(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2007)
About three quarters of the way through Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, the protagonist Otilia sits at the dinner table of her boyfriend’s parents. Her best friend is locked inside a hotel room across the city, waiting for her abortion to take effect. Preoccupied and desperate, there only because of being guilted into it, Otilia barely says a word as the parents and their guests chatter away. Her boyfriend sits silently behind her, his mind only on getting her into his bedroom. It’s a crammed frame – this is 1980’s Romania, and every interior we see is either dingy or cluttered or both. The shot goes on and on, certainly for longer than five minutes. It’s fascinating as a feat of composition and acting; immensely suspenseful; and deeply unsettling for how it crystallizes the theme of confinement that runs through the film.
4 Months, 3 Weeks…
The previous week I watched American Gangster, which is always entertaining, logistically impeccable and highly sophisticated in a host of ways. But Mungiu’s film reminds you of the essential soullessness of such behemoths. There’s nothing in American Gangster that pulls you up, makes you momentarily happy (the material’s bleakness notwithstanding) by its creative elegance; and if director Ridley Scott ever came up with anything in that vein, he’d be hard-pressed to preserve it through the layers of process surrounding him. More and more, I wonder after such movies why I don’t transfer my primary allegiance to theatre or music or something. Then I see a film like 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, and I remember.
Otilia and Gabita are roommates in a Bucharest dormitory, and in the opening scenes Mungiu traces that community’s interconnectivity – communal showers and endless small borrowings and transactions and favours. By our own notions of adequate space and privacy and resources it looks awful, but in retrospect comes to seem like a relative refuge. Gabita is pregnant, and they’ve made contact with an abortionist. Gabita can’t handle it, so Otilia takes on all the logistics – booking the necessary hotel room, going to the initial rendezvous. Often feeling almost as if shot in real time, the film sticks close to her - one could argue it focuses on the wrong person, but that comes to be an aspect of its tragedy, how individual trauma displaces itself.
As I said, the subject is abortion (illegal here, with both the practitioner and the woman facing imprisonment), and I can’t recall a film that illustrates certain aspects of this procedure more clearly. But I don’t think one can tell whether Mungiu is “pro-life” or “pro-choice”, as the terms go (needless to say, the film’s an instant indictment of the deranged U.S. debate). It’s wrenching that such a procedure should ever be necessary; but so would be the consequences of its unavailability. I mentioned the theme of confinement – it’s implicit in the desolate settings, the inadequate living spaces and personal resources, the weight of bureaucracy and scrutiny. But for women there’s the added trap of biology. We never find out how Gabita got pregnant, but Otilia later assails her boyfriend for his carelessness the last time they slept together. You get the impression that a balanced sexual relationship is barely possible in this society – the power imbalance, and the disproportionate sense of consequences, is just too great.
It’s a depressing film, but realistically so, and it’s an anthropological eye-opener. The film won the top prize at Cannes, and based on what we’ve seen so far this year would be worthy of the Oscar. I mentioned earlier the sense of suspense, and it might sound as if that would only cheapen the material, but nothing about the picture feels contrived. It’s an amazing debut for Mungiu, and afterwards I kept mulling over its subtleties. At the very end, there’s a juxtaposition between the nasty physicality of abortion and a horrible-looking plate of brains, liver and the like. You can imagine Tarantino coming up with that echo, and emphasizing it through a fancy zoom or split screen. In Mungiu’s film, it’s subtle enough that you might miss it. But if you don’t, it’s the final grace note, extending the oppression to include the food chain, suggesting how such conditions perpetuate themselves through internalization.
More Fall Movies
James Gray’s We Own the Night, set in 1988, sets up two brothers from an NYPD family – one goes into uniform, the other manages a nightclub, until he cross paths with a Russian drug dealer and starts moving back toward the fold. The film is somewhat reminiscent of the sprawling urban dramas of someone like Sidney Lumet, but feels consistently thin and fuzzy – Gray just doesn’t manage to bring much layering to it. A few scenes have a vague poetry to them, but there’s a constant sense of thwarted ambition. Joaquin Phoenix, whose features and acting style alike seem to be getting fleshier, isn’t really an adequate focal point.
American Gangster, just to flesh my earlier comments out a bit, attracts broadly similar reservations. The gangster is real-life 70’s drug dealer Frank Lucas, played here by Denzel Washington, contrasted with Russell Crowe as the cop on his trail. Scott is one of the all-time great movie-making generals, marshalling complex and sprawling material into shape as if whipping a recalcitrant horse. But you pay a price for that, and American Gangster increasingly feels as if it’s taking place in a vacuum, with no more than passable sense of time and place and little moral complexity. Washington is always respectable of course, but doesn’t illuminate Lucas’ complicated worldview very much. At one point the movie leaps from Thanksgiving at the Lucas house to a joltingly raw montage of the junkies whose exploitation is paying for all this; it’s over in a few seconds, and as if shocked by its own daring, the film never dabbles in that mode again.
Control is about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, who killed himself in 1980 at the age of 23, on the eve of the band’s first trip to the US. Already married with a kid, and having an affair with a far more exotic Belgian journalist, epileptic and chronically short of money for all his burgeoning fame, Curtis simply couldn’t find a way to make all the pieces fit together. Directed by Anton Corbijn (a renowned rock photographer who knew Curtis well) in pristine black and white, this is a deliberately downbeat but highly skilled telling; you’ve probably never seen a rock biopic so immune to the thrill of performing and all that goes with it. It allows us a general sense of Curtis’ inspirations and frustrations, but it’s ineffably mysterious, with a sullied, thwarted hope at its centre.
Right at the other end of the spectrum, Peter Hedges’ Dan in Real Life stars Steve Carell as an advice columnist who diagnoses other people’s problems much more fluently than his own. He’s a widower with three challenging daughters, who falls in love with exotic Juliette Binoche during a family reunion, not realizing that she’s already attached to his less deserving brother (Dane Cook). So I think in four lines there I probably already mentioned three or four premises that belong solely to the world of movies, and I was just getting started. It’s all smoothly done, but that’s all it is.