When winning becomes a losing battle, Radu Jude’s The Happiest Girl In The World casts a sly glance over Romania’s troublingly capitalist embrace.
Killing Me Softly by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
Riding high on the Romanian new wave, Radu Jude’s The Happiest Girl In The World is not like his countrymen’s recent arthouse hits. While the social commentaries of Cristian Mungiu’s grisly 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days or the post-communist ironies of Cristi Puiu’s madcap The Death Of Mr Lazarescu are clear, by comparison The Happiest Girl In The World seems little more than a kitchen sink family comedy. But what it lacks in gravitas or irony, it makes up for in wit and tenderness, as a delicate web of frustrated desires slowly emerges at a film shoot in Bucharest. Subtly biting, Radu Jude’s film satirises the film crew guns for hire as much as Delia’s upwardly mobile aspirations and her parents’ conservatism. It’s tough love all round.
Delia Fratila comes from Geoagiu Bai, a spa town in central Romania, a poor girl from a poor family. So when she wins a brand-spanking-new Logan Break in a competition, she should be the happiest girl in the world. Except of course, she’s not. She’s sulky and nauseous as the family travels to Bucharest to collect the car and film an advert testimonial, yearning for freedom from her parents and small-town life, and fearful for her greenshoot dreams of luxury and independence. The family’s pilgrimage to Micul Paris could have ended up like a Romanian Mr Deeds Goes To Town, slyly satirising the family’s attempts to pass the Bucharesti muster – changing into their best clothes in a suburban service-station toilet only to be bluntly restyled by the more urbanite make-up department. But Jude keeps his humour broad and as dry as tinder, quietly ridiculing the film crew’s race against the fading light and their begrudging obedience to interfering corporate producers as much as the family’s domestic bickering.
Scrutinised from head to toe by the soft drink producers, Delia, it is decided is both authentic and eyepleasing enough to advertise Bibo Multifruit in an inane commercial which leaps from blue-screen orange grove to urban aspirational modernism. As the gloss-hunting producers and film crew belligerently try and turn this country cousin into chic cosmopolitan, Delia is harangued and humiliated, repeating advertising slogans ad nauseam, while getting queasy on gallons of cola-infused fruit juice and being publicly shorn of her downy moustache. Suffering these brusque indignities or the long benched hours with a patient smile and welled-up tears, Delia has to sing, smile and quaff for her supper.
Even her family don’t treat her much better. As her parents’ plan to sell the car and invest the money in converting her unwitting grandmother’s house into a guesthouse for weekend-breaking Bucharesters becomes apparent, Delia’s yearning to impress her classmates for once, to go on holiday or to have a car that doesn’t make her sick hits the cold, harsh light of payday. The parents see her winnings as just recompense for the suffering and sacrifices they’ve endured to make sure she has always had everything she’s ever wanted. Their lingering share-the-wealth communism rubs against Delia’s selfish and unprofitable beau monde aspirations, and when Delia refuses to sign the sale agreement, her father disowns this thankless child. It’s part of Jude’s bittersweet charm that winning a car puts a spanner in their family relations – it’s enough to make lives better, but not to completely transform them. As such it’s an apt metaphor for post-communist Eurozone Romania, forced to choose between high-street temptations and main-street investments. A generational divide too; Delia’s idealistic que sera sera optimism in conflict with her parents’ costed, forward-looking conservatism.
But it’s on this day of humiliation and heartache that the happiest girl in the world becomes a woman. It’s her turn (literally) in the driving seat, forced to make a decision that will shape the rest of her and her family’s life. It’s a painful choice between her own egotistical desires and helping out her parents, and in the end she gives way, unable to sacrifice them for a Logan Break. (Though not before haggling out the details.) Whether the decision was the right one is left achingly open, no feelgood ending here to dispel the agitation. Instead she waits unhappily by the old jalopy, nostalgic for her lost chance in the limelight, her holiday on the coast. She doesn’t know it, but all the same, she’s carved out a kind of autonomy, beyond her parents’ wishes and the whims of fortune.
Like Corneliu Porumboiu’s upcoming Un Certain Regard winner Police, Adjective, The Happiest Girl In The World marks a new tide in the Romanian new wave. Still exorcising communist ghosts with dry humour and sardonic watchfulness, Radu Jude’s film is shyly astute in its depiction of Romania’s shifting morality. Whether it’s money, family or career, the selfish gene is ruthlessly exposed, leaving pleasure, love and fulfilment firmly on the bench. For now.
The Happiest Girl In The World is released in the UK on 28th May 2010