It feels like skewering Illegitimate would be too easy at times. The gist of the movie, which is pretty clear if you’ve either read a synopsis or seen the poster, is that two siblings (twins) indulge in an intimate relationship with one another, which leads to a not quite desired pregnancy. However, this only truly unfolds in the second half of Illegitimate, as the first builds this dysfunctional family and conjures up some context for the less than traditional romantic alignment.
The ample first scene, setting the stage, is a celebratory dinner. Romeo (Romi) has just finished his studies and the whole family is gathered: father Victor, twin sister Sasha, older siblings Gilda and Cosma, as well as the partners of the latter two, Bogdan and Julie. As the father presents an expose on how time dictates our understanding of life and everyone indulges in drink and the occasional retort, the tables are suddenly turned when Victor is asked whether, in his role as a doctor, he informed to the communist state police on women who wanted to get abortions – an illegal procedure before 1989. The answer is, in a nutshell, yes. Cue Ron Burgundy, as the situation escalates dramatically, Sasha and Romi become verbally aggressive towards Victor, he ends up fighting with Cosma, while Gilda tries meekly and helplessly to stop the madness.
It’s this kind of chaos that Illegitimate draws its energy from and tries to shape into a complicated discourse about the patriarchy, generational conflict, personal v class morality, women’s rights and abortion. While the effort can be appreciated, the movie is not disciplined enough to pull it off convincingly. You’ve got thin character development, characters whose only role is to advance the plot, a strange attempt at levity involving a hamster, your lead bearing the awful name of Romeo, some ill-timed dramatic close ups, which are all tied up with a neat little bow in a sub-par ending. Also, for a movie that deals about incest and abortion, in a country as secular as Romania, the matter barely comes up.
While this might all read rather damningly, there is enough coherence to go around and the artificial constructions are not overly intrusive; they probably just bugged me more than usual. Most of all, Alina Grigore’s portrayal of Sasha is fascinatingly convincing at times, even if the script can leave her little to work with. She’s passionate, restrained, compassionate, principled – but lost, a kind of contrast that comes across powerfully and draws you in. And the story conveys this tactfully, it allows the viewer to infer how overwhelming the recent loss of her (their) mother had been, how this is what has driven them so close together. The pace at which the movie unfolds also works in its favour, keeping it tight and eventful.
The movie’s greatest fault lies in its tonal disharmony, as the more emotionally demanding scenes tend to descend into melodrama. While this eases some of the potentially overbearing tension stemming from its heavy subject matter, it also undermines the otherwise caustic build-up. Paradoxically, Illegitimate still works in spite of its self-indulgence – it’s an entertaining story of how a family implodes. It simply fails to punch as high as it aims to do.