In the Closet
In “Poppy Field”, a member of the Romanian Gendarmerie faces up to the secrets of his personal life. Directed by Eugen Jebeleanu, it is comprised of two elongated scenes, as it shows what it is to be closeted in a hyper-masculine society.
Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) is hosting his French Muslim boyfriend Hadi (Radouan Leflahi) at his apartment. They cannot keep their hands off each other but life outside of the bedroom isn’t so simple. When Hadi broaches the idea of visiting the mountains for a night, Cristi has weak and this leads to excuses an awkward encounter when his sister comes over to visit.
The film puts Cristi’s tortured complexity into context. On the police beat, he is called to the scene of a queer cinema screening that is being blocked by ultra-nationalist protestors. The scene is presented in realistic detail. When Cristi meets a former lover at that same screening, he quickly goes out of control, causing controversy when the encounter turns violent.
With only a couple of locations to convey the conflicted inner state of its main protagonist, we see the way the other cops — who occupy a strange middle-ground between the LGBT friendly theatre-goers and the religious zealots — try and calm Cristi down through monologues that are alternately sad, funny and a little strange.This is an exciting, morally grey film that takes on a complex topic within a country that is still in the process of fully recognizing LGBT rights. Stressing realism over didacticism while realizing the full humanity of nearly all its players, we see the rich and exciting potential of contemporary Romanian film.
For many of us, a cinema is a sanctuary, a place to escape our troubles for the accumulative run time of a movie. In “Poppy Field”, however, an arthouse cinema proves just the opposite for its gay protagonist.
Cristi’s encounter with his nosy sister is filled with unspoken homophobia and Islamophobia. He then joins up with his macho co-workers and heads to a local arthouse cinema, where a screening of an LGBTQ film has been disrupted by an angry mob of Christian nationalists. He is immediately uncomfortable, with his colleagues mocking both the protesters and the interrupted audience members. When asked to provide identification, the latter are understandably reluctant to comply, and tensions begin to rise as both the protesters and the cinema-goers accuse the gendarmerie of bias.
Even with keeping his head down, Cristi is spotted by a young man who claims to have once dated him, something Cristi angrily denies. Desperate to silence this guy, Cristi takes him into the empty auditorium and subjects him to a quick piece of old-fashioned police brutality. This just escalates an already tense scenario, threatening to expose Cristi’s true identity to his colleagues.
Cristi sticks out among his macho mates, though they seem oblivious to his true sexuality, likely because the idea of one of their own being gay is beyond their realm of comprehension. At several points one of Cristi’s colleagues says something referring to the secret of his sexuality or the secret of how he beat a young man. Cristi is so desperate to keep the former secret that it seems he will gladly accept any punishment for his assault. Watching Cristi spout homophobic rhetoric in an attempt to hide his secret is hard.
While Cristi’s co-workers are homophobes, Jebeleanu refuses to take the easy route of presenting them as villains. One colleague in particular, Mircea (Alexandru Potocean), acts as something of a big brother to Cristi, and we get the feeling that if anyone is aware of Cristi’s sexuality it’s this guy. His treatment of Cristi suggests an awareness and sensitivity to something he can’t understand and isn’t willing to openly discuss.
The police are uniquely bonded in that way that people who spend eight hours a day working side by side and in dangerous scenarios tend to be. If Cristi’s secret came out, would their bond prove strong enough for them to accept him? The true tragedy of “Poppy Field” is that men like this would rather not face such questions. Anyone who believes “don’t ask, don’t tell” isn’t a harmful way to live should see this film and see how such a mentality really affects those forced to live under such stifling conditions.
Between noisy, demanding crowd scenes and periods of stillness during which the tension builds, the film is 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 is riveting.