Sunday, January 27, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days may have sparked a lively critical discussion about recent cinematic attitudes towards abortion, but the film isn't really concerned with that practice so much as with the experience of living in an illogical world where institutional controls severely restrict the possibilities of human activity. In this case, the world is the Romania of Ceausescu, circa 1987, where a thoroughly entrenched black market system dictates the availability of not only abortions, but Western cigarettes, soap and candy. The film may not have anything to say about the choice/life debate per se, but that's not really what it's after. It simply takes a dramatic premise - two women seek an illegal abortion, complications ensue - to its thrilling conclusion, guiding its figures through an appropriately disquieting landscape.

This landscape, which takes us from overcrowded dorm rooms, run-down hotels and middle-class dinner parties through pitch black streets and high-rise Soviet housing, is presented with a certain aesthetic disorientation. From the hand-held camera work and occasional dimness of presentation (shot with available lighting), to a penchant for staging consecutive scenes with 180-degree framing shifts, the film subtly positions the viewer in a world where logical discontinuities dictate the possibilities available to its residents. In presenting the film's central setting, the hotel the women book for the abortion, Mungiu doesn't overemphasize its essential seediness, but he allows its jaundiced hallways to communicate an acute sense of discomfort, especially incongruous with the demands of the delicate procedure about to be performed. The lounge area outside the women's room with its ratty couches and the perpetual flicker of its halogen lights becomes an especially forbidding locale and, serving as the hellish antechamber to the procedure itself, represents the most explicit equation of the film's set design with genuine nightmare vision.

Mungiu's seemingly low-slung aesthetic may have the added virtue of imparting a certain offhand naturalism to the picture, but it's clear he's in total control throughout. Sometimes, this directorial absolutism seems a little too calculated as when he forces his characters to suffer the ultimate indignity (prostituting themselves) in order to pay for the procedure. It's as if Mungiu, having successfully evoked an appropriately foreboding world and manipulated his characters into a sufficiently terrifying situation, still felt he hadn't gotten his point across and needed to resort to that ultimate trump card of the miserabilist filmmaker, sexual debasement. Although such transactions were no doubt plentiful in 1980s Romania and Mungiu handles the scene with a certain restraint, the sequence feels like the director's one misstep, a crossing over into sordidness for its own sake.

But following the completion of the procedure, the film embraces its latent adherence to the thriller form, and Mungiu's contrivances find their ideal mode of expression in the plot manipulations of that genre. Called away from her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) who waits motionless on the hotel bed for the ejection of the fetus, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is forced to attend an haute bourgeoise dinner party (or its Communist equivalent) at her boyfriend's parents' house. In the film's best scene, Mungiu fixes Otilia in the center of the dinner table as the family talks around and occasionally (with off-putting condescension) to her. With the only camera motion provided by the occasional jerkiness of the handheld device, Mungiu forces Otilia to submit to its gaze for roughly ten minutes. Unable to respond (to either the camera or her boyfriend's family), letting even the most offensively patronizing remarks pass without comment, Otilia betrays a poorly-hid impatience, but still must hold her position in the center of the table, even when the phone (possibly bringing news from Gabita) rings and no one gets up to answer it.

Eventually, freeing herself from the party, Otilia returns to the hotel to check on her friend and dispose of the fetus, and Mungiu increasingly manipulates both Otilia's and the audience's expectations to create a pitched level of suspense. Walking through near total darkness (even in the night scenes, the director relies on natural light), strange figures approach, but are revealed to be harmless; Gabita doesn't answer the door of the hotel room - it turns out she's just gone downstairs to the restaurant. If these manipulations sound like crude narratological tricks inappropriate to such a "serious" story, they serve to enhance rather than diminish the sense of dread necessary to the film's program. If the thriller form plays with the viewer's anticipation of the continual possibility of misfortune, then adapting that genre's strategies to the world of 1980s Romania, a world that forces its citizens to live in a state of perpetual existential uncertainty, registers as a particularly apposite gesture on the director's part.

Towards the film's conclusion, when Otilia finally walks up the darkened stairway of a high-rise apartment - the screen registering complete blackness before Mungiu's camera emerges with a striking composition - woman, garbage chute and a handful of trees visibly arranged against the dark - and disposes of the fetus, the film seems finally to resolve some of its tension, suggesting a measure of conclusion to its tortuous scenario. But then Mungiu throws us right back into his dread nocturnal world, building a fresh scene of suspense before ending his picture on a note of striking irresolution. The women may agree never to speak of their ordeal, but Gabita's complaints of a fever and Otilia's worries that she may become pregnant suggest a continuance of dangerous possibility well beyond the film's diegetic scope. Ultimately, Mungiu suggests, in the world of Ceausescu's Romania - and perhaps in the world as a whole - there is no escape from the strictures of official control and the nightmare of human uncertainty is bound to continue indefinitely.

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