A closeted gay police officer struggles with the prospect of being outed in tense Romanian drama Poppy Field
Poppy Field opens with Cristi (Conrad Mericoffer) welcoming his long distance French boyfriend Hadi (Radouan Leflahi) to his Bucharest flat for a weekend visit. Whilst he is clearly concerned about the prying eyes of his neighbours there is immediate passion between the two once they are behind closed doors and they settle into a comfortable relationship, though argue about the prospect of going out in public together as a couple. Cristi’s conflicted attitude to his own sexuality is then suddenly further forced to the surface when he goes in for his night shift as a police officer.
His unit are called to a local cinema where an ultranationalist, religious group have stormed the stage in protest of a screening on an LGBT film and are refusing to let it go ahead. Tensions are running high between the protestors and the cinema goers and the police have been called in to diffuse the situation. When Cristi has a run in with a former lover in the audience things get even more twisted, and he makes increasingly awful choices as the other man threatens to out him to his colleagues. What follows in an uncomfortable expose on toxic masculinity and the fear that comes with being gay in a country that is still very unaccepting.
Poppy Field is a stripped back, minimalist film consisting on two long set pieces and several very long takes that relies wholly on the strength of its actors, with no flashy sets, score or action to hide behind. The horribly claustrophobic scene in which Christi and his colleagues wade into the argument between the protestors and the pro-LGBT cinema goers is the highlight of the film. In one continuous take the camera winds sinuously through the angry crowd, focussing in at times on the furious people of both sides and alternately back at Cristi’s carefully blank but clearly conflicted face and then to his police colleagues who all seem to be watching him – is he imagining that or not?
When he eventually blows up it’s an ugly thing to watch, switching from careful disinterest to abject rage, homophobic slurs and violence in attempt to deflect attention from himself, this is a masterful piece of acting from Mericoffer. Cristi is then ordered into isolation by his boss, and his colleagues come to visit him one by one to discuss what’s happened. What follows is a slightly odd series of monologues from each of the officers, some outright in their condemnation, some clearly suspicious and some knowingly talking nonsense in what seems to be a coded way. What each says is essentially irrelevant because what we’re really wondering is ‘do they know? How much do they know? Do they care?’
It’s in the fallout of this whole situation that I found myself slightly disappointed. After such a tense and volatile build up to the threat of being outed and wondering how this desperate man is going to react, it sort of fizzles out to a non-committal ending. Choosing to play it subtle is a bold and probably more realistic artistic choice, but the drama queen in me couldn’t help but want all that drama to lead to something a bit more substantial.
Poppy Field is based on several real occasions of extremist homophobic groups interrupting film screenings in Romania and is a bold first feature from director Eugen Jebeleanu – marking a rare queer entry into Romanian new wave cinema. Whilst it’s certainly not happy viewing it’s a well acted and essential reminder of the difficulties that face closeted people in countries that have continuing work to do towards gay rights and acceptance.
Poppy Field is playing as part of BFI Flare, the London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, between 17th – 28th March. You can buy tickets to stream it right here