A Brief Inquiry into the Secret Surrealist History of Police, Adjective

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01/11/2010 1:12 PM |


Pictured at left is one of still images of Corneliu Porumboiu’s critical-fave Romanian film Police, Adjective made available by the film’s US distributor, IFC Films. It’s been used alongside a number of reviews of the film, as its dour palette and grim affect captures quite nicely the film’s Easter Bloc milieu, deadpan tone and wintry pace. (In this scene, as in so many others, cop Cristi is reluctantly shadowing a couple of high school kids his superior wants to bust for minor drug charges.) But it’s also got that lovely, evocative splash of yellow, in the filled-in capital-A which suggests, along with the foregrounded concrete, a certain amount of compositional rigor within the film’s forbidding long takes. (The graffiti seems to say “Forta Steau,” perhaps a reference to Steaua BucureÅŸti, Romania’s number-one soccer club.) For a while now, since the film’s premiere at Cannes last May, the deep-black handlettering and poppy irregular color of that graffiti has been evoking something for me, and I finally figured out what.


This is Grove Press’s initial American edition of André Breton’s Surrealist novel Nadja (written in the 20s, at the height of the Surrealist movement, but not published stateside until 1960). The cover was designed by Roy Kuhlman, who did many of the publisher’s notable covers during the 60s, establishing an abstract aesthetic in keeping with the publisher’s avant-garde, Eurocentric outlook (and the postwar mainstream popularity of the prewar generation of Surrealists).

This cover has always reminded me of the discrete abstract shapes and contained blobs of color in Miró’s “Constellation” paintings—this resemblance may very well have been intentional, especially since Breton himself, a few years before the American publication of Nadja, had composed a series of “Constellations,” prose poems in response to the symbolic language of his fellow Surrealist.

I haven’t read Nadja, so this attempt at tying it back to Police, Adjective is bound to be a bit dicey. But Breton’s “Surrealist love story” is actually comprised in large part of the reflections of the first-person narrator, blending observation and memory during his walks through Paris.

One notes that the protagonist of Police, Adjective, locked into his daily routine of largely uneventful surveillance, has ample time for reflection (one might also suggest that the Kafkan bureaucracy and obsolete legal code depicted in the film seem more appropriate to the 1920s than the 2000s).

The book begins:

Who am I? If this once I were to rely on a proverb, then perhaps everything would amount to knowing whom I “haunt.” I must admit that this word is misleading, tending to establish between certain beings and myself relations that are stranger, more inescapable, more disturbing than I intended. Such a word means much more than it says, makes me, still alive, play a ghostly part, evidently referring to what I must have ceased to be in order to be who I am. Hardly distorted in this sense, the word suggests that what I regard as the objective, more or less deliberate manifestations of my existence are merely the premises, within the limits of this existence, of an activity whose true extent is unknown to me.

And so on. It’s astonishing, reading this, how applicable this narration seems to the character of Cristi in Police, Adjective: a young man whose own conscience is subsumed in his job of “haunting” (secretly surveilling) the subjects of his investigation, largely against his will.

In the film’s great climactic scene, Cristi’s boss pulls out a dictionary and demands that Cristi define words like “conscience” and “police,” demonstrating that Cristi’s own sense of his self and his codes of behavior are, in fact, objective only as far as they don’t contradict with the objectivity of dictionary definitions and Romanian law, whose true extent and purposes remains opaque to him.

(In his discussion of the film, the L’s Henry Stewart noted that “the cop has a habit of emerging from the margins of frames, almost spectrally—like a held-over ghost, perhaps, from a secret police past.”)

So. Is this incidental bit of background itself a symbol, referring to Police, Adjective‘s secret identity as a remake of Breton’s Nadja? Almost certainly it is not! But I do understand paranoia a little better, now that I’ve gone looking for esoteric connections and actually found them.