Cool Devastation

Cool Devastation

American movie-goers finally get to see Cristian Mungiu’s stunning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.


I could spot only one moment of levity in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; and having neglected to master Romanian, I didn’t know why it was funny. It happened early in the film, in a scene where a college student in 1980s Bucharest was made to stand at a hotel reception desk as if she were an accused criminal pleading before the bench, when all she wanted was to rent a room for herself and a friend. “What’s your friend called?” the clerk muttered in official displeasure, all the while fussing with her paperwork. “Dragut,” the student replied. The clerk looked up sharply: another mark against the defendant. “That’s her name,” explained the student, with an apologetic shrug. “Dragut.”

For all the insight it provided, that last subtitle might have read, “Comic misunderstanding here.” So, after the screening, I trolled the Internet and to my delight pulled up an Anglo-Romanian website where young people advise one another on the translation of pickup lines. Who knew? Dragut can mean “cute.” To the ears of petty authority, the name had sounded insubordinate.

My thanks to Romania’s pickup artists, and best wishes for their continued success. I hope, though, that my web informants will be careful. If not, they may be left with an ordeal like the film’s remaining 112 minutes.

For this is the story of an illegal abortion–or, more precisely, the story of one long day in the life of that student in the lobby, who risks helping a friend get an illegal abortion and then, under pressure, runs the even greater risk of abandoning her. When summarized, this action might sound like an anecdote. As realized by Mungiu, it’s more of a paradox: a brilliant misery, photographed with such wide-eyed clarity, acted with such unwavering conviction and unfolding with such ever-deepening suspense that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days convincingly claimed the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, followed by a string of other awards and festival invitations. Now the film is at last in theatrical release in the United States, allowing American moviegoers to experience its cool devastation, its calmly observed melodrama–and, most of all, its central character, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the helping friend, who’s stuck being the strong one in a society that wants her to be powerless.

At the very end, you see Otilia sitting late at night in a restaurant, as shown in one of the film’s astonishing wide-screen, deep-

focus compositions; and as the shot is held and held, you slowly realize that reflections of car headlights are passing across the image. Posed at a window, Otilia is separated from you by a pane of glass–which I suppose links this scene with the film’s opening shot, in which fish are shown swimming inside a little aquarium. Granted, Otilia breaks the symmetry of these first and last images when she finally glances through the glass, toward you; but despite this knowing gesture, she remains a creature on display.

You might think of this, too, as a paradox, since this specimen character, though exposed to the world’s curiosity, has spent the entire film in clandestine activity. For late Communist Romania, though, this is no contradiction. In principle there are no secrets, since any lecture-hall monitor or hotel clerk is entitled to know Otilia’s business; and in practice there are no secrets, since the whole country runs on illicit exchange, which is hidden in plain view.

Mungiu defines Romanian commerce early in the film, lightly if not with levity, when Otilia goes to buy a few toiletries for the chronically dependent Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) to prepare for her abortion. A decent bar of soap can be acquired in their dorm from a student who also deals in Tic Tacs and pirated videotapes. But decent cigarettes can’t be found–even when Otilia tries another dorm room, where the black-market shoppers are shown in a wide band that stretches across the screen, as in one of Tina Barney’s big domestic photographs. As you look at this array of people involved in their separate transactions, you see not so much corruption as a normal, daily imposture. Everyone relies on this supposedly nonexistent traffic. Even the judicial desk clerk manages not to notice the fellow who stands a few yards away in her lobby, selling packs of Kents from his overcoat.

It’s from this incidental character that Otilia finally scores her cigarettes, in the last innocently dishonest transaction you will see in the film. After that, it’s time for her and Gabita to negotiate with the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a balding, clenched, leather-jacketed, briefcase-bearing man of about 40, who is officially a criminal but exudes an authority of his own. He, too, is good at disapproval. No sooner does he have Otilia and Gabita locked inside their little hotel room with the oatmeal-colored walls than he begins to lecture them impatiently, with much waving of his open palm. You’d think his hand was a tray, holding out the common sense and superior experience that young women are too dumb to accept.

Unfortunately, he succeeds in educating them.

Wrenching, harrowing, breath-stopping, abysmal: I grasp for words to describe the central sequence of 4 Months but come up only with analogies. The scene, in its way, is as outrageous as the seduction of the grieving Anne, right over the casket, in Richard III; as pitilessly drawn-out, and clinically precise, as the death of Emma Bovary; as quietly, claustrophobically desperate as the breakdown in the elevator in Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Voices are raised, just once. At one moment only the camera lurches forward, and you find yourself staring into Bebe’s hot face. Otherwise, the trap door opens with smooth, slow-motion efficiency, and a very long rope plays out.

And here’s the most terrible part of it: once Otilia drops, she just keeps falling. There’s no snap, no knowledge that the worst has already happened, because she next leaves Gabita behind, to go into the twilit streets and pretend to participate in ordinary life. She will sit at a table crowded with middle-aged strangers; she will listen to their seemingly endless conversation about potatoes, Easter eggs and the benefits of military conscription. Young people everywhere are driven crazy by such yammerers; but Otilia, in her moral vertigo, needs especially to get away from them and can’t. She suffers through a solid eight minutes of their dinner party in a single relentless shot, followed immediately by seven minutes more of painful, one-on-one confrontation, before finally being able to rush back to the hotel. Whatever catastrophe might await her there she will prefer to this normality.

Note the showbiz canniness. For all the formal restraint that Mungiu exercises in this film–a restraint that extends to Marinca’s inward-looking, furiously controlled performance and to the deep, steady gaze of Oleg Mutu’s cinematography–4 Months features the ever-popular devices of a ticking clock, an overbearing villain and a heroine who might as well be tied to the railroad tracks. Sound familiar? These are the same crowd pleasers you find in that other post-Communist prizewinner, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others. An evaluation of 4 Months might as well begin here, with a comparison of the two films’ uses of political melodrama.

I think the comparison goes in Mungiu’s favor–not only because his style is so much more rigorous and thoughtful but because his melodrama takes place in a world that feels inhabited. Born in Romania in 1968, Mungiu was a student at the time his story takes place. He has even explained, in interviews, that in those days he knew a woman who went through an abortion like this. Out of this experience comes the sense of complicity in 4 Months–a complicity summed up in Otilia’s final glance toward the audience. From The Lives of Others, though, you get congratulations. You, Western moviegoer, were never one of those bad, bad Communists; and if you had been, you’d emerge from the movie a good person, as certified by a filmmaker who has imagined East Germany but never lived in it. Thanks for the compliment, but I’ll take fear and trembling over flattery.

To get a second standard of judgment, we might look at 4 Months in the context of other recent movies about abortion. This comparison doesn’t take long. Mungiu’s film holds up well against Claude Chabrol’s exemplary Une Affaire des Femmes and Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, and as pure filmmaking it towers over Lasse Hallström’s The Cider House Rules. That’s about it for dramas. As for comedies, I can think only of Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth and Todd Solondz’s Palindromes (both special cases) before descending to Knocked Up and Juno. The latter film, I admit, has much to recommend it, but it still conforms to the pattern of contemporary American movies, in which abortion may be contemplated only for the sake of not being performed. Lovable characters come no closer to it than “shmashmortion” (as they say in Knocked Up). Mungiu’s characters, however, have other things to do than be lovable–an industriousness that’s entirely to their credit.

The last remaining comparison would be with the other films in Romania’s purported new wave–which is to say, 4 Months has to pass the Death of Mr. Lazarescu test. Here, I think, it falls a little short, for reasons that go back to that absence of levity. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu has all the fear and trembling, and all the outrage, of Mungiu’s film; but at the same time (to quote a better critic than I, Ben Sonnenberg), “it’s as funny as Beckett.” It’s this doubleness of emotion, far more than the protagonist’s allegorical name, that allows everything in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to seem greater than its circumstances. By contrast, what you see is what you get in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The film may share some of Mr. Lazarescu‘s traits–its long takes, its satirical edge–but in the end, it gives you gallows humor without the humor.

What a comfort to have it, though. Romania has produced a film as profoundly affecting and beautifully made as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and it’s still not the best the country has to offer. For people who take their movies seriously, a quick course in Romanian might now be necessary–and so is a trip to the theater to see 4 Months. It may not be dragut, but it’s awfully good.

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