Few directors have explored the implications of real-time continuity — or a reasonable approximation thereof — as resolutely as Romanian director Cristi Puiu. From his early Stuff and Dough (2005) to his more recent Malmkrog (2020), he has drawn out the myriad consequences of a restricted spatiotemporal frame of reference. In Sieranevada (2016), for instance, which transpires over an afternoon in which a patriarch’s commemoration ceremony is to be held, familial bickering sits alongside conspiracy theories and all manner of ruminations about current events. Along with its nonsensical title, that film gave the impression of a perspective on the universe from one insular vantage — a view from nowhere. The broader implication, of course, is that such insularity and solipsism are at play in any interaction, that each choice of perspective implies the existence of innumerable others which we are specifically not seeing.
Puiu’s latest, MMXX, so titled for the year the Covid-19 pandemic broke, transposes this interest to the early portion of the worldwide crisis, presenting a set of four daisy-chained vignettes, each of which explores the disjunction between the present-tense situation before us and the personal or material histories we are able to infer or project back from it. Call it: Four Interpretation Exercises. The first, which sees a therapist meet with a new patient (with whom she goes through a fixed questionnaire to establish a kind of psychological profile), effectively functions as a statement of intent. The dry humor of the scene, which lasts roughly 30 minutes and unfolds without a cut, mainly derives from the disjunction between the therapist’s distractedness — exacerbated by a surprise visit from her brother — and the patient’s absurdly verbose, possibly narcissistic answers. But the scene serves an additional function, too, in that it offers information that we could not, from the physical interactions alone, even begin to infer.
The film’s second part ups the ante on the disparity between what we are and are not seeing. Closest in tone to the cramped, domestic chaos of Sieranevada, it follows the therapist’s brother from the first segment, now at his other sister’s house, as he gets absurdly aggressive about preparations for his upcoming birthday. Meanwhile, his sister tries to help a friend in lockdown get information about his pregnant wife, recently admitted to the hospital for abdominal pain, while also dealing with a minor apartment issue and a majorly unhelpful husband. The following segment, which again unfolds in one unbroken, half-hour long shot, now includes a diegetic motivation for its duration: it is the time the husband takes, from the previous segment, to run two Covid rapid-tests. As he lays down on a bed awaiting each result, a co-worker lounges on a couch next to him, rendering a tawdry love affair with a mobster’s moll the most unexciting story ever told. The isolated space in which this segment unfolds — probably a nurse’s lounge — accentuates the film’s already restricted purview, stymying our ability to determine a stable reality in which the scene takes place.
In the fourth and final section, a man driving down a rural road talks to his mom about the end of a poem. When he arrives at his apparent destination, he walks through what is evidently a mourning ceremony. In a nearby greenhouse surrounded by police tape, he is met by a man in shorts, with whom he talks about a colleague who recently committed suicide and about a marital affair that may or may not have contributed to it. Only later are we able to confirm that they are police officers, and that their real reason for being there is to get a witness statement from a woman caught up in a terrible human trafficking operation as both victim and victimizer. Even more extremely than in the prior segments, expectation and reality diverge.
How are we to make sense of all this? Puiu’s intentions, especially in the film’s obscure final shot, are not always easy to parse. But what MMXX demonstrates with such acuity is how its characters’ usual ways of getting a grip on the world have given way. The formal corollary of this is that neither spatiotemporal continuity nor proximity can serve as stable markers of truth. While all this is apposite to the film’s pandemic setting, such explorations are hardly new to Puiu’s filmography. And while the Romanian director continues to find fresh formal variations on his recurring interests, MMXX puts forward a framework that feels, for once, merely current.
Published as part of San Sebastián Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 2.