Capitalizing on the considerable reputation he’s earned himself at the big international film festivals over the last few years, Radu Jude heads into this new decade with a number of movies already in fest circulation and, based on the reception for his latest feature Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (it won the Golden Bear at Berlinale earlier this year and was announced as a Main Slate selection for NYFF), bound for even greater visibility. Since that film’s premiere back in March, Jude has already managed to get a short into Locarno (Eisenstein homage Caricaturana) and now, a month later, another for Venezia 78.
Plastic Semiotic, this latest film, doesn’t bear too much superficial resemblance to Jude’s recent cinematic ventures, standing out as a new aesthetic direction for this somewhat unpredictable filmmaker. In conversation with Chekov and Flaubert (according to its Director’s Statement) as well as Baudrillard (noted in the opening credits), Plastic Semiotic is essentially a montage of suggestive dioramas, of plastic American toys arranged in a series of increasingly provocative tableaux informed by a four-part structure paralleling stages of human development (childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age). What begins as mostly innocent (domestic scenes of childcare and early social development) eventually turns towards the debauched as the dolls are inevitably positioned and contorted to signify, first, a variety of sex acts, and then murder and war. Of course, even the less aggressive tableaus aren’t totally benign: Jude’s inanimate subjects ultimately serve as commercial products created in response to and as a means of enforcing cultural norms and biases (several of these dolls/action figures are representations of characters from Disney and Illumination Entertainment IPs). His manipulations of each miniature set are slight, shifting the toys between neutral color backgrounds and the occasional action figure set piece (some doll houses, some war time backdrops), paying particular attention to lighting and inserting stock foley and nondiegetic music clips. But the effectiveness of each scene, ultimately, hinges upon the cultural and social significance suggested by each piece of molded plastic, which remain (mostly) physically static so that differences in scale and depiction are accentuated, as are their basis in cultural perceptions of race, age, and gender. Some of Plastic Semiotic’s provocations are more convincing than others (there’s an inescapable juvenalia to a lot of the proceedings that Jude challenges us to accept, which reverberates through the somewhat obvious conclusions the film draws), but there’s an inherent playfulness to the project’s stylistic experimentation that keeps it from tedium.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.