PRINT April 2006


Cristi Puiu

We’re just a bunch of miserable people, mister.
––Mr. Lazarescu

THE CINEMA OF death has a new classic to stand with Maurice Pialat’s La Gueule ouverte, Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, and Derek Jarman’s Blue: Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu. At first glance an unlikely candidate for the canon, this 153-minute study in protracted mortality is the first of a half-dozen “stories of love” planned by thirty-eight-year-old Romanian director Puiu, who modeled his cycle, with its singularly unfetching title Six Stories from the Bucharest Suburbs, on Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. It may be fate-tempting folly to pronounce a director a master so early in his career, but if the next five films approach the achievement of Lazarescu, Puiu will surely be to cinema what his compatriots Ionesco, Cioran, Celibidache, and Brancusi are to their respective arts.

The control and austerity of Puiu’s approach are evident from the outset. A burst of a vintage pop song by Margareta Paslaru that accompanies the credits suddenly dies away, replaced by the emergent sound of nighttime traffic. The abruptness of this Godardian gambit signals the tone of the ensuing film: an unsettling simultaneity of gallows humor, social realism, and observational empathy. The first half hour of the film plays like grim comedy. Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) lives alone in his grubby Bucharest flat with his three cats, having been abandoned by his daughter, Bianca, who moved to Toronto, and by his wife, who died almost a decade earlier. Going on sixty-three but looking a lot older with his grizzled mug, outsize glasses, forested eyebrows, crepey upper arms, and varicose veins swaddled in bloody bandages, the sodden alcoholic turns to his neighbors when his stash of pills does nothing to quell his worsening headache and stomach pain. Puiu is fond of catalogues, especially of drugs; his characters have an easy, mellifluous acquaintance with lists of narcotics and anodynes with names like Distonocalm, diclofenac, and metoclopramide. (Puiu’s first film, Stuff and Dough [2001], about a drug run, turns such an inventory into a little spoken aria, and his remarkable short film Cigarettes and Coffee [2004] features a waiter’s rapid recitation of the waters and beers on offer.) The director reports that Lazarescu was hypochondriacally inspired: He spent two years researching on the Internet the many diseases he imagined he had and their possible cures. Puiu may be the first filmmaker who is also a closet pharmacist.

As Lazarescu’s condition deteriorates, he becomes the hapless center of a neighborly maelstrom: The beefy, bossy married couple from across the way fuss and bustle, lecture the old man about his drinking, tell him he stinks like rat poison, and complain about the cat hair, old paper, and dirty dishes that are the detritus of his solitary existence. (The backbeat of television blare is not incidental; a seemingly random report about a massive traffic accident will take on increasing importance as the evening wears on.) Amid the slurry of puke, booze, and bloody sputum expelled by the ailing man, the wife blithely ferries a bowl of moussaka, made “with pork, not beef,” from across the hall as a calmative, while an upstairs tenant stops by to return a power drill. Just when the film seems poised at the threshold of absurdism, a paramedic finally arrives to tend to Lazarescu, and Puiu’s steady accretion of social detail, his attention to the casual spite, petty class consciousness, and misconstrued generosity of Lazarescu’s neighbors, begins to cohere into a comédie humaine: Balzac goes to Bucharest.

The paramedic, a middle-aged redhead called Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), quizzes the neighbors about the failing patient—she learns that his wife was an “arrogant Hungarian” and that Lazarescu drinks homemade Mastropol, a vanilla liquor—inspects his distended belly, and proffers a diagnosis of colon cancer. Tough, inquisitive, alternately assertive and passive depending on the situation, Mioara will become the film’s second major character, the envoy who accompanies poor Mr. Lazarescu on his squalid Dantean odyssey through the night, from hospital to hospital, to his final demise. Like Rohmer’s logorrheic characters, Puiu’s people like to talk, and the ambulatory conversations between Lazarescu and Mioara subtly, succinctly establish their stories and the film’s theme of familial relations. (Banal data such as birth dates, the age of children, the years a marriage has lasted or a job endured make up a great deal of the palaver; Puiu is nothing if not a materialist.) When Lazarescu balks at the rattletrap ambulance they’ve sent—“Did you expect a Mazda? a helicopter?” his neighbor demands—the tone is set for the subsequent voyage: a polyphony of the old man’s barbs and plaints, the paramedic’s reproofs and supplications, the driver’s misjudged jokes, and the voices of the haughty doctors, put-upon nurses, and helpless patients encountered on this night in Bucharest, from a pitiless scourge of a physician who thunders at Lazarescu that he will blow him and his ulcer to bits, a nurse who recommends marigold tea for Mioara’s gallbladder problem, a briefly glimpsed woman keening with grief, a lab technician who sweetly banters about marriage, diets, and daughters-in-law, and her colleague who exclaims while surveying Lazarescu’s CAT scan results, “These neoplasms are Discovery Channel stuff!”

Puiu is best as portraitist, and the abundance of characterization he achieves with minimal means is little less than a miracle. At times Lazarescu feels like one of those Bruegel paintings swarming with faces and figures, each acutely individual, each contesting for attention. It helps that the film is acted with uniform excellence, every bit role as memorably realized as any other. Mercifully uninterested in an Altman approach to his single-track but densely populated story, Puiu charts Lazarescu’s voyage from infirmary to infirmary in what he has called “ER Romanian style,” a joke that deflects his serious purpose and startling artistry. Many critics have read the film as an attack on the indifference and bureaucracy of the Romanian medical system, and, by extension, of the country itself. Puiu intimately knows the territory and types of the medical setting. Like Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who frequently resorts to clinics and doctors’ offices as locales, Puiu grew up in hospitals because his father was an administrator, and he studied anatomy textbooks for fun as a boy. But his exacting, insider portrayal doesn’t serve anything so simple as a critique of “the system,” a commentary about institutional insensibility, or a thesis about love needed and repeatedly denied (the latter being Puiu’s own take on his central theme). One wonders, too, if Lazarescu’s experience would have been different in any world capital on the night of a major traffic accident that has filled every emergency room to overflowing.

Puiu’s visual style, extended and refined from the jittery jump-cuts of Stuff and Dough, thrives, like that earlier film, on constricted space (vehicles especially) and depends on intimate, handheld camera, most often at eye level, an avoidance of conventional shot-countershot setups, and a pragmatic approach to editing and rhythm. The close but unobtrusive neo-vérité style of shooting, the clinical accuracy of Puiu’s depictions, and the everyday authenticity of his actors have led many critics to mistakenly compare Lazarescu to documentary, especially to the work of Frederick Wiseman. (Other misguided comparisons are to Paddy Chayefsky’s Hospital [1971] and the films of John Cassavetes, even if Puiu admires the latter immensely.) Puiu bridles at the documentary classification, no doubt because his realism is so hard won, his materialism so precise in its interplay of distance and intimacy. (In this he more closely resembles Belgian auteurs Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne or French photographer/filmmaker Raymond Depardon.) Lazarescu’s formal qualities are disguised by its seemingly unvarnished verism. Note how closely Puiu observes Aristotelian unities and sustains duration, compressing almost six hours of real time into less than half that; how he seamlessly abuts series of shots to feel like one long take; or how he carefully reduces the palette as the film progresses, keying it to two hues: the cool blues of hospital interiors and ambulance lights and the electric oranges of the paramedics’ jackets. Puiu’s use of isolated or found sound and his abstaining from nondiegetic music remind one of Robert Bresson—an acknowledged influence—and in some ways Lazarescu’s journey through many stations of callousness and abuse toward his final expiry recalls the poor donkey’s passage in Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966).

“You have a big name,” a smart-ass lab technician tells our protagonist, and indeed it is one hell of a handle: Dante Remus Lazarescu. This triple-threat moniker, freighted with biblical and classical associations, taken with the names of other characters—such as the unseen Dr. Anghel and Virgil—threatens allegorical overload. Perhaps Puiu has the mock-heroic mode in mind, the distance between Lazarescu’s grand name and his paltry, faltering body an added irony in the portrait of an intellectual whose capacious brain gives way to aphasia and erratic memory as he shuttles through the night. In this “short history of decay,” to invoke E. M. Cioran and his burlesque of despair, the narrative arc is one of escalating loss—of control, identity, speech, hope. Pissing then shitting himself, the increasingly confused patient drops articles and prepositions from his sentences, makes linguistic slippages, becomes inarticulate. His body stripped, prodded, and palpated, Lazarescu finally loses his hair in the closing sequences, as two old attendants prepare him for surgery. Puiu has said that the film “speaks about a world where love for our fellow man doesn’t exist, about someone whose need for help is ignored by all around him,” but it’s hard to square this with the many instances of care and kindness throughout the film, none more moving than the tender ministrations of the two women who cut the soiled pajamas from Lazarescu, mop his body, and gently shave his edemic head. But their care is too late and serves no end. This Lazarus will not rise.

James Quandt is senior programmer at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto.