Darkly ruminative, Cristi Puiu’s Aurora is a slow-burning murder mystery like you’ve never seen before.
The Darkest Hour by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In his long awaited follow-up to The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu’s second instalment of his Six Stories From The Outskirts Of Bucharest series, Aurora has all the circuitous frustration and bitter humour of its 2005 Cannes prize–winning predecessor. And while The Death Of Mr Lazarescu was structured around a series of thwarted attempts to save a dying man’s life, Aurora looks at the everyday obstacles and hindrances to murder. Puiu’s hexalogy seems to follow a grand masterplan like that of Kieslowski’s Dekalog, but at almost three hours this is no Short Film About Killing. Instead, it’s a long, drawn-out study of a man in his universe, a story slowly coaxed out from between the gaps, inferred from the what, where and when and we’re never quite privy to the reasons why.
Directing himself in the lead role, Cristi Puiu isn’t like any other actor-director. He’s an anti-hero, both a truculent weasel and a calculating killer. And there’s no attempt to afford the viewer sympathy or understanding. Viorel simply is. We simply watch. Dispassionately for the most part, as he goes about his cryptic business, crossing train tracks to spy on one family, strangely disengaged from another, and gradually putting together a gun. His odyssey sees him crisscross Bucharest at dawn, at dusk and by night – from the flat where he wakes up beside his girlfriend and her daughter, or the family apartment he’s renovating with glacial slowness, to his ex-wife’s family home across the tracks and his mother’s apartment where he still maintains his childhood room. And as Viorel visits the turbine factory he used to work at to pick-up a reconditioned rifle, or buys a gun holster from a firearms dealer, we’re cast adrift into a labyrinth of clues and evermore questions.
Viorel, taciturn and surly, is a complex man. He refuses to answer the phone, but he’s intelligent and articulate, often intimidatingly so. And while his interactions with loved ones fall somewhere between gentleness and muted tolerance, his behaviour towards strangers is a little more austere; when Viorel reclaims a debt from a former colleague he tears strips off him for using the wrong tone with him, while the removal man rebukes Viorel for calling him difficult and manipulative. He’s heading towards the sociopathic end of the misanthropic scale, but there’s a kinder side to the man too, letting off the family who flood his bathroom with a magnanimous and vaguely disinterested “I’m decorating anyway.” And, with all the materialistic devotion of a child, he cares for his things, like the toy cars he transports to his mother’s home, arranged in adoring lines.
There are brutal moments of sudden violence, brusque intrusions into the mundaneness of the everyday, and all the more real and shocking for it. The murder of the public notary in the hotel car park is made all the worse for its matter-of-factness and nervous energy, while the shooting of his ex-wife’s parents is hidden off-camera, a bump and a shriek upstairs unseen by an obstinately unmoving camera. After finishing off his mother-in-law, he sits in front of the TV muting on and off a Romanian folk singer with angry violence. And it’s this savage desire for control that lends a misogynistic twist to Viorel’s crimes. Divorced by his wife and minimised by his new love, he browbeats the saleswomen in a high-end boutique, fearful of women’s secrets and lies. He asserts control over his daughter, picking her up from school with an admonishing “I call, you come” while terrorising a nosy classmate at the same time. His final surrender to the police is both an act of submission, willingly losing the unbearable burden of control, and at the same time fraught with petty skirmishes; asking permission to move seats to avoid a draught while raising a hullaballoo over a rough body search.
Despite the acts of violence, Viorel lingers for the most part in doorways and on landings, standing in the dark cold as families go about their warmly-lit business. It’s this furtive hiding at the edges which explains Aurora‘s enigmatic title best; the warm glow of the hearth beyond which keeps Viorel deep in the shadows and out in the cold. Like the rising light of dawn, the film’s diaphanous story only appears gradually through the hazy twilight, and its amputated ending, cutting away before Viorel explains his motives, allows it to recede again into the harsh, cold light of day. A passive-agressive battle of the sexes (we barely even glimpse the ex-wife) and a tragic, impossible fight for control, Aurora is also a film of rebirth, second lives and second families, engendered through severing acts of violence. We never witness the hope of this new dawn, restricted instead to the inscrutable present. It’s cold and it’s dark, but still, Cristi Puiu’s Aurora is a very chilling journey to the end of the night.
Aurora is released on 9th November 2012 in the UK