Movie Review: Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter, by Andra Petrescu

Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter – the story of a young woman's emancipation

Ana Lungu’s second feature film, ‘Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter’ premiered in 2015 at What the F?!, a side program at the Rotterdam International Festival dedicated  to feminist cinema. Cristiana (played by Elena Popa) is 30 years old, and as much as she has attained professional realization by societal standards, she is finding it difficult to declare her autonomy to her father. Having recently moved into her own place, the woman spends her time balancing a dysfunctional relationship with a married man that looks down on her, a doctorate, and get-togethers with her close friends.

‘Self-Portrait of a Dutiful Daughter’  is really a story about the emancipation of a young woman coming from a ‘good’ family = a feminine perspective on the problems of a generation forced (by the economic crisis or other factors) to remain close to their family until late in life. Once the parents move to a larger house, Cristiana stays behind in the apartment she was raised in, and that she must now transform into her own space – recalibrating the meaning of a dwelling that, up until recently, was the home of an appreciated doctor’s dutiful daughter.  At the same time, Cristiana must also find her psychological autonomy in the face of individuals that she perceives as figures of authority (mostly masculine) – her father, the professor coordinating her doctorate, her lover. The film, however, isn’t so much about obtaining economic and psychological freedom, as it is about being stuck in a delayed adolescence, lacking the reflex for rebellion against authority, but full of uncertainty at every step. In fact, the narrative construction is quite simple and de-dramatizes, lacking any major events. Over the course of two seasons (autumn and winter), Cristiana arranges her apartment, works on her degree, and participates in passive interactions with those around her – finally making a decision that will mark the beginning of her assumed independence. Her father treats her as if she were still under his tutelage when she asks him for money to buy an expensive pet dog – fro the dialogue, to the mise-en-scene, and the contrast between the actress’s professional acting and the actor’s improvisation (Dan Lungu, the director’s father). There are two sequences in which Cristiana asks her father for his approval in buying the dog, and in both the man disqualifies her wish, reminding her that she is still economically dependent on him and that she lives in a cocoon, free from obligations. He infantilizes her when he directs her in her studies: telling her that she should be interested in floods as well as earthquakes, even though her research subject is the risk seismic movements pose to buildings. The stage is carefully set: The father is in the center of the shot, while the daughter is in the right-hand side of the frame, half covered by the table and with her back turn to the audience. In another sequence, which takes place in a stuffed antique shop in the center of Bucharest, the choreography is similar, and occasionally Cristiana is even covered by the shop keeper, bringing the doctor rare publications which the latter has requested.

Although the film follows the woman for 80 minutes, the camera resolutely refuses to give her optimum visibility – and not just in the shots of her and her father. During the meetings with her teacher, Cristiana is quiet and complacent, although more relaxed than during the meetings with her father or with Dan (the married man she is seeing, played by Emilian Oprea). The camera angle is always to her disadvantage – whether the camera lags behind her, the lighting is weak, or she is set on the periphery of the screen. On the one hand, the camera angles and the mise-en-scene depict Cristiana’s blockage and allow her to be as volatile in front of the audience as she is in her personal life. On the other, this distance that the camera keeps from her respects the minimalistic narrative – the chosen events remain in the realm of the quotidian and so the directing is subtle.  We can sympathize with Cristiana, but we are not encouraged to view the film through a process of identification with the main character, but rather to watch, detached and reflexive, the images before us. More so, the narrative is episodic in nature, does not have temporal continuity in the classical sense, and in between every two scenes there is a temporal ellipses marked by an obvious cut.

Ana Lungu’s first feature film also happened to be about delayed maturity (‘The Belly of the Whale’- co-directed with Ana Szel). Here, in the center of the story is the character played by Ana Szel, a thirty year old woman who seems to be confronting many of the same issues as Cristiana: a co-dependent family relationship, a comforting circle of friends. The action takes place over the course of two hours, as Ana meets her friends and discusses her dilemmas with them. Both films show an interest in minor stories, empty of major conflicts or drama, favoring the actors’ work (especially the contrast between the subtle acting of the professionals and the improvisation of the unprofessional) and the small beauties of the painstakingly constructed mise-en-scene. Thus, observation and the careful exploration of the quotidian become more important in Ana Lungu’s films than the complex narrative structures.

by Andra Petrescu
English translation by Maia Petrigenaru Van Kline


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