Fisking myself on 4 MONTHS
Actually, this isn’t really a “fisk,” more like my saying “Mr. Speaker, permission to revise and extend my remarks” about 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, beyond what I said back in September when I first saw it.
unlike in VERA DRAKE, nobody says abortion is wrong
That isn’t quite true. There is a conversation Otilia has with her boyfriend where she asks what he would do if she were in Gabita’s position. He says, not to her joy, that he would marry her because he’s against abortion because it’s so dangerous. Which doesn’t actually count as “wrong” in my opinion¹ … but it is one reason to be against abortion.
There’s even a hint, only a hint, in Marinca’s performance in this scene, that her question might actually not be hypothetical. And earlier in the movie, Otilia mentions in passing getting notes to lie about her period. (This is one example of 4 MONTHS being so utterly “lived-in” and thus so endlessly rich with details that may or may not mean anything flying off like pinwheels. Another — the abortionist leaves behind his ID at the hotel desk; was it fake?)
Abortion as either a moral matter or a political issue simply does not appear, on either side.
This is mostly correct. Politics certainly never enters the picture (except to the extent that short conversations about the consequences of getting caught reflect decades-ago political actions; which is a stretch), and morality isn’t an explicitly textual matter, for the reasons I there stated.
But it is now inconceivable to me that this movie could have been made by people who didn’t have deep qualms about abortion and the film reflects that, however far the makers may wish to take it — whether they connect the lines, or dot the i’s and cross the t’s (or whatever metaphor appeals to you). It’s not just The Shot, which seemed on second viewing last week to go on for twice as long as it had in my memory, but also the shooting of the subsequent disposal scenes, which use tropes frequently seen in horror movies — dark of night, dog on the soundtrack, running into the middle of a composition where the perspective seems to stretch into infinity.
It’s also the ending, as I wrote in the post below (and which David Edelstein rebelled against; an infallible sign that one is doing something right on this topic). It’s also how the abortion is depicted as a violation itself — Gabita says while lying down “it hurt when he put it in me,” and it’s not obvious whether she’s talking about Bebe’s catheter or his penis (though there be subtitling/translation issues). And director Cristian Mungiu has said repeatedly in interviews that under Ceausescu, “abortion lost any moral connotation and was rather perceived as an act of rebellion and resistance against the regime.” In another, he said at Cannes that he wanted people to consider deeply “the moral issue” of abortion rather than about “getting caught.” All of which presupposes that there is a moral issue in the first place.²
The major difference is that Dardennes deal in moral dilemmas and their consequences; in 4 MONTHS, there really aren’t any. Mungiu made a film much more about the most-hectic shit day of your life, trying to juggle 100 tasks, remembering what lies you told, and get around others in your way…
I stand by what I said about the film not being about moral choices per se, unlike the Dardennes’ films. But one thing that occurred to me watching 4 MONTHS a second time was that while the drama (the actions of the characters) was deterministic — people are constantly saying words to the effect of “it has to be this way” and “once we start, there’s no turning back” — the mise-en-scene (the actions of the director-god) was not deterministic, in a couple of ways that really stood out.
For one, the compositions frequently emphasized different pathways and doublings. I could not find a still to illustrate this former noun very easily, so here is the trailer …
… and notice how at 25 seconds in, Otilia meets the abortionist at his car. The meeting takes place on a little cul-de-sac or connector that seems to serve a junction between two other streets, going off in different directions at each end. We see a different fork in the road at about the 1:16 mark of the trailer. Also, 45 seconds in, there’s a shot of two buses going in opposite directions, passing one another on the same road, a shot that’s repeated later in the movie, at night.
In addition, for a movie that is so naturalistic and that uses such long takes, it’s amazing how symmetrical some of Mungiu’s shots are, and not just in obvious cases, like when Otilia and the abortionist are in the car together, and the camera sits on the hood and we get a two-shot. But Mungiu also uses symmetrical compositions for the film’s last shot (in my post below) and this composition-rhyme which starts the movie.
One late shot shows Otilia alone in front of their hotel room door, in the center of the shot (you see the set from a different angle 28 seconds into the trailer). But in that later shot, the doors to the two rooms frame her on either side, each of the doors is framed by a mirror, with parallel halls running down either edge of the shot. By having so many doublings in the frame, the film implies, among other things, that there’s always an alternative choice to make, another room to enter, another bus to take, another path to travel. This gap — between the film’s characters and action and the film’s setting and universe is consistent with what Mungiu has said about how Communism damaged people by training people to do things without a moral reflection, or to use my language, to acting as if (falsely) there was no alternative.
There’s one other form of symmetry 4 MONTHS uses incessantly, and that’s the use of mirrors in the setting. Here is one of the earliest scenes.
The movie’s most famous still, one used on many of the posters, is also a mirror shot.
What a still cannot tell you is what is going on in these shots. In the first instance, Otilia is asking around her college dorm, trying to rustle together some soap. But also casually referring to the latest bit of pragmatic lying that defines 4 MONTHS from beginning to end — how to get a note from a doctor to misstate the time of her period (unless what I speculated about above is true, it’s not explicit why it matters to her. But at a minimum, it is a lie). In the second shot, Otilia has just had sexual intercourse with the abortionist as his payment (or “understanding”) and is cleaning herself off while Gabita pays her share of the bill. I can think of at least two other conspicuous mirrors in the film (the hotel landing, the home of the boyfriend’s parents).
Then there’s also the detail of the film’s last shot, the moral meaning of which I discuss in the post below. It’s not obviously a mirror shot, but it is. Otilia turns to partially regard the camera. But it’s dark outside and during the lengthy silence, Mungiu starts to show us that we had been looking at the women through a window. He shows us car lights, reflected first subtly and then obviously on the glass, with accompanying street sounds getting louder. Now … what happens when you’re inside a lighted room and look at a window to the outdoors at night? The glass turns into a mirror. Otilia had been looking, not at us, but at herself in a mirror. (In addition this also rhymes with the first shot of the movie, where we view fish through a glass tank, with talk about feeding them.)
I really really really don’t want to even hint at Lacan here, but the mirror is associated with self-regard/examination upon committing a wrong action. And it defuses the wrong actions made present at the time, fragmenting the self by producing a false double and/or dissociating it from its actions — “let’s never talk about this again.” That’s what They did. Or as Mungiu put it, it promotes not thinking about the consequences of actions. In addition, to switch metaphors, the mise-en-scene constitutes the essence of the universe, the view from the outside that we can see fully, and it points us to something that is not in the accidental drama, the view of the characters from within, who can only see as through a glass darkly, not seeing (themselves) as they are seen (by us). And yet … and here’s Mungiu’s genius … the viewer is not only fully god in his perspective on the characters, but also fully man in his love for the characters, given how successfully Mungiu has made us identify with the characters and had us take on their flesh throughout.³
¹ It may be prolife heresy, but it’s pointless IMO to deny that legal surgical abortions by doctors or nurses are “safer,” for 50 percent of the persons involved anyway, than illegal improvisations by amateurs.
² To be fair, Mungiu also has said repeatedly that he doesn’t see his movie as political or a moral tract on abortion. Which is fair and reasonable — artists usually don’t want to “reduce” their works that way. But I stand by my characterization that this movie breathes moral unease about abortion.
³ I know of no pro-life critic that has seen the movie and condemned it as the glorification of, or even excuse-making for, two or three murderers. But then, the pro-life movement has not condemned real-life women who abort, for decades, if ever since Roe.
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