This page as PDF

Aurora

A Slice of Life

 

Alfred Hitchcock proposed that if you show two people at a table having a conversation you don’t have very much at all, but if you happen to inform the audience there is a bomb under it then you have high tension. The conversation continues, but the audience is now well aware of what the characters are oblivious to: a ticking time bomb. Talking to Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock, the English director had a point, and it is one underscored on a regular basis by any number of filmmakers who want to generate drama out of the mundane. By the same reckoning, numerous filmmakers don’t only generate suspense, they also lay out motivation. Is there a reason why someone has put a bomb under the table, and are the people talking, the people we ought to be rooting for, or are they people who deserve to die? Yet what happens if you don’t tell the audience there is anything under the table; if you don’t lay out the tension and leave the two characters talking without any clear dramatic reason for doing so? Now Hitchcock adds that there is another option that would still be dramatic but much less involving, with the bomb going off after the characters have been chatting, the audience as unaware as they are. The choice is between the briefest moment of shock, or the maximum amount of tension. “In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.” (Hitchcock) Hitchcock in this instance talks highly of tension but less so of shock, though there are comments elsewhere when he defends shock more robustly (‘The Enjoyment of Fear’), just as there are places where he reckons one needs to be careful about generating suspense without thinking through clearly enough the notion of moral sympathy. In Hitchcock, the director says of the child’s death in Sabotage, “I made a serious mistake in having the little boy carry the bomb. A character who unknowingly carries a bomb around as if it were an ordinary package is bound to work up great suspense in the audience. The boy was involved in a situation that got him too much sympathy from the audience, so that when the bomb exploded, and he was killed, the public was resentful.”

Cristi Puiu’s Aurora works a little like a radical inversion of the Hitchcock remarks, with the director more than sacrificing suspense, and more than happy to generate audience resentment. Antonia Quirke in the Financial Times believed that this three hour film possesses a “brutal, post-Ceausescu dampness to it, about cold people who can never be made warm, and only one shot of excitement. A murder movie languishing in a suicidal stupor. Save some strength to crawl out of the cinema.” Geoff Andrew in Time Out reckoned, “It might be the moment to declare Romania’s new wave only a qualified success. With their leisurely pace, these exports – when animated by an anxiety-laden issue like abortion (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) or a handful of fierce performances (the recently released Tuesday, After Christmas) – can feel like revelations. Elsewhere, as with Aurora, they suggest dereliction of duty: a snobby disregard for principles of entertainment or patience.” “This is a less satisfying work [than Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu], it’s just too evasive, too exacting in the level of patience it demands.” So says Hannah McGill in The List. The comments seem like a variation of the resentment Hitchcock talks about, but if the suspense maestro felt he was in error, Puiu’s entire film feels like a ‘calculated error’: an intentional attempt to play up deliberation and disquiet. It is not until almost the halfway stage that central character Viorel (Puiu) kills someone as the film announces itself as a revenge drama, and it is not until the last few minutes that Aurora reveals what passes for motivation.

Of course the question we might ask is why Puiu cares little for the suspenseful and even less for the motivational if we assume that a filmmaker who is interested in them usually works hard to announce their presence as quickly as possible. Does he possess a “snobby disregard for principles of entertainment or patience?” Or is it that Puiu is more interested in information systems than narrative systems; that he is more intrigued by the capacity for information overload over semiotic narrative assumption, and worries that an emphasis on laying out the story would kill this informational possibility? This notion of semiotics versus information is explored by Gilles Deleuze in a chapter from Cinema 1: the Movement Image, where he wonders whether the frame has too often been talked about in terms of narrative elements as a variation of linguistic signs. “However, this terminology suggests comparisons with language…which do not seem necessary. For if the frame has an analogue, it is to be found in an information system rather than a linguistic one. The elements are the data [donees], which are sometimes very numerous, sometimes of limited number.” The advantage of an informational system over a linguistic one is that it allows the image to take precedence over narration. Deleuze says in Cinema 2: The Time Image: “for [film semiotician Christian] Metz, narration refers to one or several codes as underlying linguistic determinants from which it flows into the image in the shape of an evident given. On the contrary it seems to us that narration is only a consequence of the visible [apparent] images themselves and their direct combinations – it is never a given.” As Metz says elsewhere, “lacking absolute laws, filmic intelligibility nevertheless depends on a certain number of dominant habits…’cinematographic language’ is first of all the literalness of a plot.” (Film Theory and Criticism) Deleuze begs to differ, as would Michelangelo Antonioni, saying: “an image is only essential if each square centimetre of that image is essential.” (The Technique of Filming Editing) Is the resentment we have seen expressed by various critics concerning Aurora because they demand a linguistic system rather than an informational one, a narrative and character focused approach rather than one offering visual density?

Thus while Aurora might seem narratively undernourished, it is informationally robust; a film full of hard to place moments that indicate complexity of situation without arriving at the hardening of narrative assumption. It’s as though at the very end of the film when Viorel (Puiu) says, “I believe the justice system cannot understand the level of complexity of the relationship I had with my wife”, the film is by extension wondering whether other systems can understand the complexity of events, and that the film has tried to find a method in which to do so. When one of the cops asks him why he committed murder, Viorel looks back at the man as though Viorel is talking to an idiot. As we see the character sitting there who also happens to be the film’s director, we can see that the complex filmic system which has been shown to us cannot be reduced to ready narrative components, capable of being summed up in an easily consumable answer.

The question is what are these components; how does Puiu suggest a complex information system that keeps resisting the formulas that we might want to place upon it? Though most of the scenes in the film offer a similarly perplexing perspective, four will do for our purposes: a scene where Viorel visits a person he seems to be seeing; a sequence where he picks up his daughter from school, another when he visits a clothes shop, and a fourth when he drops his daughter off at a neighbor’s.

In the first, Viorel goes to the flat of what would appear to be his lover, Gina, but the man who opens the door seems to be Gina’s daughter’s father. As he asks Viorel in, he continues giving advice in how the young girl should play the piano, while carrying a pile of clothes that must surely be the daughter’s as the items wait to be packed. Once Viorel is inside, a reverse shot leaves us slightly disoriented in space as we notice that when Gina asks him to leave the flat for a moment while she talks to her daughter and the apparent father, he has to walk to the other side of the apartment to make his way out. At first we might think that he is still near the threshold, when instead he is deep inside the apartment and has to walk all the way out again to be exactly where he was standing initially: at the front door. As the door is closed behind him, it is a comedy of errors as a spatial and social enigma. We don’t exactly know what Gina and the other man need to talk about, and if he is the partner whether he thinks Viorel is a friend or her lover. We might wonder if the man is an uncle, or a friend himself, or Gina’s ex. He is surely the latter, but nothing is certain. He appears not at all fazed by Viorel’s appearance at the door, and welcomes him in even before Viorel gets to ask if Gina’s there, no matter if he offers the odd wary glance later.  All we know is that the daughter is going on a trip, and that Viorel wants to see Gina and she might be available to meet him later in the evening. The looks the man gives to Viorel are hard to place: they seem too surreptitious to be those of ready entitlement; would a husband going on a trip with his daughter be likely to welcome a man he seems hardly to know into the house of an evening, and wouldn’t he be entitled to offer more than the odd ambivalent glance? If Puiu reverses Hitchcock, he also gives greater density to the complicated mise-en-scene of a Renoir. For all Renoir’s exits and entrances in The Rules of the Game, we know where we are spatially and socially. In this sequence everything seems unstable. What makes it even more so is that Viorel goes to the flat not long after he has murdered two people for no apparent reason in an underground car park.

The second example of complexity is when Viorel picks up his daughter from school, not long after he has killed his in-laws: it is usually granddad that goes to get her, but Viorel arrives instead, gatecrashing a school rehearsal as he insists that his daughter should go home with him. If the earlier scene shows Viorel arriving perhaps inopportunely in the mid-to-late evening at Gina’s flat, here he arrives too early at his daughter’s school – interrupting the class and making the occasional, unusual remark. When one of the teachers says they’re rehearsing for the party, he emphasizes the definite article and adds comrade. This is a reference of course to communism, but after the event, as if Viorel has axes to grind with the new political situation, or unresolved ones with the earlier regime. Again, it remains ambiguous. The daughter’s reaction to her father itself seems ambivalent, with her reluctance to leave appearing to reside in more than a missed rehearsal opportunity. Even the teachers seem wary of him, as though he might have turned up at the school some time in the past and caused a scene, but there is not a remark that would lead us categorically to assume this. As Viorel and his daughter prepare to leave the classroom, the other teacher starts rehearsing again with the kids, and it has a strange aggression, as if the forcefulness of the teacher’s dancing is a means by which to insult him without quite confronting Viorel. The film pans from the kids and the teacher, dancing in unison to the music, to Viorel’s face looking blankly back. As in the earlier scene, there are subtle slights at work, and no matter the directness often of Viorel’s remarks (the comment to the teacher is but one of a handful of confrontational asides he makes to people throughout the film), he always seems in debit when it comes to his credence account. He is a character whom people seem to take not at all seriously, socially, while at the same time fearing something they can’t quite name.

In the third scene it is less the fear aspect that is pronounced, more the socially insignificant. As he drops his daughter off at neighbours, the neighbour talks about how she doesn’t have time to look after the daughter for three hours, but agrees nevertheless as they enter the flat. In the apartment, nobody attends to this new presence except very briefly at the beginning as the husband welcomes them in. Instead the husband and his nephew continue talking, the son and presumably his lover close the door in his face, and though Viorel wanders round the house a little too intrusively, nobody seems bothered by it unless they think he might be peeping on them: as when the son’s bedroom door is closed on him. Again Renoir comes to mind, and the notion of how many ways in which a character can enter and exit the frame, but in Aurora it is as though they do so without the film quite creating the ready social coordinates to make sense of the mapping of social and screen space. As the wife casually says to the nephew that she doesn’t like his smoking, it is a remark irritatingly offered more than a dictate expecting to be obeyed, with everyone in their own world and moving through their own spatial environment. As the father and nephew sit talking, the son and his girlfriend seem to be playing a sexual cat and mouse game between the bedroom and the bathroom. Meanwhile Viorel wanders through the apartment invasively and yet with an ambivalent sense of entitlement. As in many spaces where he finds himself, Viorel always looks like he is on a threshold, never quite allowed to enter any inner sanctum of comfort and respect. This is often reflected in the camera work: when Viorel pads off in the direction of the kitchen, the camera holds back, watching as if from the socially appropriate distance that Viorel has violated. In other scenes, too, the camera remains aloof to the event even as the incident is explosive and dramatic. The first murders are viewed in long shot; the brutal beating of the mother-in-law off screen, with the camera remaining downstairs while we hear the event taking place upstairs. When Viorel then goes on to shoot her the event is shown partially: her upper torso out of shot. It is as if in the best sense of the term the camera never quite knows where to put itself, as though trying to find a correlative for the awkwardness of its central character.

We sense this especially in the fourth example, the scene where Viorel goes into a designer clothes store, says he is looking for Andrea, and forces his way into the shop less with aggression than with a social impoliteness that meets the needs of social expectation: the shop assistants let him in because they can’t quite find a reason to keep him out. As he then moves awkwardly through the store he comments on whether they are judging his jeans, and why they are getting caught up in their own lies. The two assistants and the manager look like they’re not sure whether to laugh or to phone the police, and generally settle for either a nervous smirk or an uncomprehending look of fret. Sometimes in the sequence the camera stays close to Viorel; at other moments holds back as he once again assumes a space he is half entitled to enter when he walks through a door whilst the employees wait outside.

In each of these four scenes the film offers a complexity of situation that is twofold: the character appears to lacks clear motivation, and the film refuses clear comprehension. The characters in the shop haven’t been seen before and won’t be seen after, and of course there is no moment where Viorel announces to someone why he’s going to make a visit to the clothes store. Though obviously there are connective links between one scene and the next, they are often very weak. To announce that someone will be going over to a clothing shop looking for someone and explaining who and why, would have given the following scene in the store strong narrative grounding, and the link would have been equally firm. But for Viorel to go directly to the store and announce that he is looking for someone, and with everyone left in a state of vagueness, leaves the film narratively undernourished: a potentially, motivationally, emaciated work that insists in creating enough freedom for the viewer to feel liberated or exasperated. Yet as we’ve proposed, Puiu wants to create another type of nutrition: informational rather than narrational.

Puiu says “At the age of sixteen, I came upon the writers who became my models: Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Camus, Borges and Sabato; Crime and Punishment, The Outsider and The Tunnel left a deep impression on me when I was a young man. The research I conducted for this film probably fused with all of the reading I grasped what is at stake in the film” (Altcine). It is as though Puiu wanted to create in film form an equivalent inexplicability that would demand motive becomes vague and dispersed, becomes more informational. Though producer Anca Puiu (Cristi’s wife) refers to the film as a crime story from a new perspective, it is part of a very fine tradition of inverted crime dramas, many influenced by or based on the writers Cristi Puiu invokes. Bresson’s Pickpocket, Wenders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Zeki Demirkubuz’s Fate, Bruno Dumont’s L’humanite, Pablo Larrain’s Tony Manero could all be so described. This is a perspective well summed up by the director when saying, “I told the cameramen to follow the character, and to look at him with a feeling that resembles a father watching his child learn to walk.” (Altcine) Puiu’s comment is especially telling here if we think back to the remark Hitchcock makes about the young boy in Sabotage. There he made an innocent a cipher to the film’s tension and allowed him to die: he did not take into account the feeling that resembles a father endearingly looking on at its child, and arrived at a cruelty and cynicism he regretted, even if he would of course continue making films that wouldn’t go easy on the viewer. Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds all have moments that a director insistently defending the audience’s sensibilities would have forgone.

But it is one thing to kill off or allow your leading character to be grief-stricken or terrorized; quite another to be on the side of someone for whom sympathy seems either undeserved or hard to justify. For a director to show tenderness towards a young boy learning to walk offers a clear object of affection and a strong action. Puiu wants to feel this tenderness towards someone who is a very ambivalent object of affection, and a man given to great ambivalence of deed. When Viorel walks into the clothes shop, he is finally perhaps less interested in finding what he is looking for, than proving to himself a paranoiac streak that insists others have no interest in telling him the truth. He isn’t an object of affection but of indeterminacy, as we are not too far removed in the situation from the people in the store. Indeed, we might be in greater fear for their lives than the assistants and the manager happen to realize, since we know he has a gun in his bag and he has already dispatched others with it. Their nervous laugh has more of a point to it than they can comprehend.

However, as in the other three scenes, Viorel remains a pathetic character: a character of pathos. Whether asked in at one moment and then pushed out the door the next in the first scene, or pushing his way into the shop but clearly unwelcome, Viorel is properly, troublesomely, sym-pathetic. He is capable of eliciting co-feeling, but our position slides across a range of emotions, finding the situations Viorel gets himself into sad, horrific, funny and endearing according to the given moment. If Hitchcock realized too late that his young boy was eliciting a wider range of feelings than the director perhaps wished (wasn’t he a cipher?), Viorel is in cinematic terms the opposite of a suspense device. Or rather he happens to be an existential suspense device; the boy a situational one. In other words, while the young boy serves the director’s needs but semi-accidentally draws on a wider range of audience feeling than Hitchcock initially seemed to have intended, Puiu, echoing the writers he so admires, creates in Viorel a figure of constant tension. If the boy in Sabotage allows for situational suspense because of the bomb he is carrying unawares, Viorel allows for existential tension by virtue of what he carries from one event to the next: his existential condition as the emotionally implosive. He is like a bomb that could go off at any moment, and so there needn’t be a literal one under the table or in one’s lap to generate excitement. In each of the four scenes we have described, Puiu has created through the character of Viorel the equivalent of Hitchcock’s bomb under the table by other means – by existential means.

If Puiu manages to internalise the ‘bomb’, then he is also a director who does not assume this internalisation can manifest itself in anything other than outer actions. Viorel remains a mystery to us, and though some critics might be inclined to find in the mise-en-scene a symbolic reflection of Viorel’s inner chaos, this would be to indicate a more expressionist screen space than the film utilises. The Romanian wave, of which Puiu is often seen as the central figure, is nothing if not realist in its depiction of milieu. The Death of Mr Lazarescu by Puiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills by Cristian Mungiu, 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective by Corneliu Porumboiu, are all interested in a mise-en-scene that seems more indifferent to rather than reflective of, the character’s psyche. Certainly Viorel’s semi-furnished flat suggests a mind in flux, but it remains chiefly a space of resolute realism, a flat that we could enter and not at all assume the psychic imbalance of the person who owns it. There are no filters, bold colour schemes, or symbolic markers indicating Viorel’s mindset. Where even Michael Haneke in Amour takes us into an anxiety dream to show central character Georges’ fear over his own and more especially his wife’s mortality, Puiu wants to remain on the societal surface and indicate the psychological as the unfathomable interior.

However this removal isn’t only of the interior in the sense of avoiding flashbacks, expressive mise-en-scene, dream sequences etc. It resides intriguingly also in the director’s claim that he knows exactly what sits behind all the character’s actions yet withholds much of the information. For example, when Viorel goes looking for the woman in the clothes shop, she might remain a complete enigma to the viewer, but Puiu says that she is actually the ex-wife’s friend. “You’re asking me if I have this information? It happens that I have. There are some directors who would play with this question, to create mystery. But for me a film has to be logical. So I have all this information and not only that, but I shot it. I have six hours of film. Remember that I am a storyteller and one of the first lessons of cinema is that it is an art of ellipsis. In this film, I didn’t hide things. I observed and then kept just moments that I thought were revelatory for the story I’m going to tell.” (Film Quarterly) If Hitchcock wanted to show the bomb under the table, Puiu keeps from us the information as if all the better to generate suspense by its absence. Hitchcock might claim that by showing the bomb he creates tension that would otherwise be missing, but Puiu is saying by not showing what is precisely going on in his central character’s life he is generating a still higher degree of suspense. Our ignorance doesn’t lead to shock, as in Hitchcock’s formulation, but instead to attenuated anxiety, evident in Rob White’s claim that rather than seeing the camera adopting the position of a concerned parent as Puiu claims, we are placed much more in the “perspective of a scared child, frozen by the sight of daily life being interrupted by bewildering or atrocious events.” (Film Quarterly) Hitchcock, by comparison, often puts us in the position of a knowing adult, a ludic observer of the human comedy as narrative conceit, and expects us to play and be played. Cinema is a piece of cake more than a slice of life as he would often say. For Puiu it is the other way round. “The statement I want to make is that life is more important than cinema.” (Film Quarterly)

This is a simple enough claim, but it has very broad cinematographic implications. It suggests a rather different film grammar, evident in Puiu’s comment just a moment before in the same interview. “There’s that statement from Arnheim in his Film as Art that a filmmaker is obliged to choose things from reality and if you choose one thing you don’t choose something else. If you point the camera in this direction, you are going to lose what’s happening behind the camera. This is the condition of the filmmaker. So I decided for every scene to have one shot from a very precise position—not in order to expose everything to camera, but to cover the space logically. If someone has to go from the armchair in the living room to the toilet, then maybe you can still get something from the sound of the flush. Cinema allows you to do this, to vary elements in order to build up the cinematographic sentence.” (Film Quarterly) When Hitchcock shows us the bomb it is all the better to give the viewer a privileged perspective. When Puiu decides to withhold showing us the murder of Viorel’s mother-in-law as the camera stays on the ground floor, while Viorel goes upstairs to beat her half to death, finishing the job off later with a shotgun, this is cinema as a partial reality all the better to emphasize the nature of reality. Our relationship with the information the film offers forces us to accept a limited view more consistent with the grammar of life than the grammar of narrative. This is more information than narration, in Deleuze’s terms. In other words, if a moment of import is withheld from us in a narratively focused film, the point and purpose resides in the amount of storytelling tension that can be concretely extracted out of the withholding. When a killer’s face is filmed in silhouette, this is all the better to keep from revealing his identity any sooner than is narratively necessary. It isn’t about the grammar of reality, but the grammar of storytelling.

Yet of course we’ve noted that Puiu also sees himself as a storyteller, while also insisting that he is interested first and foremost in reality. Is this a simple contradiction, or part of Puiu’s relationship with some of the writers he admires and the filmmakers whose work has been influenced by them? If for example anyone from Hitchcock to Tarantino, De Palma to Carpenter, will withhold a detail, they are doing so often with diegetic intent rather than generating a perceptual problematic. When Tarantino allows his camera to drift away from the ear being hacked off in Reservoir Dogs, decides to withhold showing us the man in the back seat’s head being blown off in Pulp Fiction, or chooses to show us what is in the basement in the early sequence in Inglourious Basterds, these are all examples of the cinematic tease over perceptual probing. Occasionally there are filmmakers like Michael Haneke whose work plays somewhere between the former and the latter (maybe most evidently in Funny Games), but if Tarantino and others could claim they are more interested in cinema than life (in pieces of cake, however hard to digest), Puiu places himself on the side of life, with an interest in the grammar of realism. We might be trying to piece together a story out of the fragments Aurora offers us, but we do so not as we would when we feel in the hands of a storytelling master whose games we must anticipate, and whose style we enjoy, but instead from the position of one who might not know what he is doing. This is not because the director is incompetent, lazy or contemptuous, as the reviews of Aurora sometimes suggest, but because Puiu is trying to find the means by which the story will pass through the demands of the real.

The grammar of the film must come from these demands, so that information revealed during the thirty six hours in which the film takes place should feel consistent with the sort of information characters will offer during conversational exchanges, and not like dialogue pushing the story along.  Secondly, the camera should not give the impression that it can go anywhere but must accept its limitations, must feel like a bystander to events rather than a protagonist choosing to shape them, even if there are very occasional camera shots here that seem slightly Hitchcockian. Thirdly, the mise-en-scene cannot dictate the mood of the protagonist but should, like the camera, remain quietly indifferent to it. This is by no means a sketching of realism in film, more generally, but a way of understanding how Puiu is using the term, and by a few examples of filmmakers who aren’t realists, we can better comprehend Puiu’s aesthetic choices, as we note in Tarantino’s antithetical approach. If for example a character says to another that they have three minutes to exit the building before the bomb goes off, this isn’t conversation, it is dialogue, and expositional at that. They’ll both know how long it will take, but the point is to convey the threat to the audience. When a camera glides over a building and under a car to show the bomb ticking underneath, this is the filmmaker telling us that whatever the dangers to the characters’ lives, we are not in danger of being unsure where the filmmaker is going. When a character sits in an apartment that is all blue, with yellow light filtering in through the window that indicates not at all natural sunlight but a coloured movie lamp, this is a mise-en-scene more than a location. It suggest a soundstage; not a found reality. We offer obvious examples only to bring out the grammar of the real that a director like Puiu is working with. He might be as interested in storytelling as anyone else, but the tale has to pass through the parti pris of realist intent.

However, realism isn’t a fixed point but a mobile apparatus, changing with the times and the technology, adjusting to shifts in mood and historical situation. If Vittorio de Sica, Ken Loach, Maurice Pialat, the Dardennes and Puiu are all realists, it is more through principle than aesthetic effect. The means by which they achieve their art is quite different. Puiu is interesting because Aurora pushes further than most into the logic of realism, taking into account his own use of the term, and arrives at a complex informational system rather than ready narrative coordinates based on a linguistic model. Often when a filmmaker knows exactly what they are withholding from the audience, the subtext is usually clear because what is withheld is a feeling more than a situation. The character is still in love with his ex wife but can’t admit it; the father wants to congratulate his son on his achievements but doesn’t quite know how to do so. This is subtext as the emotionally reserved, with the film knowing the characters needn’t express their feelings for the audience to be suitably moved.  Aurora’s subtext is more the logistically withheld. The complexity of the situations and the presence of numerous characters means that Puiu needs to know who they are and what their relationship with Viorel is to keep everything consistent because, as we’ve noted, for Puiu “the film has to be logical” (Film Quarterly).

Thus if the film is a great work it rests on this logistical logic, this respect for realism but also the need to take it further, to push it into areas of great ambiguity through the withholding, but pushing through important areas of inquiry through the gaps. Puiu may have absorbed within his realistic aesthetic the fascination for the inexplicable characters of Dostoevsky, Kafka and others, but he is even more interested in the relationally and relatively inexplicable that a certain approach to realism can offer. There are in our lives actions that we constantly witness which we can’t readily justify, but because they are outside our sphere of relevance they remain obscure. Where is that person we see at the bus stop going; is he going to work, going home, going to meet a lover? The person walking a dog at midnight; are they nocturnal, insomniac, looking for a pick-up? Most of the time other people’s behaviour is a mystery, but it doesn’t become an active one unless it finds a particular reason to concern us.

Puiu’s brilliance here resides in bringing together the prosaic nature of the everyday reality that obscures people’s motives simply because of the partial view that we are given, and in giving us a character that contains within him motives that may not always be clear to Viorel; motives that he certainly does not expect to be easily understood by others. This is evident in Viorel’s remarks in the police station. Also, as East European Film Bulletin says, “In our interview with Puiu, he told us that he acted himself in the film (thus making his acting debut) because he claims that he wouldn’t have been able to give directions for a role that he doesn’t fully understand himself.”

If Hitchcock was a brilliant director insisting that the cinematic slice of cake utilises strong motive with the detail revealed or hidden for categorical narrative ends, Puiu utilises a cinematic slice of life to keep motive obscure and the logistics of the mise-en-scene always just out of reach. As Konstanty Kuzma says in East European Film Bulletin, “Aurora is as realist as cinema can get.” From a certain point of view we are inclined to agree, but it is the sort of realism based on subtle attention more than ready verisimilitude, closer to another writer whose work Puiu could have mentioned, Peter Handke, and whose novel The Goalie’s Anxiety of the Penalty Kick we have already invoked through the adaptation by Wenders. In The Afternoon of the Writer, Handke says: “At the same time he told himself, as he had so often, that he must not lose himself in his work the next day, but on the contrary use it to open up his senses: instead of taking his mind off his work, the shadow of a bird darting across the wall should accompany and clarify his writing, and so should the barking of a dog, the whining of a chain saw, the grinding of trucks shifting gears, the constant hammering, the incessant whistle blowing and shouts of command from the schoolyards and drills ground down in the plain.” This is the sort of realism Aurora generates; a real that insistently opens up our senses to information, rather than closing them down through narrative exigencies.

 

©Tony McKibbin