Cheerfully Depressed: Radu Jude’s “Scarred Hearts”
In 1937, a jaundiced poet and academic named Emanuel (Lucian Teodor Rus), modeled after Max Blecher, is admitted to a sanatorium overlooking a stretch of the Black Sea. He’s sick, but he only suspects how ravaged his body has become. Doctors put him in a chest cast, drain pus from his body, his bones are ready to give out, and pain greets a goodly sum of his actions. Blecher’s words, written white on black screens, break up the images of medical torment and social revelry, as he unknowingly winds down his life. The headlong march into sickness might have been stultifying (and indeed the movie often echoes Cristi Puiu’s unsparing Romanian New Wave landmark 2005 The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, on which director Radu Jude served as assistant director), but the vibrancy of Scarred Hearts (2016) is not stymied by its conclusions.
The sepia-toned clinic and its inhabitants are captured with the candidness of a Vermeer study, the doctors buzzing like flies around the immobile patients in gaslit or sun-drenched dormitories and surgeries. The film looks poised to turn nightmarish, but a good-natured tone emerges after Emanuel is put in a body cast and basically holds until the final sequence. By then it’s too late to give in. The bulk of the movie is split between his half-hearted courtships of two women at the clinic, Isa (Ilinca Harnut) and Solange (Ivana Mladenovic). Isa has a brace strapped to her chin and Solange has a leg brace like Rosanna Arquette in David Cronenberg’s 1996 Crash (the film’s asylum setting and myriad mortifications frequently and niftily bring the Canadian auteur to mind without ever directly quoting him). His flirtations and improbable carnal visitations are pleasant to a fault. They frequently conclude with someone crying or screaming in pain but then comes the wave and the invitation for another go-round. Human contact is too important to shut out completely, no matter how embarrassing or painful the last encounter. The peculiar optimism of Jude’s cinema is thoroughly his, and it seems to stir his compositions. His images are engrossing, but the knowledge that no one knows how to give up makes them seem three-dimensional, as if we could stroll through them. Despair is performative and never lasts long. Even the amputees are cheerful in this movie.
Scarred Hearts unfolds in dozens of unmoving tableaux shots of the maddening, claustrophobic corridors of the hospital and the gorgeous landscape in which it rests. Jude orchestrates burbling scenes of chaotic life, ironically mobile and highly spirited, next to the incapacitated hero. Rus’ Blecher stand-in comes to seem like a vampire pinioned to a coffin as the months pass, and he can’t leave his bed or break free from his cast. Jude edits around his immobility, mining laughter from his sudden and improbable shifts from his back to his stomach, from one bed to the next. Even if the camera cannot move, the movie and the frail, lecherous sprite at its center will always find a way. The film could be said to be about a man improbably walking through life even though fate has taken his legs, as Jude moves him around the coastal town like the boat in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). The mind demands we move, as does cinema. Even in the 1.37:1 Academy ratio, the frame overflows with action, with life. Mirrors hide in every corner of the building, teasing potential motion from the stillness. Jude has given himself this challenge: transcend paralysis. Tough given the bleakness of Blecher’s words (“the perfect futility of this splendid day”) penetrating his rich images of beds lined up by the sea, or of our hero moved through a town with flowers as if attending his own funeral, but Jude nevertheless succeeds. As in his black-and-white Wallachia Western Aferim! (2015) the spectacular tames a hopeless tone and a pitiless time in history. One of the lovelier passages finds Emanuel listening to the radio as the results of the last free Romanian election for a half-century are read. The country itself is about to be bound, as he is, to sickness and stasis but the world, no matter how grotesque it is, will provide salvation from Romania’s own miserable circularity if you position yourself to capture the fitfully poetic accidents that spring forth. Scarred Hearts is cinema as iron lung, life-giving and debilitating, horror and promise, no way out but in.
Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts opens in New York City at Anthology Film Archives on July 27.