Concentrated Nonsense (cinema edition)

Mathieu Ricordi/ Ekran/ 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

The Slovenian film magazine Ekran (Girish previously posted the English version of an interview with Adrian Martin that appeared in their pages), which I’ve had the privilege of contributing to previously, has a review of the film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in its latest issue. Translated to Slovenian for print, the article was written by filmmaker, astute critic, and good friend since high school, Mathieu Ricordi. An active member of the notorious a_film_by mailing list, I believe Mathieu, when he does write, to be on equal level with some of the finest writers on cinema today.

While his article is essentially a critical review of 4 Months…, it also makes some intriguing arguments relevant to contemporary world cinema discourse (and dare I say, extremely relevant to Philippine cinema today).

For the privilege of those without access to Ekran — published in the Slovenian language, but with an extremely international contributor base that includes Olaf Möller and Christoph Huber and may soon have selected articles in English or their original language on their website — I post Mathieu’s review here. Your thoughts?

The review:

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Framed between an opening image of two goldfishes in an aquarium and a closing image of its protagonists behind the glass window of a hotel restaurant, the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is primarily concerned with entrapment. Given that this feature is the most recent recipient of the Cannes Film festival’s top prize, the Palme D’Or , it is an especially entombed type of entrapment─ ensnaring its central premise, characters, and technique into a fixed political malaise, boxing out narrative dimensionality, artistic transcendence, and a complex worldview; all the while narrowing the possibilities of its purposely imposed tendencies towards realist cinema. In fact, one could spot the film’s dogmatic preoccupation with this particular sort of entrapment as another branch on the Cannes Palme D’Or family tree− whose new millennium roots have been particularly anchored in the enshrinement of cramped cause celebre pieces. Recent Cannes Laureates include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 which saw the director assemble a rigid decoupage of news-clips and biased interviews to simply re-affirm an ever growing disenchantment with George Bush’s handling of America and foreign policy, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant which used a national tragedy of teenage school shootings as the basis for a withdrawn exercise in test-tubing civic destruction─ fleeing any sociological inquiring in the process─ and Ken Loach’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, a psychologically uncomplicated retort against British imperialism with implications on current situations in the Middle East. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes its place among these films in the tunnel of morbidity and crude anthropological display, cashing in on the politically correct viewpoint of finding grievance with totalitarian institutions/governments and the suffrage of the people living in these conditions.

Directed by Cristian Mungiu, the movie follows the tribulations of two female university students─ Otillia and Gabriela ─ over a 24 hour period in former Communist Romania, as they try to obtain an illegal abortion for Gabriela. Following through on the visual devices that commence and conclude the proceedings, the situational happenstance of the journey to get the abortion and the torments that ensue are what trap the characters and their thinly conceived account into another rudimentary display of onscreen pain, meaning to speak for an entire regime and its umbrage simply by virtue of having its story set in the appropriate timeline. In between the aquarium and restaurant window shots, Mungiu cages his audience into a clichéd staging of another female martyrdom reenactment, which ─you’ll know if you’ve seen anything by Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier─ means that along with the film’s overall depressive state of arrested development, the filmmaker has pigeonholed Otillia’s personage into a passive and compliant victim, willingly taking the brunt of onscreen misery, confusing sympathy with willful circumstantial slave. Otillia’s sacrificial lamb status is even gleefully thrown a religious subtext─ she leaves her dormitory roommates on a discussion concerning the religiously themed works “Thornbirds” and “East of Eden”, and her excruciatingly long dinner party foray after the abortion is complete has her sitting at the middle of the table being verbally bombarded by patronizing patriarchal figures from each side, evoking Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”. Other crosses Otillia must bear for her friend’s mistakes─ and if one believes the accolades the film has been getting, Communism too, I suppose─ include getting into a stranger’s car and bargaining with him to perform the abortion while being subjected to a verbose attack, eventually prostituting herself to him, risking persecution from the law in her dealings with various hotels to house the abortion, and eventually getting rid of the fetus in a dangerous back alley at night. Such submissiveness is more in line with Mungiu’s crass yearnings for political metaphor than any human evolution or investment on Otillia’s part; she is merely playing puppet for a filmmaker’s calculated reaching out to petty Bourgeois artistic concepts of feeling enlightened by ‘being privy’ to another exhibition of scandal, cruelty, and poor living conditions. Brian De Palma mocked such slumming rituals in the cornerstone Be Black Baby sequence of his 1970 film Hi Mom, where bourgeois white folks are guilted into attending an avant-garde audience-participation theater piece in which they are humiliated, robbed, and physically assaulted, only to come out of the play cajoled into thinking they’re wiser on the African American experience─ a fake assertion they boisterously proclaim on subsequent on-camera interviews. De Palma’s satirical uncovering of the kind of hypocritical discourse that has halted race relations progress in the United States exposes similar trappings in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Instead of actually attempting an inquiring work on the complex dynamics and social interplays at work in a Communist state and its downfall─ as has been the complaint towards the film from many Romanians who lived in the society supposedly chronicled here─ Cristian Mungiu settles on the simple flattery of audiences and their feeling of superior moral bereavement over the situational distress of characterless people in distant, squalid places.

Adhering to its ideological exploitation and obtuseness are the formative devices of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Mungiu confuses conceptual emptiness with narrative ellipses, crass jolting techniques with realist cinema, and customary genre thriller backgrounds with a real sense of time and place. Filming the proceedings from fairly distant angles in extended takes, it’s clear that the intended mise-en-scene is one of realism. But the realist tendency, partially described by Paris Journalist Henri de Parville in terms of the Louis Lumiere aesthetic as “nature caught in the act”, is that of the unconscious observer to the physical existence and movements unfolding in front of the camera. Such an approach, if eschewing the surrealist symbolism of Louis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados or the aesthetically ‘composed’ staging of the October Revolution in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ten Days That Shook The World, must retain─ as author Siegfried Kracauer affirms about Lumiere─ the non-intervening lens capturing the least controllable moments, transient jumbles, and dissolving patterns accessible only to the unconscious camera.

A cinematic tendency of this sort must come equipped with a real fervor for what is being shown, as well as confidence that the filmed image is fascinating in and of itself; beliefs that Cristian Mungui seems to lack, as his filmmaking technique constantly makes the viewer aware of the camera with its jarring hand-held jitters in most frames, and his multiple images where his subjects are out of focus─ in the climactic scene where Otillia must rid herself of Gabriella’s aborted fetus, she seems to flee the camera which labors to keep even part of her in the shot. The frequent attention Mungui draws to his recording device sets out to implement an added harshness to his bare conceptualization, just as his use of ellipses seeks to help the film masquerade as a suggestive piece with a deceptively simple surface. Ellipses are utilized to aid the film overflowing with content and activity, editing out actions that can be deduced from future moments, usually in a way that focuses on dramatic highlights of ideas and events alluded to. Mungui’s display of Otillia taking off her clothes in front of the abortionist after the sexual tradeoff has been discussed, and the cut to her lying lifeless and naked in a bathtub full of water may count as an ellipse, but the removal of the actual act of sex for the similarly pornographic imagery of her sacrificed body seeking cleanliness feels schematic. Poking the audience with Otillia’s suffrage is the movie’s raison d’etre, and its real-time pretensions hold no significance outside the exercise in following the events of a harrowing day; without showing her central sacrificial act the movie trades in its own minuscule carry-through for a stylistic consideration that doesn’t seem its own.

Earlier in this review I evoked the slumming rituals satirized by De Palma, popularly practiced by the privileged since Victorian London─ where omnibus tours of the city’s poorest district, Whitechapel, were in vogue─ and offered up readily by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. These virtual reality tours of the underprivileged meant for the bourgeois to feel more ‘authentic’ have historically never involved more than a temporary and superficial commitment from its participants. That such a practice extends to art, which is supposed to be transcendental and a source of sociological enlightenment, is a shame that should not be honored, least of all by Cannes.

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