result is a movie so keen to keep several balls in the air it ends up not even managing one…
Indeed the film’s replete with self-serious lines that awkwardly act in bathos-baiting fashion: when a discussion on dog breed attractiveness descends into lines like “objectively speaking, things are relative”, it’s hard not to hear Woody Allen wringing his hands just off-screen. This is terribly tepid stuff both narratively and thematically speaking, ideas faintly fingered in the hope a handful might just break off. Here including a brief scene with two bible-pushers calling to the door, there delving into the linguistic semantics of gay sexuality—points earned there, at least—Lungu doesn’t so much demonstrate an inability to conceive a concept so much as an indecision as to which ought earn attention first and foremost.
The result is a movie so keen to keep several balls in the air it ends up not even managing one: ambition isn’t an awful flaw for a fledgling filmmaker like this to showcase, but between the empty aesthetic appropriation that seems a self-conscious effort to ride the wave and dialogue so tediously theoretical and thematic it plays like a thesis live-read, Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter squanders some fine observations on post-post-Communist Romanian identity on a cardboard cut-out character study. Never mind thanking Puiu: it’s his producer Bobby Paunescu to whom Lungu should be grateful, for achieving in his under-seen 2009 directorial debut Francesca more-or-less the movie this sets out to be. That it did so to almost no fanfare is, just like this new effort, a troubling testament to the narrow purview by which we’ve come to watch Romanian film.
Between the empty aesthetic appropriation that seems a self-conscious effort to ride the wave and dialogue so tediously theoretical and thematic it plays like a thesis live-read, Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter squanders some fine observations on post-post-Communist Romanian identity on a cardboard cut-out character study.