Sunday, February 03, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is nothing if not a triumph of aesthetic choices, of fluidly moving camerawork, rigorous framing and sustained long shots that allow you to explore the image rather than try to catch hold of it."

It was this passage, in Manohla Dargis's New York Times review of 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 days, that made me want to see the film: so rarely does a director value aesthetics as equal to plot, especially when the plot involves human rights issues, that my interest was peeked and my ticket was as good as bought.

Recently, I told a successful director that I wanted to be film critic, and he said, "one of the good ones, I hope," intimating that there exists a camp of 'bad' film critics who are out to crush the hopes and dreams of filmmakers. The more I think about it, the more problems I see with that statement. For now, I will make the following retort. Dargis's insightful, well written review sold this film to me, not the marketing. Whomever was in charge of making the American previews for Christian Mingiu's film did it a great disservice. The preview showcased fast paced editing and astonishing plot twists that simply do not exist in the actual film. 4 Months is not a thriller, or a cheep horror film. Often filmed in real time and without any non-diegetic music, 4 Months a patient, unflinching depiction of a day in the life of two female college students, the day that Otilia helps her friend Gabita get an abortion. The supreme mise en scene and inspired framing underscore the true triumph of the film: an unequivocal sea-change in the perspectives of the two central characters.

I have been paying special attention to last lines lately, and 4 Months brings another zinger. Before the screen goes to black Otilia says, "You know what we are going to do? We are never going to talk about this again." These words are both a promise and an order, a I promise I believe she will keep. Although they will never discuss it, their experience has gotten under their skin, and will change their sense of themselves as women, as citizens, as students, as friends, forever. If you were unsure of the gravity of the situation, Otilia clears up any confusion. Their experience is among the worst travesties and the most devastating injuries--it is unspeakable. But rather than dramatizing the burden this secret will become, Mingiu relies on the actual events to convey the affect the secret will have, the revelations it has caused.

The conclusion of Dargis's review stayed with me as I watched the film. She wrote:

In interviews, Mr. Mungiu has resisted some of the metaphoric readings of his film (say, as an attack on the Ceausescu regime) and resisted making overt declarations on abortion. I’ve read more than once that the film is not about abortion (or even an abortion) but, rather, totalitarianism, a take that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s observation that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” This isn’t to say that “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” isn’t also about human will and the struggle for freedom in the face of state oppression, only to suggest that such readings can be limited and limiting. Mr. Mungiu never forgets the palpably real women at the center of his film, and one of its great virtues is that neither do you.

In my opinion, invoking Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation is about the least useful thing a person can do when writing about or discussing a film. I say "invoking" because it is a little like pleading the fifth, remain silent, lest your opinions incriminate you. In an effort to resist Dargis's invocation, I tried to find an interpretation that reconciled the public with the private, the political with the social, and the metaphorical with the literal. The answer I found allows 4 Months to be about totalitarianism , feminism, and class while still being about character, relationships and identity.

In a word, it is a film about options. The options that are available, the choices made in response, and the implications of those choices. Options are as much personal and they are political. They are defined (and limited) by institutions of money, sex, race, and the powers that be. After the options are identified, what follows is defined by personal morality, bravado, intellect and the degree to which one is willing to rebell. After Gabita's abortion, Otilia reviews the options they were presented with, and asks why Gabita made the choices she did. I series of mistakes left them cornered, ultimately causing them to make the extreme sacrifices of trading sex for an abortion. As Dargis said, audiences and directors alike resist drawing a "metaphorical" (read: political) conclusions because it jeopardizes the humanity of the story ("forgets the palpably real women at its center") However, I refuse to except that such a plot point does not have political implications. The moment when Otilia and Gabita decide to sleep with the abortionist brings to the forefront how they are marginalized and attacked as women, how their options have been so severely limited and that their reaction has been to detach themselves from their own bodies. (Here I was reminded of the French film, Baise Moi, in which a women explains why she shows no emotion while being raped. She said something like, "They want to steel from my cunt, so I keep nothing in there worth steeling.")

It strikes me as a profound notion that options are the cross section of identity and environment, of interpretation and identification. Thusly, it becomes impossible to pull the rug out from under a political interpretation by claiming that it is "limiting". Both readings of the film that Dargis presented are deeply interconnected--the metaphors with the real women and the real women with the metaphors.


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