Poppy Field

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Poppy Field
"Merricoffer's performance will keep you rivetted." | Photo: Courtesy of Glasgow Film Festival

Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) is passionately in love with his boyfriend; one can see it the moment the Frenchman arrives, come to stay for a few days in Cristi's small Romanian apartment. They kiss in the elevator with the hunger of a couple too long apart. When he's finished his next shift, Cristi says, he doesn't want to get out of bed until the weekend. But when his sister pops by, he's secretive about the situation. His boyfriend doesn't understand why he isn't more open. It's complicated, Cristi says.

It's complicated, in large part, because Cristi is a police officer. Over the past two decades there have been major changes in the laws around homosexuality in Romania. It's no longer illegal for men to have sexual relationships with one another; there are even anti-discrimination laws pertaining to the workplace. But legal change and social change are two very different things. So are safety and the perception of safety. When one has grown up in a society where everyone is prejudiced, it's difficult to expect the best of people.

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The central incident which this film revolves around is based on real life occurrences in Romania, not least an incident at the Museum of the Romanian Peasant in 2013 when religious fundamentalists interrupted a screening of The Kids Are All Right with a homophobic demonstration. Called out to attend such an infraction, Cristi is immediately worried about the possibility of being outed. Apparently concerned that his own unconscious behaviour will somehow betray him, he overcompensates, becoming hostile and uptight - very different from the way we have seen him at home. Although his colleagues seem to think this is out of character, there's a suggestion that he has been overly aggressive in the past. When one of the gay men at the event recognises him, his behaviour grows more extreme.

Contrasting noisy, demanding crowd scenes with periods of stillness during which the tension builds and builds, Eugen Jebeleanu's highly polished d├ębut film feels at times like an assault on the senses, giving viewers a taste of Cristi's emotional state. Troubled as he is, he is sometimes a difficult person to be close to, but Merricoffer's performance will keep you rivetted nonetheless. Ioana Moraru's script persistently defies expectations, eschewing any simple resolution to keep us in this uncomfortable space. Meanwhile, we get to learn more about Cristi's working environment and discover that his colleagues are more complex and varied individuals than his fear might suggest.

Alongside concerns about how his colleagues might react if they knew his secret, Cristi is clearly struggling with internalised homophobia, going to extremes to ensure himself that he's still enough of a man by traditional standards, which makes him seem out of touch with modern thinking to some of his colleagues. His resentment of the gay man who confronts him draws on a complicated mixture of emotions which include envy of the ability to live openly - but is it really his own belief system, more than anything tangible, that's keeping him from doing likewise? Over the course of the night, as the officers try to deal with he stand-off in the cinema and prevent it escalating into full blown conflict, the events we witness and Cristi's reactions keep us questioning the subtleties of what's going on.

All the characters here are well drawn and well acted, with nobody really fitting into the black and white worldview that has Cristi in its grip. Some wonderful little vignettes give supporting cast members time to shine. Jebeleanu's handling of the crowd scenes is masterful, with the film occasionally feeling like a documentary. His downbeat approach keeps it believable even when the protestors are spouting the kind of bizarre ideas that, if you haven't been caught up in similar confrontations yourself, you may struggle to think anyone would really say. There are absurdities throughout the film but they're very much a part of the real experiences that the director is seeking to address. Poppy Field is spot on, and it reveals aspects of the wider damage done by prejudice that are rarely seen onscreen.

Reviewed on: 24 Feb 2021
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The struggle of a closeted young genderme.


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