Locarno 2023 review: Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World (Radu Jude)

“A truly ambitious, beautifully complex, and deeply compelling masterpiece of purely playful postmodernism, which has never been more urgently required than it is at the present moment.”

Few contemporary directors have been able to capture the spirit of modern life quite like Radu Jude, who has built almost his entire career on telling stories that are broad and provocative reflections of everyday existence almost to the point where they seem designed to intentionally stir controversy and sow discord amongst audiences. Those audiences will most certainly be divided in their opinions of what they have just seen, which is usually an unforgettable experience, for better or worse. Despite having been active for nearly two decades, his breakthrough with general audiences came in the form of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which brought him not only a wealth of accolades but thrust him into a place of even more acclaim as one of the brightest and most brilliant minds in modern Romanian cinema. His most recent effort is certainly not a deviation from the solid body of work that he has demonstrated previously, with Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World being just as shocking, provocative and deranged as his earlier work, and just as brilliant in terms of both form and content. Jude continues to prove himself one of the most exciting filmmakers in contemporary European cinema, someone who is nestled comfortably within the arthouse, but not to the point where he is complacent and willing to follow the rules. If anything, his modus operandi is to infiltrate the artistic institutions that uphold the standards, and break them down from the inside, rebuilding them along his own delightfully perverted vision. This is gradually becoming the gold standard for Romanian cinema, which has always been profoundly interested in challenging conventions. As a representative of a new form of cinema, one that is even detached from the Romanian New Wave due to pushing the boundaries further than his most ambitious artistic forefathers would ever dare (he could potentially be one of the pioneers of a movement we can dub New Romanian Radicalism), Jude examines society from the inside, providing us with a shattering dark comedy of immense complexity and even more hilarity. In other words, par for the course for this brilliantly offbeat filmmaker.

If there is a simple term to describe the work of Jude, it would probably be “frenetic” – once you step into his world, you are immediately confronted with an endless barrage of images and sounds, a cacophonous assault on the senses that leaves you both exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure. It seems appropriate to return to that well-worn statement by Roland Barthes, who famously proclaimed that “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture” – this seems like the best way to introduce the director’s style and ambition. Do Not Expect Too Much… is subtitled “A Tale of Cinema and Economics in Two Parts”, in which one of those parts is the story of an overworked production assistant who spends her days driving through the crowded streets of Bucharest interviewing injured employees of a company. The other part consists of scenes taken from a 1981 Romanian film about a female taxi driver titled Angela Goes On, which are peppered throughout the film by Jude, who cites at the start that the two texts are in direct dialogue with one another – and while it may seem an arbitrary choice to include random scenes from a film that is only marginally related to this film (especially one bordering on three hours in length), we start to see that the correlations are far more rich and intriguing than just the tenuous connection of both being stories about women who spend most of their time driving through the Romanian capital. Jude has a very precise vision, which includes borrowing liberally from other texts, appropriately cited (he would be the last person to outright steal art, choosing to acknowledge his sources of inspiration) and reconfigured into his specific style. Often driven by a sense of unearthing the secrets that underpin society and unhinging the sensitivity that surrounds some of the more controversial issues that his films not only approach but utterly eviscerate, he uses the texts as the basis for many compelling and challenging ideas that occur at the heart of this film.

However, Jude is not a director who simply claims to be covering a specific topic or looking at a particular idea but rather puts it into practice – so while we can easily note how Do Not Expect Too Much… is built on a foundation of postmodern theory (which is essentially captured in the use of the Barthes quote), understanding the specific narrative techniques he uses to realize this idea is just as important. This is a profoundly playful film – there is not a moment where it feels like it is taking itself too seriously, or that it is not in on the joke. However, this doesn’t disqualify it from tackling some very somber subjects, with the approach being about finding the inherent humor that lies beneath even the dourest of situations. The film is executed with an enormously rapid pace – Jude weaves between different storylines with ferocious rigor, not allowing us even the briefest opportunity to catch our breath or make sense of what we are watching. As any self-respecting postmodernist artist (as well as anyone who considers themselves a scholar or fan of this alternative artistic movement) will acknowledge, hoping that every aspect of a work of art makes sense is not only an unfair expectation, it is a foolish delusion and something that is proven false from the first few minutes we spend in this film, where the liberal leap between different ideas can be disorienting for those who spend the entire 163-minute runtime trying to make sense of it all. Instead, our responsibility as viewers (or rather co-conspirators in this plot against logic, as Jude seems to perceive us) is to surrender to the madness and understand that the director is not trying to provide any kind of comfort or pander to known logic – and after realizing that we will never be able to penetrate the film and its many ambiguities, we can start to find the true meaning. It’s almost contradictory to state that the only way to understand what is being said throughout this film is to not attempt to apply any logic to it. But Jude has never been someone who adheres to rational artistic expression, so it seems only fitting that Thomas Pynchon’s attempts to ask “why should things be easy to understand?” are captured so vividly and vibrantly in Do Not Expect Too Much…, which is as provocative as it is daring.

Nestled right at the heart of the film is one of the most outrageously funny and heartfelt performances of the past decade, by Ilinca Manolache. She delivers an astonishing portrayal of the main character, a young woman who has been driven to the point of near-insanity by her banal job in which she is nothing more than a cog in the proverbial machinery that keeps the country going, her identity hidden beneath layers of proletariat simplicity, causing her to act out in small but rebellious ways. Manolache is spellbinding in the film and captures the spirit of the text with incredible ferocity. Angela appears to be such a simple character to play since most of the film entails driving and reacting to the bizarre assertions by the other characters – but as the film progresses, we start to see the nuances present in her performance, which is a series of oscillations between unquestionably dramatic and outrageously funny. The sequences in which she adopts the persona of “Bobita” (a vulgar, abusive middle-aged man who promotes his friendship with Andrew Tate and disdain for all his “haters”), essentially nothing more than a series of rants with a volatile Instagram filter applied to her face, are some of the funniest in recent years, especially since they push the boundaries of absurdity to their breaking point. It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have captured this character better than Manolache, who approaches Angela in a way that makes it seem like she is playing it completely straight. This only heightens the hilarity and adds more meaning to this eccentric film. Furthermore, for anyone who ever wanted to see Nina Hoss and Uwe Boll appear in the same film, Jude makes that bizarre fantasy a reality, since they are part of the ensemble cast that gives the film such a distinct and unconventional tone. They add to the surreal nature of the story while delivering strong performances (which is expected from Hoss and the other actors – but who knew Boll could turn in some decent work?), which is part of why the film works so well at capturing these peculiar intricacies of the human condition.

Although heavily steeped in humor, we can’t discount the fact that Jude’s perspective is not informed solely by the desire to entertain and that there is a serious core to his films, especially since they are all driven by a sense of socio-cultural commentary more than anything else. The specter of the Soviet Union lingers heavily over Do Not Expect Too Much…, which is as much about the present as it is the past, intermingling to create a disquieting and deeply unsettling contrast, especially on the subject of fact and fiction being woven together. Every choice made in this film panders to some deeper meaning, which all orbits around presenting an almost nightmarish version of society, albeit one that is still very funny, but where humor is a narrative tool more than it is a source of enjoyment for the viewer (although both qualities can co-exist; Jude has a tremendous sense of humor and he encourages us to be entertained, granted we can look deeper than the surface of the absurdist humor). This makes a profound difference in how the film communicates its central ideas. Borrowing from Angela Goes On is not just a choice based around the idea of contrasting two different stories in an effort to show how the role of women in Romanian society has changed over the course of nearly half a century, but also to show how the country as a whole has shifted – although as far as Jude is concerned, it isn’t particularly a positive change. His view seems to be that the situation has neither improved nor declined, but rather shifted to an entirely different plane of existence, where some of the issues may have disappeared but the same sense of paranoia remains. His thesis statement is simple – Romania is a country that may have made major technological, political and economic progress since the fall of the Soviet Union but remains under the influence of the past, which is far more crushing than anyone would care to admit. The political system may have changed, but the same sense of oppressive bureaucracy persists, as does the fact that the lives of ordinary people are ruled by the unseen face of the authorities who loom over their everyday existence. Jude’s approach is comparable to the dystopian depiction of society present in the work of George Orwell, yet another artist whose work heavily influenced this magnificent and provocative dark comedy.

It is difficult to find a specific entry point at which we can discuss and dissect the incredible work being done throughout this film, but that is as expected from a director whose entire raison d’etre has been to unsettle and disturb, albeit through the most pleasant and entertaining means available. His films aren’t always easy to digest, but they are bitingly funny and always enjoyable, especially if you have an appreciation for slightly more perverse jokes and scenarios, as well as an abundance of patience; because if there is something the director loves more than demented humor, it is the concept of tedium, with the repetition of certain themes and motifs being one of his biggest strengths and a major reason this film is such a peculiar exercise. If you can overcome the first few minutes, in which the tone is established and the main premise is introduced, then the rest of the film is a delight – provocative and funny, it captures the spirit of post-Soviet malaise like few recent films have been able to, using the concept of a young assistant navigating the perils of the business world as an allegory for the communist government and their tendency towards controlling the lives of ordinary citizens. It is a blisteringly funny film all about how society remains unchanging, despite the illusions of progress presented to us on a daily basis. Life doesn’t change, only the exterior does, and even when a country has departed from a communist government, the remnants remain and are far more deceptive than ever before. These are all themes woven into the fabric of Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World, which is one of the most daring and captivating comedies of the decade so far, a meaningful and disquieting portrait of the bureaucracy, as seen through the eyes of someone who is both a victim and perpetrator of these systems. That is the exact kind of contradiction that Jude relishes in inserting throughout this film, a truly ambitious, beautifully complex, and deeply compelling masterpiece of purely playful postmodernism, which has never been more urgently required than it is at the present moment.