The Delinquency of the Script: Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009)
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Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective flips the “script of delinquency” that Anne Gillain has famously identified in New Wave classic, The 400 Blows. In Police, Adjective, acting out denotes failed civic collectivity rather than personal trauma, and signals the importance of appropriating both social scripts and social space.
New Wave films across the globe and over the decades all emphasize youthfulness, rebellion, intimacy, and declarativity, both inside and outside of the film diegesis. Another trait that they have in common is far less emphasized, but equally important: New Wave films in cinema all invest deeply in the tension between the filmic and the social. This tension was present in the term nouvelle vague since its inception in a sociological context in nineteen-sixties France. However differently constellated by cultural geographies it becomes, this tension carries over when the term “New Wave” is used in international and transnational cinematic discourse.
The innovations in film form, narrative, and spectatorship characterstic of New Wave cinemas are the crux of Dudley Andrew's Bazinian-influenced definition of cinema. Like adolescents, he writes, New Wave cinemas have a great appetite for discovery, encounter, confrontation and revelation based on a “fundamental rapport with reality” that is nevertheless analogous rather than perfectly representative. They continually reinvigorate debates on what constitutes or dissipates the social, and how the representation of the social on film might contribute to those processes. Wherever and whenever they take place, New Waves are always coming of age.
In the Romanian New Wave of the 2000s, the tension between the social and its representation is meant to be destabilizing. For Doru Pop, applying the term “New Wave” to Cristi Puiu, Christian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and a handful of other male filmmakers in the early 2000s foregrounds their “common social experience” as Romanians whose lives have bridged the country’s Communist and post-Communist era. These men embrace a post-socialist realism in their film form, and their film narratives often exhibit disillusionment with civic responsibility and authentic interpersonal connection. Their “generational coagulation” may inflect this tension between the filmic and the social at the heart of Romanian New Wave narratives, but its complexity merits an analysis that goes beyond generation-based and auteurist-based explanation. This essay focuses instead on the psychosocial infrastructure that shapes and is shaped by the cycles of New Waves throughout national cinemas and film historical eras.
Corneliu Porumboiu’s 2009 film, Police, Adjective, is a Romanian New Wave film that was inspired by a seminal French New Wave precursor: Pickpocket (1959), by Robert Bresson. Both films feature sparse dialogue and deliberate, emotionally detached, observational cinematography. As in Pickpocket, the spatial paradigm of Police, Adjective contrasts dim, claustrophobic interiors with outdoor urban limbo. Both narratives are process-based: the lonely protagonist of each film drifts back and forth between these spaces and undergoes a moral rite of passage that is only fully comprehended in the film’s final minutes. However, Police, Adjective inverts Pickpocket’s denouement, emphasizing moral capitulation instead of moral renewal. This change drastically impacts its depiction of individual and collective social agency. The emphasis on social space, transgression and language in Police, Adjective’s unhappily ever after does not manifest the potential for redemption that follows lawlessness, but rather the difficulties of following any kind of law to the letter. It calls to mind a richer formal and theoretical foil that was equally definitional for the French New Wave and many New Waves thereafter: François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
In an influential essay from 1990, Anne Gillain posits that the mishaps of Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical protagonist, Antoine Doinel, follow a “script of delinquency” in The 400 Blows. She argues that Doinel’s rebellion is an effort to negotiate what pediatric psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called “transitional space.” Doinel’s quest to develop a social sense of agency outside of a hostile familial environment and in spite of institutional callousness takes place in the city streets of Paris as much as in the symbolic arena of appropriated language. Police, Adjective follows the “script of delinquency” into adulthood, demonstrating the delinquency of the social script that results when an urban environment is hostile to the social and when a symbolic arena upholds unjust legislation.
Emphasizing the corruption of transitional space between the individual and the social, the symbolic and the actual, Porumboiu asks us to contemplate a kind of delinquency that denotes failed civic collectivity rather than personal trauma, one whose scripting is complex and systemic and not the work of rebels without a cause. As both plan of action and language gone bad, Porumboiu’s delinquent social script pointedly critiques contemporary Romanian society and its post-Communist maturation, but it also gestures to collectivities well beyond the national or regional level. Drawing on the theory of Henri Lefebvre and Pierre Bourdieu, this essay stresses the continued relevance of the appropriation of social space and social scripts. Appropriation is fundamental to a sense of self as well as a sense of the civic that challenges the notion of delinquency, in films and in the world outside of them.
Delinquent Space: The Transitional
Police, Adjective chronicles the plight of Cristi, a young police lieutenant caught between his reluctance to arrest a teenager for smoking hash and his professional call of duty. The lieutenant’s quandary is embedded within a tediously realistic depiction of daily procedure. We watch Cristi tail the suspect, Victor, and then the informant, Alex, in the provincial town of Vaslui, Romania. He stakes them out, writes up reports of his pursuits, and pesters a number of self-interested colleagues in the local bureaucracy for favors in a last-ditch effort to build evidence for a more compelling case against the brother of Doina, the girl both boys hang out with. When Cristi refuses to lead the sting operation against Victor, he is subjected to a long excursus on the duties of law enforcement and the meaning behind its operations, complete with dictation and sentences chalked on a blackboard.
The scene ends without Cristi yielding, but then a strange interlude takes place in which Cristi is briefly shown playing footballtennis with friends. He appears to bend the rules of the game. Viewers are instantly reminded of a scene from the film’s beginning that divulges Cristi’s own petty authoritarianism. In it, Cristi rebuffs a colleague who asks to play sports with him, invoking the “law” that no-talent soccer players are inevitably no-talent footballtennis players. The film transitions back to the blackboard in the commissioner’s office: now Cristi stands facing it, dictating and diagramming the sting against Victor that he will, after all, direct. The film ends without the audience ever hearing Cristi explain his moral reversal or catching a glimpse of his face.
Police, Adjective takes place in stretches of real time that are often filmed in deep focus, long shots, and long takes. Working closely with cinematographer Marius Panduru to achieve the sparing mise-en-scene, Porumboiu shifts expertly between its dreary and humorous atmospheric registers. This minimalist post-cinéma-vérité realism, Cristi’s antihero status, and the deliberate, affective use of dead time are part of a “common cinematic grammar” of Romanian New Wave filmmakers. Dudley Andrew has lauded the subjective filter created by this cinematic grammar for the enormous empathetic potential it holds, using the film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) by Porumboiu’s compatriot Cristian Mungiu as an example. Such a filter purposely leaves us as spectators “unsure about the workings of this world, but...very sure about how that world feels,” Andrew explains, “and we can discuss the consequences of just that feeling.”
In a conventional police procedural, narrative suspense grows as the investigation progresses: the car chases become more dangerous, the dragnet tightens, and the evidence against the suspect mounts. There is little suspense of this sort in Police, Adjective. Instead, the tension is created formally, as an alternating series of physical passages and blockages. Cristi’s movement through the town of Vaslui constitutes the passages. The path he travels from a school yard to an old army base where the kids smoke also takes him down numerous airless and dim hallways in government administration buildings, as well as home to his own apartment, where the light is warmer but the interior just as confining.
As soon as his movement ceases, it seems, so does the progress of his case. He is blocked literally and metaphorically as he sits at desks of colleagues and superiors who inconvenience him or refuse his requests. Hunched over at his own desk, he writes up reports of his fruitless detective work, and then reads over his dead ends. Conversation stalls as he sits at a restaurant table with Alex or at his own dinner table with his wife, brooding over the inanity of the case. Surely the most overdetermined of these blockages linked to physical surfaces is the massive brick wall enclosing the apartment building in which Alex lives. Cristi stands facing it in the bleak autumn dusk for much of the film, each time without a breakthrough in the case.
The narrative structure of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is similarly predicated on a “powerful rhythm of tension and release” that is spatially reinforced. Young Antoine Doinel is misunderstood by his parents and by his schoolmaster. He repeatedly struggles free of their constraints and cruelty by escaping into the streets of Paris. Anne Gillain writes that, like the scene in which his schoolmates break away from the orderly line they have formed behind their gym teacher, gleefully disappearing into apartment buildings and around corners to ditch class, Doinel’s passage through the city “captures the boundless energy of childhood and becomes an allegory of its dispersion within the currents of life.” Although the film warmly affirms the “redeeming nature” of Doinel’s play outdoors, its ending seems to foreclose on that redemption. Doinel runs away from the oppressive juvenile detention center in which his parents and the court system have confined him. This time, however, he strands himself on a beach in Normandy, far from the refuge of Paris’s labyrinth. Truffaut concludes the film with a much-theorized and jarringly self-reflexive shot made using an optical printer. As the young boy’s steps seem to grow uncertain, he turns to directly address the camera. His gaze is swiftly frozen in close-up and magnified. In this way, Truffaut strands his character in turn.
Gillain frames the depiction of Paris in The 400 Blows as a compensatory “transitional space” for Doinel, a space that offers him the experiential fulfillment he is lacking. In healthy development, writes D.W. Winnicott, a baby’s caregiver ushers the baby into this transitional space shortly before toddlerhood. There, the baby is introduced to “the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated.” Transitional space is both embodied and psychological. A child enters transitional space before it gains an understanding of symbolism, but after an initial understanding of difference and similarity as concepts. The navigation of this liminal and paradoxical space between the poles of subjectivity and objectivity is an essential part of socialization; it is the basis of participation in cultural experiences later in life.
When a caregiver does not help their child explore transitional space in what Winnicott would designate a “good-enough” manner, the child may struggle to adapt to its environment well into adulthood. Gillain argues that this is the case with Doinel, whose home environment is dysfunctional and whose experiences in the classroom and in a juvenile detention center are carceral. In the pattern he lays out for minors who manifest antisocial tendencies, Winnicott stresses that these individuals unconsciously accept that their difficulties in establishing and regulating identity stem from environmental deprivation. They, like Doinel, search for an alternative transitional space by acting out in destructive or self-destructive ways. This acting out is a symbolic demand for the protected, loving, and stable environment in which to experiment that they were denied as an infant.
Winnicott may have believed that childhood and adolescent delinquency could be resolved through caring institutional intervention, but viewers of the The 400 Blows are left with the profound doubt that the world around Doinel can compassionately facilitate his “adaption to social reality” after the authority figures in his life have failed to do so The freeze frame close-up in the film’s last shot stills the narrative’s “dual temporal regime” of confinement and escape. It emblematizes the “dismal truth” that the progression and repetition featured in Doinel’s story had heretofore actively delayed: life beyond adolescence is frequently barren of ludic moments of exploration, and the identity formation that these moments afford may never be satisfactorily completed.
Delinquent Space: The Social
In Police, Adjective, the delinquent individual amidst the film’s dual temporal regime is much harder to discern, and this is not merely due to a lack of stillness. Victor is accused of juvenile delinquency, but, as Cristi tells the prosecutor, nothing in his background or behavior indicates that his drug use is the beginning of wider antisocial rebellion. His parents work for the same dairy, and they are the kind of couple who leave work hand-in-hand at the end of the day. Surveillance suggests that he is guilty of no more than sharing his joints with friends. Cristi’s investigation soon focuses on Alex as the true delinquent instead: he suspects Alex of snitching on Victor for drug possession in order to have Doina’s affections for himself.
Later still, Doina is glimpsed leaving Alex’s house without Victor. She could be two-timing the boys, a moral transgression that would make her the film narrative’s third possible delinquent. Many possibilities are raised, but none confirmed. Our lack of insight into the psychodynamics of these protagonists is the clearest indicator that, unlike The 400 Blows, Porumboiu’s film does not portray a script of delinquency but rather the scripting of delinquency. In other words, the emphasis is not on transitional experience in the urban fabric and its punishment, but rather on the agents and processes that have the power—rightly or wrongly—to redefine any experience in urban social space as antisocial.
What is urban social space, and why is it so central to these diverging portraits of delinquency? The concept of social space dates back to the 1930s, when French geographers like Pierre Gourou and Marcel Griaule proposed that analyzing the very topographies of human settlement may divulge essential characteristics of that settlement’s sociality. As Western urban agglomerations like Paris, London, and New York City grew in relation to national populations in the decades after World War Two, sociologists, geographers, architects, and city planners continued to promote the idea that innovative, modernist formal schemas could be incorporated into the built environment in ways that would radically benefit city life. By the late nineteen-fifties, however, a number of influential sociologists were calling this thinking into question.
Henri Lefebvre was prominent among theorists suggesting that social space in a city is engineered not by experts but instead by the complex interactions between an economic system, everyday rituals, and cultural imaginaries. “The urban,” he wrote,
cannot be defined either as attached to a material morphology (on the ground, in the practico-material), or as being able to detach itself from it. It is not an intemporal essence, nor a system among other systems or above other systems. It is a mental and social form, that of simultaneity, of gathering, of convergence, of encounter (or rather, encounters). It is a difference, or rather, an ensemble of differences.
If Antoine Doinel is able to tentatively develop a belated sense of self by using Paris’s “ensemble of differences” as the site of his trial-and-error experimentation, this is only thanks to the vitality of its social space, prized by Truffaut and immortalized on film.
Lefebvre’s arguments had an enormous impact on the subsequent generation of sociologists, some who nevertheless shifted their critical focus decisively away from the social production of space and toward the symbolic spatial architecture of the social. In 1985, Pierre Bourdieu theorized social space as “a space of relationships as real as a geographical space,”  but independent of civic life in particular. For Bourdieu, the essential quality of social space is the adaptability of its fixed hierarchy to any situation, not its connection to the uses of the built environment. Social space is “a field of forces,” he explained, “a set of objective power relations that impose themselves on all who enter the field and that are irreducible to the intentions of the individual agents or even to the direct interactions among the agents.” 
The social space perçu in Porumboiu’s Vaslui has none of the ecstatic shimmer of Doinel’s sweeps through picturesque Montmartre. Because Cristi’s policing motivates almost every shot that composes it, Vaslui comes across as both deserted and charged with criminal potential at the same time. Richard Porton likens the long hours Cristi spends tailing the three teenagers to “droll parodies” of surveillance tapes, but this metaphor seems flawed. Cristi’s is never the unwavering disciplinary gaze that other scholarship attributes to surveillance; his movement through the city is embodied, limited, reluctant, and even erratic. He is a classic beat detective, a voyeur on a mission who operates at human scale and tempo, as does Porumboiu’s camera.
Geographer Doreen Massey rightly observes that the identities individuals form in relation to urban places are the result of compelled “negotiation of intersecting trajectories.”  Whether it takes the form of plainclothes policemen or satellite imagery, social regulation pervades every city, both for better and for worse, she reasons.  The policing of social space in Porumboiu’s film is intended to be especially and exaggeratedly discomforting for its protagonist and its viewing audience alike. This is due to the fact that Cristi is suffering from a kind of double vision: he has been outside of Romania and seen the impact that the European drug liberalization has had in a city like Prague in the Czech Republic. With his knowledge of Romanian criminal law and his knowledge of decriminalizing approaches to drug use, he sees the activities of the three teenagers as both play and delinquency at the same time.
In this sense, the blockages in the film narrative and the physical surfaces to which they are linked in the mise-en-scene are also metaphors for the ethical impasse Cristi has reached. He wants to contribute to the kind of social space that Lefebvre champions—one that nurtures transitional experience and cultural experience equally. Instead, he is obliged to help impose the unbalanced social space that Bourdieu outlines, a human extension of Romania’s penal code still rigid with past totalitarian influence. This is the delinquency of the social script to which the film testifies.
Ultimately, Cristi’s attempt to launch a third criminal investigation against Doina’s brother only results in he himself being scripted as a delinquent. Commissioner Anghelache treats Cristi’s defiance of his orders as petulant childishness, as if Cristi were one of the pranksters in Doinel’s classroom. Wielding his pen like a schoolmaster’s pointer, Anghelache sternly corrects Cristi and his partner Nelu for the slang they use in describing their cases. He nitpicks a spelling error in Cristi’s case report, and commands Cristi to look up the words “conscience,” “law,” “moral,” and “police” in the dictionary in an effort to convince him of his error in judgment. Porumboiu draws an ironic spatial parallel between Cristi and Victor in the film’s first shots by cross-cutting the paths that they take to school and to the office and emphasizing their identical slouching gaits, cigarettes in hand. In this scene, however, as Cristi’s frustration grows and Victor’s fate hangs in the balance, narrative space is confined to the immediate perimeter of the commissioner’s desk. The inherent irony becomes linguistic, and, in the process, far bitterer.
Delinquent Language: Appropriation and Codification
“Just communicate with each other and watch out for signals,” counsels Anghelache as Cristi capitulates to his orders. These words, the last of the film, are Trojan horses. They are empty of meaning but replete with the potential for definitional exploitation. Anghelache demonstrates this exploitation earlier in the film with his erroneous interjection that “police” comes from polis, and means “those who run the city.’” Had Cristi been capable of summoning the Greek word politeia, he might have retorted that in an ideal democracy, citizens run both the city and its police force.
Politeia alludes to the individual and communal right to the city that the citizenry exercises, a concept fundamental to the “right to the city” that Lefebvre theorized in 1967, in a text of the same name. In it, he suggests that an urban environment should be “the perpetual oeuvre of the inhabitants.” To exercise one’s right to the city means appropriating its tempos, places and physiologies and reforming them in a manner that is “not defined by the framework and the possibilities of prevailing society.” Lefebvre continues that these acts of appropriation require conceptualizing the city in part as a collectively-spoken language, writing oneself and others as a way of “righting” oneself and others in exterior realities.
The juxtaposition of The 400 Blows and Police, Adjective yields insight into the difficulty of expressing the social self in language as well as in space. Gillain characterizes Doinel’s hardships with it in extreme terms: “In the decline and fall of Antoine throughout the film,” she asserts, “writing evidently plays the role of the original sin. Whenever writing is involved, disaster will strike.” Furthermore, she casts Madame Doinel as the key figure motivating the script of delinquency that Doinel is simultaneously acting and writing out, “the principal generator of [his] textual energies” and a source of his passionate desire and resentment.
Gillain’s interpretation transforms the notion of “sins of the father” into a version of maternal sin, quite in keeping with many psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic theorists before her. At first, the evidence for this seems compelling. After he ditches school with best friend René, Doinel tries awkwardly to copy René’s absence excuse in his mother’s handwriting with a pen he has stolen, both a naughty gesture and one of longing homage. The next day, a preposterous speech act in the schoolyard kills off his mother symbolically, betraying his deep anxieties about their attachment. That night, Doinel refuses to return home and sleeps over at René’s uncle’s printing plant, surrounded by the mechanic whir of text. Later, when his mother guiltily takes a new tack with him and promises a reward for his good performance at school, his enthusiasm for Honoré de Balzac’s A Sinister Affair becomes so great that he ends up plagiarizing the novella for an assignment and nearly burns down the apartment to boot.
Each of these mishaps illustrates the role that verbal expression plays for Doinel as a transitional object that he is trying (with checkered success) to wield, a tool both in and of his substitute transitional space. Winnicott’s concept of transitional space depends on transitional objects: something comforting to hold and sleep with, such as a security blanket or “blankie.” A transitional object is the “first possession”  that babies know to be separate from both them and their caregivers. These objects reassure and stimulate. They make the concept of illusion into something tangible, its meaning gradually lessened and “spread out over the whole intermediate territory between ‘inner psychic reality’ and ‘the external world as perceived by two persons in common,’ that is to say, over the whole cultural field.” Because of this eventual diffusion of the transitional object’s meaning, Winnicott believes that the joy that adults can give to and take from symbolically-rich activities like art, religion, and philosophy is only made possible by the successful formation and dissolution of a transitional object.
Doinel’s problems with language arise from and aggravate his belated attempts to negotiate illusory and real experience outside of his home. Careful study of the film reveals, however, that the blame Gillain places on Madame Doinel for her son’s problems is more problematic than it may first appear. Doinel’s paper trail leads to other figures of authority apart from his mother who equally motivate and frustrate his empowered use of language. His life as an educational subject is filled with dictations and copying, as if the reproduction of dominant language were the only kind he should experience as socially sanctioned. Along with his classmates, he must dutifully write out Jean Richepin’s poem, “Le Lièvre.” The boys grasp its erotic overtones, as Truffaut makes clear in a moment of classroom comedy, but they are not permitted to voice their interpretive analysis. When Doinel scribbles a moustache on a pin-up the class has passed around—a modest written appropriation—he is caught and assigned yet more copying.
Doinel’s appropriation of Balzac, whom Gillain identifies as “a transitional object for the young hero,” is even more profoundly misunderstood. “I didn’t cheat,” Doinel protests; for him, emotionally invested appropriation is as good as original production. In Winnicott’s paradigm, a child’s capability to appreciate the difference between quotation and plagiarism is an important indicator of their mastery of transitional space. Winnicott explains that the differentiation between interior and exterior worlds practiced in transitional space is readily transposed to the cultural sphere as humans mature, where it informs all experiences with the creative works of other individuals and communities. The fact that Doinel’s desire to belong within Balzac’s literary universe overrides this nuanced comprehension is another stark indication of his delayed development of social (and therefore cultural) agency.
Doinel’s bad behavior does ultimately allow him an approximation of agency in words if not in physical space. When he steals a typewriter from his father’s place of employment, his symbolic theft is crystallized as real theft and duly punished. In the confessions he gives to policemen and psychologists, he is the one who is finally dictating—narrating his frustration over his relationships to society, his family, and his own actions. However therapeutic some may consider this writing of the (antisocial) self, it only reifies Doinel’s alienation from the kind of collective cultural discourse for which he yearns.
The writing of the antisocial self in Police, Adjective is portrayed in a nearly identical fashion, through tedious copying and dictation. Cristi must painstakingly record in longhand where he has been and what he has witnessed for his official reports, even though they contain little to no real evidence. Later in the film, Nelu is forced to write Cristi’s definition of “conscience” on the chalkboard in the commissioner’s office; Anghelache then manipulates Cristi into countering his own definition with one from the dictionary.
Together, these scenes recall the culture of collaboration with state security that so pervaded civil society during Romania’s communist years, especially under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Indeed, both Anghelache and the prosecutor indicate to Cristi that they prefer a criminal case compiled purely on the basis of suspects informing on one another rather than factual evidence—a clear holdover from the era when Romania’s secret police, the Securitate, fostered widespread paranoia. Here, Porumboiu exquisitely dissects the farcical and disturbing rigidity of compulsory reporting, which depends on an inherent power imbalance that automatically generates the very threat of deviance it tries to uncover.
Police, Adjective suggests that this sort of dictation is history repeating itself as tragedy and farce at the same time, a suggestion that Bourdieu’s critical theory reinforces. Bourdieu’s formulation of social space is founded on the ignored or underestimated importance of history accreted in spoken and written discourse. He argues that all language is “the product of previous symbolic struggles”  in the not-so-distant past. This always already prescribed nature of language can then be used to create a “social taxonomy” that oversteps its classificatory function and attempts to explain and further predict people and collectivities. This forced copying is of course related to, but far more formidable than the kind Doinel resists in adolescence. Reforming the delinquency of the social script means exposing injustice and campaigning for the disadvantaged. Police, Adjective hints at the risks involved in appropriation and reform, but doesn’t illustrate the stakes of these counteractions. For Bourdieu, they couldn’t be clearer: the active struggle with and against symbolic discourse constitutes “the sense of social world” itself.
The Delinquent Image
If Porumboiu’s film offers little hope of appropriating and reforming a collectively lived social space, it does offer some important moments of diegetic and extradiegetic wordplay that, in their sly subversion, model the idea. One of these moments can be found in Cristi’s annoyance with a pop song his wife plays on repeat. He finds the song’s romantic lyrics as illogical as his wife finds them emotionally satisfying. The registers of meaning in the scene are multiple and exquisitely coordinated, signaling Cristi’s growing awareness of the discomforting malleability of language and taking spectators from impatience to puzzlement to hilarity in a matter of minutes. Of course, this scene also serves as a portentous bridge to Anghelache’s grim manipulations of language —“dialectics,” he misnames it—but, for a short time, two people playing with words together has some affection to it.
Humor is certainly not sufficient to “perform a critique of political reason” and “pose the question...of the existence and the mode of existence of collectives,” as Bourdieu mandates. But Winnicott would argue that this mutual respect for illusory experience (respect, and not agreement) is what inspires collectivity in the cultural realm. Once created, this cultural collectivity has a significant impact on the spatial.
Police, Adjective’s self-reflexivity also models a critique of political reason. Its strange title, for example, comes from the moment when Cristi reads aloud two definitions of the adjectival use for the word “police” in Anghelache’s office. Like the French word policier, the first example of polițist given modifies the Romanian word for “novel” or “film,” denoting a detective film or a police procedural. In selecting this definitional fragment for the film’s title, Porumboiu ironizes Police, Adjective’s identification as a film of that genre. Yet the entry also explicitly states that “police” is a modifier for the word “state,” or “regime,” and denotes governmental repression and excessive control. This ambiguity in the film title makes film viewers perform their own linguistic act: they must attempt to relate these two meanings to each other and to the allegorical valence of the film as a whole.
The most impactful instance of this modeling, however, occurs in five shots carefully dispersed throughout the film that I will call “delinquent” in my own appropriation and application of Winnicott’s terminology. These shots refuse to engage in the illusion of perspectival depth that spectators expect from feature-length films and instead insist upon their flatness. They are extreme close-ups in which writing fills the entire film frame. In the first two, the camera slowly moves over Cristi’s surveillance reports in silence, insisting that Cristi’s words be read in real time. Later, viewers must contemplate Cristi’s definition of “conscience,” scrawled on the blackboard. Nelu's voice accompanies the text in the same way that Cristi’s disembodied voice accompanies an extreme close-up of the dictionary entry for the word “police,” moments later. This formal device is used for the last time when viewers are confronted with the sting operation that Cristi will lead, betraying his conscience and replacing its rambling definition with a strategic diagram on the same blackboard.
Porumboiu was likely inspired by Robert Bresson’s use of textual close-ups, but Bresson is hardly alone at developing this formal strategy and infusing it with social and political meaning. Tom Holert suggests the term “tabular image” for these “teaching moments” in commercial film or experimental film, where the screen is reduced to one of many writing surfaces. These shots interpellate viewers as any other image would, but they also make the moment of interpellation noticeable. Their pedagogical goal is to help viewers identify their forced and voluntary participation in the linguistic systems that rely on interpellation to function. By including a spatial diagram amongst his careful use of the tabular image, Porumboiu doubles their delinquency as well as their didactic impact; in precisely that which they don’t show, they stand for the importance of social space as symbolic interaction as well as urban fabric.
“Delinquency indicates that some hope remains,” Winnicott wrote in 1957. His belief was that acting out was an unequivocally positive sign in a child, because it meant that they had intuitively grasped the importance of a successful transitional experience and were striking out to find a trustworthy-enough environment in which to have one. If Doinel’s delinquency in The 400 Blows doesn’t have the happy ending Winnicott would have desired for him, certainly Truffaut’s did. Gillain explains that the script of delinquency complemented Truffaut’s stylistic innovation and allowed him to “create a system of representation which transmutes the private data of an individual destiny into a universal language.” This narrative device remained the root of all of Truffaut’s subsequent films, a testament to his understanding of both transitional space and the self.
The scripting of delinquency is clearly also an overarching theme in Porumboiu’s oeuvre, and Porumboiu has also garnered praise for its universal philosophical resonance—the consistent, thoughtful ways that his stories are “post-national,” transcending a specifically Romanian or Eastern European context. Yet the dissolution threatening the European Union attests to the ongoing primacy of the national as a paradigm, even when negatively inflected by culture wars and essentialism. Porumboiu himself explicitly ties Romania’s troubled national identity to his filmmaking in an interview about Police, Adjective: “It seems to me that the transition Romania is passing through today is never going to end, or it is going to end too late when I won’t need it anymore.” The quote seems to cast Romania as a chronically delinquent youth in transitional space, unable to overcome a traumatic past and lost as to how to contribute positively to a wider community.
Porumboiu's allusion to transition opens an intriguing dilemma about whether Winnicott’s theories—focused specifically on family systems—might be scalable to municipalities, regions, nations, or even continents. Might transitional space as embodied and psychological at the same time be identical to the concept of social space in its civic and linguistic dimensions? A few of Winnicott’s collective writings suggest that he was interested in cautiously exploring how one might “study the emotional development of society.” He explains, “It is very difficult for people to recognize that the essential of a democracy really does lie with the ordinary man and woman, and the ordinary, common-place home.”
In a 1952 article, he seems to suggest that the democratic rite of casting a ballot depends on just this conflation of the social and the transitional:
The external scene, with its many social and political aspects, is made personal for him [the voter] in the sense that he gradually identifies himself with all the parties to the struggle. This means that he perceives the external scene in terms of his own internal struggle, and he temporarily allows his internal struggle to be waged in terms of the external political scene.
Winnicott’s thoughts on the subject are intriguing for the ways they propose that individual development might nourish the social. However, they are profoundly unsettling in their incompleteness.
Martha Nussbaum notes that his discussion has “striking lacunae” when it comes to the developmental deficits that the social may be responsible for worsening in an individual, as well as the risk that such individuals might pose society at large. In the case of Police, Adjective, it is crucial to remember that fears concerning his role in these phenomena are exactly what weigh so heavily on Cristi’s conscience. The work of queer theorists, affect theorists, critical race theorists and intersectional theorists like Judith Butler, Lauren Berlant, Richard Delgado, or Sarah Ahmed have gone a long way toward better articulating these lacunae, and questioning the very corrections of behavior judged socially aberrant. Few, however, theorize the impact of the praxis of difference on social space as thoroughly as social space’s impact on the praxis of difference.
More theoretical work is still needed to make the psychoanalytic a more valuable framework for understanding collectivity and its delinquencies. Whether or not social space and the collective experience of transitional space can be fully synonymous in everyday life, the juxtaposition of The 400 Blows and Police, Adjective demonstrates that they can in film. The eternal adolescence of cinematic New Waves will always be one arena in which this ongoing theorization of the social and the transitional will be scripted, appropriated, and emplaced.
Jennifer Stob is Assistant Professor of Art History at Texas State University. Her work has appeared in several edited volumes, including European Cinema after the Wall: Screening East-West Mobility (2013) and the forthcoming Architectures of Revolt: The Cinematic City Circa 1968 (2018). She has contributed essay to journals such as Moving Image Review and Art Journal (MIRAJ), Philosophy of Photography and Studies in French Cinema. She is finishing a manuscript on social space and the film theory of the Situationist International. She co-programs Experimental Response Cinema, an Austin-based microcinema.
For a discussion of the origin of the term “New Wave” in a sociological survey, see Richard Neupert, A History of the French New Wave Cinema (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2007), 3-45 and Michel Marie, The French New Wave: An Artistic School, trans. Richard Neupert (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2003), 5-25.
Anne Gillain, “The Script of Delinquency: François Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959),” , French Film: Texts and Contexts, ed. Susan Hayward and Ginette Vincendeau (New York: Routledge, 2005), 144.
See for example, David Lyon, ed., Theorizing Surveillance (New York: Routledge, 2006); and Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohne and Peter Weibel, CTRL [SPACE] Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002).
Psychoanalytic feminist theorists like Nancy Chodorow, Luce Irigaray, Juliet Mitchell, and others deconstruct the misogyny latent in accounts of maternal failing so central to classical psychoanalytic theory.
Bourdieu, “Physical Space, Social Space and Habitus,” Transcript of Vilhelm Aubert Memorial Lecture, Department of Sociology, University of Oslo & Institute for Social Research, (Oslo, Norway, 1996), 18.
See Tom Holert, “Harun Farocki—Tabular Images: on The Division of All Days (1970) and Something Self Explanatory (15x) (1971).” Harun Farocki, Against What? Against Whom?. ed. Antje Ehmann and Kodwo Eshun (London: Koenig Books, 2009), 75-92.
Alice Bardan, “Aftereffects of 1989: Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and Romanian Cinema,” A Companion to Eastern European Cinemas. ed. Anikó Imre (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 144.