Friday, 28 May 2010
'The Happiest Girl in the World' review: Outstanding Romanian comedy...
Once in a while a film comes along that really surprises you. Completely knocks you back. Fifteen minutes into Radu Jude’s ‘The Happiest Girl in the World’ I came to the realisation I was watching such a film. Romanian cinema has been experiencing something of a critical golden age over the last decade, with the so-called New Wave climaxing in 2007 when Cristian Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Anyone who watches Jude’s film will find themselves assured that the good times are not yet over for the former Soviet state’s film industry.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am fond of tightly made little films which focus on a small number of characters and have almost no “plot” in the conventional sense. ‘The Happiest Girl in the World’ is another film in this fine tradition, with relatively little going on in the plot department. A young girl called Delia has won a competition by collecting the labels from a fruit drinks bottle and is entitled to a brand new car, as well as a starring role in an advertisement for the drink. To collect her prize and to film the commercial, Delia and her parents travel to Bucharest from the countryside. We witness the final leg of their car journey into the capital and then we stick with Delia as she gets her make-up done and films take after take of the inane advertisement. Arguing with her parents between takes about what to do with the car (they want to sell it in order to start a hotel business, whereas she wants to keep it do drive around with her friends) the girl is forced to repeat for the cameras (and with increasing irony) that she is the titular “luckiest, happiest girl in the world”.
What we see is a protracted (fantastically acted) family feud, as she argues with her mother, then her father, then the pair of them and so on, until the day is ending, the light is fading and the poor, exasperated commercial director is left trying desperately to coax an adequate performance out of her. Meanwhile, a representative of the drinks company takes exception to every detail of the ad, from the girls speaking, to the amount of juice she drinks in a single take, to the amount of water sprayed onto the bottle by the prop man in order to make it look refreshing (at one point he suggests adding cola to the bottle to make it look better on film). These two parts of the film combine to give us something which is equal parts a poignant (and often quietly funny) family drama about a grumpy modern teenager and her old fashioned parents and a detailed and fascinating insight into the world of making commercials (and by extension filmmaking in general), with every aspect of that world shown in great detail. Apparently Jude was himself a director of commercials and it is clear he knows that world inside and out.
There are so many interesting strands in this film that it is almost impossible to keep track of them all. It is an observational comedy about the gap between generations. It’s also a story about the clash between the new capitalist ideology which prizes personal possessions and consumption over the common good represented by the parents who remember the communist years more vividly and see a comfortable lifestyle as more appealing than a shiny car. You could read it as simply a story of country attitudes coming to the big city, or of the cruelty of the media industry using people and treating them badly (as the commercial makers constantly talk about Delia's physical imperfections whilst she is within earshot).
It is also a film which provoked an incredibly visceral response from me whilst I sat watching it. I felt like I wanted to shout at the girl for being so selfish and giving her folks such a hard time. I wanted her dad to be able to get her signature and sell the car before the day’s conclusion. At times I was gripped with suspense uncommon in this sort of quiet, low-key film as I genuinely worried about what decision the girl would make. But the biggest strength of all is that I wasn’t led to feel that way particularly (or at least I don’t feel as though I was, which is just as good). I can just as easily imagine people wanting the girl to keep her car and I can see people thinking badly of her parents for pushing her into selling it for them (and at one point threatening to disown her entirely and leave the city without her - which come to think of it does sound unreasonable).
Basically, ‘The Happiest Girl in the World’ is one of the most remarkable and surprising films of the last year and I will be very, very surprised if it isn’t in my top ten come January 2011. Go and see it if you can find it playing somewhere.
'The Happiest Girl in the World' is rated '15' by the BBFC and is out today (28th May 2010) in the UK in selected cinemas nationwide (or probably just in London). Jon and I talked about it in the last podcast too!