The Happiest Girl in the World – A Review

23 06 2010

At first glance, The Happiest Girl in the World couldn’t be more different from other Romanian films that have made it onto British screens in recent years. While 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) took backstreet abortion as its subject matter, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) the final hours of a complaining alcoholic everyman, director Radu Jude’s debut feature focuses instead on the apparently much happier story of a teenage girl who has won a competition.

The girl in question is Delia (Andreea Bosneag), a 14-year-old from the provinces who has won a new car in a competition organised by a fruit juice company. We follow Delia over the course of a day, as she travels to Bucharest with her parents to collect her prize, before which she must appear in a promotional advert for the fruit drink.

Delia’s parents, it soon transpires, have already thought long and hard about how best to handle this stroke of good fortune. No sooner have they arrived in the capital than Delia’s father has disappeared to negotiate a purchase price for the as-yet-uncollected vehicle with a shadowy ‘friend-of-a-friend’. The teacher and the ex-factory worker have plans to open a guesthouse in an aged relative’s home, promising the unconvinced Delia that they’ll double their money by the time she’s ready to go to university.

Delia, on the other hand, wants to keep the car, and spends much of the day sulking and arguing with her parents as she waits around on the film set to shoot her commercial. When she finally does get in front of the camera, numerous takes ensue, as on-set politics, technical problems, and creative disputes erupt around her. The teenager is at first sweet-talked, then cajoled into smiling sweetly, telling the viewers at home that she’s “the happiest girl in the world” and chugging back ever-larger quantities of the fruit drink.

Her job, as a promoter tells her, is to show that “anyone can be a winner”, and her own ill-thought-out plans for the car certainly betray a striking gap between her own aspirations and those of her parents’ generation. As they never fail to remind her, Delia’s parents worked hard so that she could have everything that she needed as a child and now, they imply, it’s payback time. Reared in Ceausescu’s Romania, with its limited horizons and respect for stoical hard work, they see no reason why she shouldn’t share her good fortune with her family and invest in their ill-conceived business plan.

The Happiest Girl in the World

Delia, on the other hand, is on the verge of womanhood, and is already brimming with desires that she barely knows how to articulate; for consumer products and personal ‘freedom’. She was born in the mid-nineties, several comfortable years after the 1989 Revolution, and has known only shopping malls and commercials and consumer culture. (Tellingly the only piece of music in the film is the Pet Shop Boys’ Rent, itself a satirical sideswipe at Thatcherite consumption in Britain.)

And so, this summer’s day out in sunny Bucharest becomes a microcosm of a wider generational misunderstanding, and we realise that The Happiest Girl… is not so unlike other recent Romanian films after all. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, it is satirical in the subtlest possible way, pointing out the absurdities and cruelties of the society that we build around ourselves and that we come to take for granted. And, like both Lazarescu and 4 Months…, it starts by exploring a seemingly simple, isolated situation, and uses it to draw wider conclusions about life in Romania today.

In style too, The Happiest Girl in the World fits comfortably into the neo-realist niche that Romanian cinema has carved out for itself in recent years. Director Radu Jude started out in commercials (one of which inspired the story of this film), but from the long takes and unfussy, cluttered framing on display here, you’d never guess it. (The natural rebellion of a commercials director perhaps?)

After 90 minutes, as you emerge from the cinema, blinking into the sun, you may well find yourself left with only the fuzziest, most basic impressions of Delia’s big day out in Bucharest. The Happiest Girl… is a slight film, it’s true, and a deceptively simple one at that. But, if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself thinking about it for days afterwards and wondering: ‘whatever did happen to Delia next?’

The Happiest Girl in the World is showing at The Showroom Cinema, Sheffield from 25th June.

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