Writer: Ioana Moraru
Director: Eugen Jebeleanu
This moody Romanian drama starts with a love affair, but then shifts gear and turns into a film that is almost a fly-on-the-wall documentary that examines a group of gendarmes called out to quell a protest against a lesbian film being shown in a local multiplex. Unhurried, long shots on the face of Cristi show a man caught in a homophobic society.
But the film begins in daylight with Cristi’s boyfriend arriving from Paris. Hadi suggests that they drive into the mountains and have a night away from the city. Cristi isn’t enamoured with the idea and says that he will be too busy with work. Hadi persists and then they bicker. Cristi’s mood doesn’t improve when his sister arrives, laden with food from their mother, eager to see this new ‘gay’ phase her brother is going through.
With Cristi brooding throughout the whole film, it’s difficult to see what Hadi sees in him, but we see more of Cristi’s public face than we do of his private life in the few hours he spends with his lover before his night shift begins. Hadi seems completely liberated, and rootless with his jet set lifestyle – we don’t know what his job is; actor? musician? And he is even able to square the fact the he is a Muslim with his love of men.
Yet Hadi remains a cypher as the film changes direction when Cristi gets to work, sitting in a van with his colleagues, sexism and homophobia hardly ever out of the banter that passes for conversation. When they get to the cinema, the protest feels very real, and it’s never entirely clear what is going on as both sides hurl insults at each other, and then at the police who keep everybody inside until they can produce their ID cards.
Because nothing is explained for us, the demonstration starts as a puzzle that needs to be solved but it’s based on actual protests in Bucharest that broke out when LGBTQ+ films, including the AIDS drama BPM, were released. As tension rises, Cristi loses his temper to conceal his own sexuality and the long takes, with the camera close to Cristi’s profile, show a man on the edge of crisis. The cinema protest and Cristi’s battle with his conscience merge ominously into one. Director Eugen Jebeleanu takes risks here, keeping the camera on Cristi’s face for uncomfortably lengthy stretches.
As Cristi, Conrad Mericoffer is suitably inscrutable, and deals well with the proximity of the camera, especially in the scene in the van where he appears to only half listen to the chat of his colleagues, his mind off somewhere else, perhaps thinking of Hadi at home. When the other gendarmes tell him stories, you can sense that Cristi is reading between every line, wondering if the stories are instead accusations or allegories. Mericoffer’s unfathomable face rarely wavers.
Almost as good is Alexandru Potocean as Cristi’s colleague Mircea, a font of calm and wisdom in the mayhem; his story of a lost dog either a gesture of support or a disguised warning. And it’s a shame we see so little of Radouan Leflahi who give Hadi so much light, that Cristi is forever in shadow without him. But this is Mericoffer’s film and Cristi feels startlingly genuine.
The slow pace of the film may not be to everyone’s taste, but it complements the sober reminder that not every queer European feels safe enough to come out. However, Jebeleanu’s camera never preaches which makes The Poppy Field a fascinating watch.
BFI Flare runs here from 17 March to 28 March 2021