There’s a lot of dialogue in Corneliu Porumboiu’s new film, but like the title itself, the words shouldn’t be taken at face value. “When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism” is the director’s most cerebral feature to date, parsing the rapport between a helmer and his craft as much as it does the relationship between a helmer and his actress. Yet Porumboiu so carefully intellectualizes every outwardly inconsequential exchange that the picture has no room to breathe, forcing audiences to work hard to catch the sly playfulness and cunning within. Prospects beyond confirmed arthouse devotees will be slim.
While festivals will see the most traction, the irony is that “When Evening Falls” won’t work well slotted into a busy cinema-going day, since the concentration required during and after viewing doesn’t lend itself to the fest model of crammed viewings. Still, given that it’s a film about the filmmaking process — Porumboiu claims partial inspiration from “Contempt” and Hong Sang-soo, though Fassbinder’s “Beware of a Holy Whore” also comes to mind — hardcore cinephiles are precisely the target audience.
The pic’s minutely worked architecture is the determinant factor, giving it the air of a mathematical theorem in its unwavering rigidity. The helmer crafts each scene to lock precisely into the next, so the first shot — the camera is nearly as immovable as that theorem — has director Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) and his actress, Alina (Diana Avramut), in a car, seen from the backseat, driving along the nighttime Bucharest streets and discussing how the strictures of shooting on celluloid have influenced film as a concept. Thanks to the necessity of reel changes, he explains, shots basically can’t last more than 11 minutes. Unsurprisingly, none of the 18 shots in “When Evening Falls,” filmed on 35mm, last more than 11 minutes.
Paul is sleeping with Alina; judging from overheard phone conversations, she’s also in another relationship. He’s getting her ready to shoot a nude scene, knowing he has to convince her it’s justified before she’ll agree to strip for the camera. Lest anyone think Paul is a stand-in for Porumboiu, the schlubby fictional helmer is presented in a very unflattering light, his indecision, manipulation and torpor countering any rosy-eyed view of the profession.
During a belabored rehearsal in an apartment, Alina insists on understanding the motivation for every movement; Paul tries to explain the meaning of the minor scene, even though he knows it really has no significance. After a brief romp (heard but not seen), they go to a Chinese restaurant, where her perfect posture and careful chopstick maneuvering contrast with his hunched shoulders and frenetic shoveling of food. The conversation fixes on whether national cuisines developed thanks to the implements used (i.e., chopsticks vs. knives and forks). The discussion seems endless, yet it’s an outgrowth of the earlier discussion of cinema creation being defined by reels of film: function following form, or form following function.
Paul’s hard-edged producer, Magda (Mihaela Sirbu), is deeply distrustful of her director and impatient with his changes, doubting his excuses about ulcers and gastritis (hence the “metabolism” of the title). Viewers could wear earplugs and still understand Magda’s emasculating solidity, contrasted with Paul’s passive-aggressive, hangdog acceptance of her barbs.
Another restaurant scene follows, where they’re briefly joined by Paul’s colleague Laurentiu (Alexandru Papadopol), who tells his friend that Alina “has the same detachment as Monica Vitti.” One suspects that this — like the prominently displayed, likely unopened Janus Films box set on Paul’s shelf — is a jab against a certain show-offy tendency in film circles to make everyone aware of one’s cinema bona fides.
In the penultimate shot, after Paul decides to reduce Alina’s part and reshoot her scene, he’s told that when filming, one is supposed to put what’s important in the center, not the margins. It’s a self-reflexive line, of course, brimming with irony and an inherent critique of the standard filmmaking process, but as with the rest of the pic, the concept and rigorous execution are stronger than the complete product. In contrast with Porumboiu’s previous “Police, Adjective,” in which the final conversation’s brilliantly destabilizing punch blows away the earlier, seemingly irrelevant dialogue, there are few rewards for the constant blather here.
In keeping with the general rigor, the thesping is precise and deliberate, though Dumitrache’s constant look of dejection, as if his character were deboned in body and spirit, makes for wearying viewing. The contrast with Avramut’s projection of outer calm and inner nerviness does enhance the verbal sparring, although it also adds to the inescapable feeling of an over-calibrated exercise. “When Evening Falls” is nothing if not hermetic, with every extraneous element vacuumed out; even in the restaurant scenes there’s no ambient noise, no clinking of glasses or clanging of cutlery at other tables. Art direction is equally minimal and deliberately unattractive.