Romanian film review – (Im)Moral tales of the 1990s: The Conjugal Bed

Fortunately, Romanian films are often on TV these days. Unfortunately, many of them are forgettable adventure or romance flicks. Once in a while though, something good comes along. PRO Cinema will air Mircea Daneliuc’s Patul Conjugal/The Conjugal Bed tomorrow, 24 July, at 11:45 pm. If the hour is too late, you can always get the DVD. Daneliuc was celebrated at this year’s Transilvania International Film Festival and while I prefer his early films, The Conjugal Bed (1993) is one of the most striking pictures of the early 1990s and whether you love it or hate it, you surely won’t forget it.

A relentless, fearless satire of the mad 1990s when fast money, potential emigration and general social chaos were the main coordinates, The Conjugal Bed focuses on jumpy, foul-mouthed cinema-owner Vasile Potop who finds out his wife is pregnant with a third child. Knowing he won’t be able to support it, he sets on a quest to get some abortion money. Which he stumbles on, mysteriously, but that doesn’t stop him from making his wife jump off a cupboard to cause an abortion (the things some do for money…). Potop also has an affair with his beautiful and morally flexible employee Stela (The Conjugal Bed has some truly original and hilarious sex scenes) and owns a book from Ceaușescu’s time which proves to be everyone’s object of interest in the course of later events, out of mind-blowing reasons and very much in tune with the general quest to get rich fast (a brilliant idea by Daneliuc and I won’t spoil it here by divulging it).

The film is fast, loud, foul-mouthed and downright nasty in its portrayal of a society lacking any morals. It’s been labelled a “comedy” and The Conjugal Bed is indeed a hilarious ride from start to finish, alternating between laugh-out-loud and grotesque, gruesome moments. The ending is particularly hard to watch as the increasingly desperate Potop attacks his pregnant wife but as horrific as that is, it’s in sync with the rest of the film and somewhat defused by the following scene between the two which is, again, very very funny. It’s also full of very quotable lines such as: “What are you up to? To set myself on fire. Ah, okay”, “I’ve been thinking. You’ll give birth in Belgium. They’re francophones, like us […]. This way, we’ll also have relatives abroad”, and „Slap yourself cause I can’t take my hands of the wheel!“ (the last two said to his wife arguing how to make the most of money if she were to give birth to the child).

When I saw it a long time I was bothered by its loudness and shocked by its occasional verbal and physical violence. I used to blame it on the new-found freedom of the 1990s when filmmakers could finally throw anything into a movie and not get censored. While I still think some scenes are a bit too much, I’ve come to reconsider the film and Daneliuc’s talent: in this fiercely energetic and unapologetic film, (almost) everything is as it should be.

A history book could not explain the 1990s and their general madness better than this film. The Conjugal Bed leaves no collective fear, neurosis or dream untouched and what it does it scream them back at its audience. The film’s power hasn’t diminished, it still feels like a punch in the stomach. Watch this movie.

by Ioana Moldovan, columnist, [email protected]