As He Lay Dying: James Quandt on the Death of Mr. Lazarescu

By Quandt, James | Artforum International, April 2006 | Go to article overview

As He Lay Dying: James Quandt on the Death of Mr. Lazarescu


Quandt, James, Artforum International


  We're just a bunch of miserable people, mister.
  --Mr. Lazarescu

THE CINEMA OF death has a new classic to stand with Maurice Pialat's La Gueule ouverte, Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, and Derek Jarman's Blue: Cristi Puiu's Death of Mr. Lazarescu. At first glance an unlikely candidate for the canon, this 153-minute study in protracted mortality is the first of a half-dozen "stories of love" planned by thirty-eight-year-old Romanian director Puiu, who modeled his cycle, with its singularly unfetching title Six Stories from the Bucharest Suburbs, on Eric Rohmer's Six Moral Tales. It may be fate-tempting folly to pronounce a director a master so early in his career, but if the next five films approach the achievement of Lazarescu, Puiu will surely be to cinema what his compatriots Ionesco, Cioran, Celibidache, and Brancusi are to their respective arts.

The control and austerity of Puiu's approach are evident from the outset. A burst of a vintage pop song by Margareta Paslaru that accompanies the credits suddenly dies away, replaced by the emergent sound of nighttime traffic. The abruptness of this Godardian gambit signals the tone of the ensuing film: an unsettling simultaneity of gallows humor, social realism, and observational empathy. The first half hour of the film plays like grim comedy. Mr. Lazarescu (Ion Fiscuteanu) lives alone in his grubby Bucharest flat with his three cats, having been abandoned by his daughter, Bianca, who moved to Toronto, and by his wife, who died almost a decade earlier. Going on sixty-three but looking a lot older with his grizzled mug, outsize glasses, forested eyebrows, crepey upper arms, and varicose veins swaddled in bloody bandages, the sodden alcoholic turns to his neighbors when his stash of pills does nothing to quell his worsening headache and stomach pain. Puiu is fond of catalogues, especially of drugs; his characters have an easy, mellifluous acquaintance with lists of narcotics and anodynes with names like Distonocalm, diclofenac, and metoclopramide. (Puiu's first film, Stuff and Dough [2001], about a drug run, turns such an inventory into a little spoken aria, and his remarkable short film Cigarettes and Coffee [2004] features a waiter's rapid recitation of the waters and beers on offer.) The director reports that Lazarescu was hypochondriacally inspired: He spent two years researching on the Internet the many diseases he imagined he had and their possible cures. Puiu may be the first filmmaker who is also a closet pharmacist.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

As Lazarescu's condition deteriorates, he becomes the hapless center of a neighborly maelstrom: The beefy, bossy married couple from across the way fuss and bustle, lecture the old man about his drinking, tell him he stinks like rat poison, and complain about the cat hair, old paper, and dirty dishes that are the detritus of his solitary existence. (The backbeat of television blare is not incidental; a seemingly random report about a massive traffic accident will take on increasing importance as the evening wears on.) Amid the slurry of puke, booze, and bloody sputum expelled by the ailing man, the wife blithely ferries a bowl of mous-saka, made "with pork, not beef," from across the hall as a calmative, while an upstairs tenant stops by to return a power drill. Just when the film seems poised at the threshold of absurdism, a paramedic finally arrives to tend to Lazarescu, and Puiu's steady accretion of social detail, his attention to the casual spite, petty class consciousness, and misconstrued generosity of Lazarescu's neighbors, begins to cohere into a comedie humaine: Balzac goes to Bucharest.

The paramedic, a middle-aged redhead called Mioara (Luminita Gheorghiu), quizzes the neighbors about the failing patient--she learns that his wife was an "arrogant Hungarian" and that Lazarescu drinks homemade Mastropol, a vanilla liquor--inspects his distended belly, and proffers a diagnosis of colon cancer. …

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