Radu Jude, Director Of Romania’s ‘Bad Luck Banging,’ On Non-Simulated Sex Scenes and Guerrilla-Style Production

After years of demanding that art movies show full penetration, one finally has: Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, a feature out of Romania from director Radu Jude. My long-running joke suggestions aside, Bad Luck Banging isn’t a joke. In fact it’s Romania’s submission for best foreign language film at this year’s Oscars.

Yet just because Bad Luck Banging is a serious piece of art doesn’t mean it isn’t funny. Telling the story of Emi, played by Katia Pascariu, a teacher who has had her homemade sex tape with her husband leak online — which we see almost in its entirety at the beginning of the film — the film is broken into three parts. In the first, Emi runs a series of errands around the city of Bucharest, shot guerrilla style in the midst of COVID, which is ever-present, all with the news that the video is out there and some of her work colleagues have seen it and that there’s going to be a meeting about it hanging over her head.

In part three, we actually see that meeting, a slightly absurdist comedy of manners that feels like something out of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with representatives of different facets of society (a priest, a soldier, an intellectual, a prudish mom, etc.) reacting to the video’s existence in various ways. At one point, they all watch the tape again on a monitor framed next to Emi’s face.

Part two of the film is a pastiche-style series of historical facts about Romania, definitions of terms, along with aphorisms and mini jokes (a few of which are also sexually explicit). This section, while also occasionally very funny, communicates very clearly that this is overtly an attempt at art. So rarely do art films and sex comedies coexist that combining them is a kind of revelation unto itself. Though Jude’s purpose here is clearly much bigger than mere juxtaposition: touching on issues of art, sex, commercialism, and Romania’s complicated history of socialism, revolution, racism, the church, and the Holocaust.

That Jude thought he could successfully combine all these things makes him a man after my own heart (there’s nothing worse to me than the strain of American intellectualism that acts as if sex is something you read about in the New Yorker). Naturally, I had lots of questions. I spoke with Jude via Zoom from Bucharest this week.

Are you joining us from Bucharest? Is it getting cold there now?

Not real cold. It’s like 11 degrees (Celcius — about 52 degrees Fahrenheit). So it’s quite reasonable, but I think in one week, it will start a real winter. Probably without snow for a while, but quite cold. Actually, Bucharest is horrible. The winters are very harsh, because it’s plains. So it’s a lot of winds coming from the east from Russia, and it’s sometimes minus 20, something like that. And the summers are extremely hot, so it’s really quite nasty in both ways.

So obviously this film has some explicit sex scenes. Did you choose to do that all non-simulated? All your actors, are they doing their real stunts?

That’s good. Yes, they did their own stunts, their own sexual stunts. It’s interesting, I think these questions, the more you go from Eastern Europe to Western Europe and to the United States, these questions appear more often. I think most of the American press ask this question, how it was done. Somebody asked if we had an intimacy coordinator. Like it’s the kind of rule now, but we don’t have. The Romanian industry is so small. Whenever you do a thing or two which are different, you don’t have anybody to rely on because there’s no real industry, and most of the people, technicians or stuntmen or prop men and so forth, learn their trade, if they’re older, either in the socialist film studios, but people who are under 60 now, let’s say, learn their trade from American movies that were shot in Romania. I also worked for a lot of films as assistant director 20 years ago, even moreso it was a kind of exploitation, because we were cheap labor, of course. And we worked more than the unions would accept probably in United States. But it was also a good school, because you could learn a lot of things.

In this case, actually, it was quite simple, because Katia Pascariu is quite open. From our first meeting, I think she was the first to say, “Look, I read the script. I don’t have a problem with this first scene. I don’t have a problem with nudity. I know I can go all the way.” And I said, “Well, at least let’s do the penetration scene with a double.” So the husband in the video is a professional porn actor, Stefan Steel, steel like the metal, with obvious meaning, I think. Very self-confident, as you could see from the name. And for the penetration shots we replaced Katia with a porn actress.

So before it even started, she was like, “Yeah, I’m okay with all of this. You don’t need to worry about it?”

Yes, and I don’t know how it is in the US, but in Romania, which is a pretty conservative and prudish society… Because since we don’t have a big film industry, all actors in Romania are doing film and theater at the same time. There’s no film actors like in countries with a real film industry. And they have this mystique, many of them, like this artistical act of being something extremely important and extremely… almost mystical, you know? So while films are considered a little bit more vulgar, and sometimes if you ask an actor to appear naked or an actress — and I don’t judge that, I mean, I accept everybody’s right to do things or not to do them, but sometimes there are actors saying, “No, I’m playing Shakespeare, I’m playing Chekhov, I’m playing Ibsen, and now you ask me to fuck in a bed or to be naked? No, I refuse that.”

I remember when I was very, very young, I wanted to do a short film and to have an actress, an old, not very well-known, but an actress, she worked in the National Theater. And I sent her the script. She was at that time, I think around 60-years-old, and in the script said she’s supposed to be like a housewife cooking or something in a kitchen. And she called me and said, “How dare you offer me to be a housewife cooking in a kitchen, I want to play a star!” Or I don’t know, something else, a princess, a queen, but not a housewife. So this gives you probably an idea of how difficult is to find, sometimes, actors open to this kind of thing. So this was even more brave for Katia. But Katia and many other young actors, I think there’s a bit of changing in the morals now and perspectives, because Katia belongs to a group that makes political theater and independent theater, and she’s… she’s not, you know, square.

Are those conversations hard for you to have as a director, where you have a vision of what you want out of your film, but then you have to ask actors to be more open or put aside vanity and things like that? Is it weird to feel like you’re having to convince people to do things that they don’t want to?

Oh, yes and no, I don’t know. I try to have these discussions at the beginning in the casting session. For instance, there was an actor that was supposed to do a dirty word, and he said, “You know, I belong to a religious group, and I’m not supposed to say this word. So I’m sorry, either you change the word or I quit.” And I didn’t change the word and he quit. But I think this is okay, as long as it doesn’t happen on the set.

Though I have to be honest, I had a kind of disappointment, because the last scene in the film, the third ending, which is like an oral sex simulated thing [on a dildo -Ed.], there were actors and actresses who all knew the script in advance. And I explained it to all of them, and then suddenly on the last day of shooting they said “No, I don’t do this. I don’t want to do it.” And I felt, you know, quite… because in the end I didn’t know how many of these shots I would need for the editing. So I felt a little bit uncomfortable, because there were actresses saying, “I’m not doing such a thing.” That was the expression, “I’m not doing such a thing!” So that was not very elegant, because it was… Well, things happen.

The character of Emi, she goes through this ordeal where they’ve seen her do the sex tape, and then the conversation is sort of, “how can we take you seriously as a teacher after this?” Is there any of that that would apply to Katia after having done this role performing in the same video?

No, I don’t think so. Well, we should ask her, but… What she does in her professional life, I don’t think is affected by that. But there is a fear like that in the actors. Sometimes actors say, “You know, I don’t do that. Not because I wouldn’t do it, but because my colleagues will judge me.” But that, I think, as not only applied to Romania, I think there’s always a kind of fear in every department of a film crew — a fear of, a kind of reluctance, to do things in a way which are not necessarily traditionally considered “well done.” Like if you ask a director of photography sometimes to do a shot which doesn’t have the best composition but you want it like that, sometimes the DP can say, “Look, but what my colleagues will say? They will say that I will be bad DOP because of that.” It’s always a resistance to change something. And I felt that quite strongly in myself as well, because sometimes when I had an idea to try something quite unorthodox after I have the enthusiasm to go into that direction, I say, “Oh my God, but what if is a stupid idea? And what if it’s wrong?” And I don’t know.

So Romania chose your film to be their submission in the foreign-language category at the Oscars. Oftentimes it seems like the movies that countries choose are often these very serious, very bleak, very dramatic films, and yours is sort of wry and comedic and raunchy. Are Romanians just cooler about the idea of comedy being an artistic product?

Well, I think it’s a bit something else, a question of luck. Because, I don’t know how, I think every country has different rules about how they choose, but in Romania, there is an association of critics that each year puts five people in charge of that. So it depends who this commission is. And in this case, there were three young critics who were in favor of this film, and this is how it ended up there. I’m sure many people are not very happy about that.

I was happy about it.

Well, me too. I think it’s a good sign, because sometimes a film, sometimes a cultural artifact, a work of art, is also a test for the society in a way. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the film and to say, “Oh, I’m so important to test the society.” But sometimes there is, at least in some part of the society, there is a test of seeing how they react to that, how the authorities react to this, how mentalities react to that. So yes, I’m happy, not only for the film, but for the fact that Romania and this commission somehow made this choice.

In the first segment of the movie, your main character, Emi, she’s kind of walking from place to place around the city. It seemed like you’re trying to give this sort of unstaged portrait of the city. Were you shooting that guerilla style? How much of that was staged versus documentary-style shots?

Well, obviously it’s not — I didn’t stage the cars and the tramways and the passersby. So yes, I wanted this idea to see if we can make like this counter-symphony or an anti-symphony of a city. That was like a genre, the city symphonies in the twenties and thirties, like Dziga Vertov or Berlin Symphony of a City. It’s a lot of films at the beginning of cinema, praising modern life and the energy of cities. I wanted to this as something a bit against that, but also to include the plot a little bit in it. In order to do that, yes, we shot guerrilla-style. We didn’t even have permits for a while from the mayor’s office, we shot many days without any authorization.

So but here we have this phantasma, like that in Hollywood, things are always done perfectly nice, and here, why do we do like amateurs? But I like being an amateur, actually. So we shot that exactly like an amateur crew. Not many takes, no rehearsals at all. And of course, all the background action is real.

Radu Jude director Bad Luck Banging
Magnolia Pictures/Silviu Ghetie

There’s one point where an older woman says something rude to the camera, which I assume was just a passerby, and you left that in there as a way to sort of hint that this was all being shot in real-time.

Yeah, that was serendipity. I didn’t even hear her very well what she said, only later when seeing the takes, the rushes, did I realize. But you know, this kind of thing, it’s always a kind of trusting that, because cinema is very important, well, you can call it art or industry or entertainment, whatever, but also it’s a recording device. It’s something that records the reality and transforms that into images. This dimension of cinema is something that, for me, is very important. And in order to do things like that, you really have to trust not only yourself and the crew and so on, but the reality. I mean, you would go on a certain day and nothing would happen in the street, and on the next when you don’t have the camera on, much more interesting things happen. We had a very spectacular accident in a street in one of the scenes, fortunately nobody died, like three seconds after he stopped the camera. But that’s it, you get some from the reality and you lose some, you cannot have it all.

The guy in the big Hummer that parks in the sidewalk, was that an accident or was that something that you staged?

That’s a fine question because it’s a mix. I wanted that Hummer there, it’s a big SUV, right? It’s a Hummer. But then we saw the real driver was this small guy, and without telling him, we shot him when he got there to the shooting and we, and in the end, left that take inside. So it’s half-staged, half-documentary.

The film sort of addresses all of these ideas about fascism and nationalism and racism. Why did you think this story about the sex tape was a good frame for those?

Sometimes, it’s like something which, if something is more spectacular in one way or another, you get a more powerful response than to something which may be more dangerous but less spectacular. I think it’s exactly the same now with the COVID. Because if you would see the virus on people’s skin, maybe some people would be less inclined to say the virus doesn’t exist.

If I can use this metaphor, we try to see the virus of obscenity taking shape in other things, but it’s not very obvious for many of us. That’s the main reason to contrast the story with this. Because for instance, the stories related to the relationship between the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Holocaust, the participation, I would say, is not only to create this contrast, but also to show in a way that these values of the church who would condemn a woman like Emi, but their values in the not-so-old history are much dirtier and more toxic than a poor sex video. Something like that.

So Eugen, we only see him in the first scene, right? He doesn’t come back. What was that choice about?

I think there was a version of the script at the beginning where I didn’t know exactly what to do, where he was much more present. And then gradually, I took him out for two reasons. One is a little bit of playing with this idea that the man in the couple is only the dick. It’s reduced only to that. But also I like to define the main character, to define Emi, only in relation to this story. That’s why you don’t see her kids. You don’t see her family. I had a scene actually, where she was visiting her mother and child, and she was going there with a toy. But I took it out, because it became too much like a traditional narrative where the character is always defined by the characters around her. In this case, I wanted to keep her only like a generic character in a more, not to define her so much with the husband, the kids, the house.

It’s not very nice to say that regarding the actors, but I think I told even to them, I said, “You know, the cars in the street or a billboard or a prop, whatever it is, are as important as the characters.” Because it’s not only the story of this person. What is around the background is also part of the film.

Well, it’s like when she has a sex tape that’s online, now she becomes like just more imagery.

Yes, also that.

‘Bad Luck Banging’ is available now in select theaters. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can check out his film review archive here.