Corneliu Porumboiu’s wry, cryptically titled When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is both oblique and about obliqueness, an indirect but nonetheless insightful observation of the nagging indecisiveness that plagues its Dante-esque antihero, Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache), a chain-smoking, coffee-chugging director who can’t seem to reconcile his life and ideas with the film he’s making. He’s stuck within a purgatorial production process that’s emotionally complicated by an affair he’s having with an actress, Alina (Diana Avramut), who plays a supporting character in his film. Downtrodden by the fact that there’s only two weeks left to shoot, Paul believes he’s also developing gastritis or an ulcer—or perhaps some sort of stress-triggered psychosomatic illness. His constant equivocation serves as a frizzy line through the film’s static, long-take-heavy compositions.
Fitted in a black turtleneck sweater and expensive jeans, Paul looks and talks like a European director: His candor flip-flops between authoritative and neurotic attitudes, yet he’s constantly and unhealthily hunched over in a way that would make any doctor diagnose him with scoliosis. He espouses cinematic principles, such as striving for naturalism and behavioral truth, that one familiar with Porumboiu’s filmography would expect him to work and live by as well. In the film’s opening scene, Paul definitively explains to Alina how the concept of “a movie” will be radically different in 50 years thanks to digital film, which allows you to shoot for a long period of time without cutting “so you can depict reality more faithfully.” In this light, Porumboiu’s style of filming—from his use of 35mm to long takes—becomes nothing if not self-reflexive.
Porumboiu refreshingly never allows Paul’s crestfallen demeanor to demote into narcissistic, sad-sack listlessness, shaping a plausible depiction of a director trying to navigate his own feelings about an actress while dealing with unsatisfying dailies and delays in production: Alina’s minor role in his film has somehow turned into a more central one, and the lead actor has taken to getting blitzed and destroying his hotel room. Although When Evening Falls is superficially focused on the behind-the-scenes process and logistics of making a movie, it functions best as a resigned character study told mostly through fluctuating power dynamics and roundabout conversations about life and cinema.
A majority of the film is structured via tête-à-tête conversations between Paul and Alina, which range from the exhaustive blocking of a very simple scene—which hilariously teeters on the bizarrely banal point of whether people actually use lint brushes to dust off their clothing—to the varying significance and sophistication of Eastern and Western cultural cuisine. Most of all, though, the film speaks most clearly about these characters’ behaviors and hang-ups through Paul and Alina’s acutely observed body language. When another Romanian director, Laur (Alexandru Papadopol), approaches them at a restaurant, you can see Paul recoil with hints of jealousy as Laur praises Alina’s resemblance to Monica Vitti (even though, amusingly enough, Alina is unsure of how to take the compliment since she’s unfamiliar with Michelangeo Antonioni and his famously detached muse).
Porumboiu has always exhibited an interest, humor, and self-assurance in formalism, as witnessed in the deadpan rigorousness of both 12:08: East of Bucharest and and Police, Adjective, but his philosophical textures have never been so inward-seeking—fully investigating the minutia of a director’s life, as well as developing fully-formed characters. At once a microcosmic expression of frustration and another of auto-critique, When Evening Falls devilishly recalls and riffs on seemingly shapeless conversations between its very small ensemble of characters without succumbing to soporific navel-gazing. The opening lines of dialogue refer to a nude scene Paul plans to shoot with Alina, with whom he’s growing fonder and fonder, that he ultimately decides against. However, after a brief lovemaking session behind a slightly ajar door (Porumboui can’t resist his impulses for indirection), we see Alina lying topless on a bed while Paul takes a shower. She receives a phone call from her boyfriend and walks into the living room as Paul exits the shower and eavesdrops; it’s the direct inversion of a scene from Paul’s film they had just staged in the same setting, wherein Alina exits the bathroom and ends up listening to a secret conversation through a closed door.
In a lesser director’s hands, this meta-commentary would reduce the film to a mere puckish exercise of connect the dots, but When Evening Falls is also an enjoyably unforced and absurd slice of life reminiscent of Hong Sang-soo’s soju-soaked conversational cinema. “When you’re filming, you put what interests you in the center, not at the margin,” a doctor points out as Paul and Magda (Mihaela Sirbu), the fed-up producer, watch Paul’s filmed endoscopy—itself perhaps fabricated by Paul—that Magda insisted Paul have performed on him. Via off-center blocking, however, Porumboiu finds a way to illuminate his whole space and tap into shrewd rhythms, undermining the conventional idea of staging commented on by the doctor. This aura of caginess is present throughout When Evening Falls, but Porumboiu implicitly proves his point: As one character comments in relation to the use of forks versus chopsticks, “Europeans satisfy the means more than the content.” And, in prioritizing form over content, Popumboiu shows that the rich underlying meanings can provide an even more rewarding experience for an invested audience on a similar wavelength.