Police, Adjective Review

NOTE: This review contains spoilers in its final paragraph. Those wishing to avoid them are advised to skip to the section marked 'The Disc'.

The latest example of current Romanian cinema to hit these shores, Police, Adjective neatly ties together some of the success stories seen so far. It is the second feature of Corneliu Porumboiu, following up his Camera d’Or-winning debut 12.08 East of Bucharest. It offers a leading role to Dragos Bucur, who had previously appeared in Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. And it offers a smaller, but nonetheless significant part to Vlad Ivanov, best known for his role as the abortionist in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, directed by Cristian Mingiu. As well as their country of origin, these films have a number of things in common. Firstly, and most prominently perhaps, is their ability to garner awards. To use just the Cannes Film Festival as an example we can add to Porumboiu’s Camera d’Or courtesy of the Palme d’Or won by 4 Months… and the Prix un Certain Regard given to both Mr. Lazarescu and another notable Romanian film of late, Christian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (Endless). Secondly, they also share a slyly comic worldview, one that is open to the ironies and grim absurdities of modern life and often told in a deadpan manner. Admittedly, this may alter slightly from to film - the almost farcical nature of 12.08 East of Bucharest would have been entirely inappropriate a tone for 4 Months…, for example - yet those underlying currents are always there. Indeed, Police, Adjective is no different: not only did it earn Porumboiu a second award at Cannes, this time the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard category, but it also once more draws on the darkly humorous as it sets about its narrative.

Not that any such undertones are immediately apparent. Police, Adjective begins as a seemingly straightforward police procedural. We follow a young plainclothes detective (Bucur) as he shadows a youth over the course of a morning. Upon his arrival at the police station we begin to understand the case in hand: the youth, a high school student by the name of Victor, has been reported to be smoking hashish near the school. The informant happens to be one of his friends, Alex, though there is no evidence to suggest that drug dealing is also taking place. Our detective has doubts about the case, especially the sting operation that his superiors want to put into action in order to discover where the supply is coming from, as he doesn’t want to ruin the life of this young man with the resulting jail term, one that would total a minimum of three and a half years despite the trivial nature of the offence. He is also of the opinion that the law will soon change and therefore doesn’t want any potential imprisonment on his conscience. So he continues his observations and his police checks into Victor, Alex and a female friend of theirs with the hope that he can crack the bigger case without jeopardising the young man’s life.

Porumboiu’s approach to filming Police, Adjective is simple and unobtrusive. He favours real time sequences and naturalistic camerawork, whilst the photography emphasises the autumnal setting with a palette favouring greys, browns and muted greens. He also opts to forego any soundtrack, a move that reinforces the inherent slowness in our detective’s job. In the accompanying interview Porumboiu mentions both Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup as the major influences on Police, Adjective and in each case it is easy to see their effect. His film’s style has clear affinities with that of Bresson’s, whilst the narrative apes that of Blowup’s mystery-less mystery. Essentially, Police, Adjective could be described as a thrill-less thriller: the procedural here does not throw up any sudden twists, nor is their any need for the characters to indulge in a spot of gunplay or the odd car chase (indeed, there aren’t even any police cars). Rather what Porumboiu is documenting as he follows the case over the course of three days is a lot of watching, a lot of waiting, a lot of paperwork and a lot of bureaucracy.

Of course, such an anti-narrative where scenes are punctuated more by what doesn’t happen as opposed to what does has to serve a purpose, and for much of Police, Adjective’s running time it is this which commands the audience’s attention. In the absence of genre thrills we therefore question what kind of film this is exactly. Is the lack of ‘action’ the point? Or is it a means of creating tension, leading us to expect that the procedural will eventually come to a head? Or is the procedural merely a framework upon which to hang Porumboiu’s actual intent, whether that be a portrayal of the detective at its centre or the overall system within he which he exists? To a degree all of these questions should be met with an affirmative answer. Moreover, each is also intertwined. The lack of any generic adornments, for example, allows the audience to concentrate their attentions on Bucur’s detective. Similarly, the sheer amount of time and effort that we spend watching his observations amount to very little is also surely indicative of the police system. Porumboiu exercises a deft touch in tying together these various strands and subtexts so that each becomes as important as the other, whilst also allowing the absurd qualities - and therefore an attendant black humour - to come through as well.

These undercurrents come to the fore during the final scenes in which Police, Adjective concludes not with any grand finale or action sequence but rather a conversation on dialectics. Having conducted three days of shadowing the three youths, our detective puts forward a case for further investigation despite his superiors still pressing for the sting operation. His arguments eventually fall down thanks to the use of a dictionary and the definition of such words as ‘conscience’, ‘moral’, ‘law’ and, as the title makes clear, ‘police’. It’s a strange ending inasmuch as it feels almost like a punchline. Certainly, there are political undercurrents as it hints at the remnants of the country’s police state, and just as importantly it fits into Porumboiu’s overall scheme courtesy of its lack of drama and darkly comic edge. Yet then there’s also a sense of incomplete satisfaction; yes, it works, and yes, it fits, but was the effort on the part of the audience over the preceding 100 or so minutes really worth it for what seems like a bleakly humorous gag? The answer, perhaps, is in the eye of the beholder and I'm beginning to have doubts about any initial doubts myself - there is something about Police, Adjective which continues to haunt for days after a viewing.


Artificial Eye have release Police, Adjective onto standard definition DVD only. A single dual-layered disc, encoded for Region 2, houses the film and its attendant extras. The transfer is more serviceable than exceptional, utilising a clean print and maintaining the dour cinematography but also demonstrating heavy edge enhancement throughout. The disc is nonetheless watchable and such a flaw doesn’t prove to be too much of a distraction, yet it does seem surprising that such problems should affect a disc of such a recent production. The soundtrack fares better, offering up both a DD5.1 and DD2.0 mix, each of which ably copes with the dialogue and naturalistic sounds. (Note that the DD5.1 is the original mix in this case and therefore the preferred option.) English subtitles are optional.

Extras amount to a brief interview with Porumboiu and the theatrical trailer (which, judging by the IFC Films intro and numerous quotes from US critics, was produced for an American audience). The former is a welcome addition with Porumboiu discussing both the films that influenced him and the real life incidents. He speaks in English and is thankfully clear enough to cope with the admittedly poor sound. As for the trailer, here we find an interesting instance of trying to sell a difficult film. As well as that wealth of quotes from positive reviews already mentioned there is also an emphasis on the more darkly comic elements inherent in Police, Adjective. Yet they play differently here than they do in the main feature thanks to snappy editing replacing Porumboiu’s favoured long takes. The result is seemingly a film loaded with one-liners and a prominent strain of absurdity, which isn’t really the case at all. It does make you wonder how audiences felt after checking out the film as a result of this promo. Certainly, there are underlying elements of dark humour and the absurd, but not as portrayed here. The suggestion is that Police, Adjective will be far closer to Aki Kaurismäki or Roy Andersson than it is to Robert Bresson or Michelangelo Antonioni.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 13:18:48

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