Tuesday, February 19, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

Ah, Armond White. Sometimes he's brilliant, sometimes he's a parody of himself. White displays his ridiculous side once again with his negative review of this terrific, deeply humanist new film which won last year's Cannes Palme d'Or. If the Romanian New Wave movies like this and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu weren't getting such praise from his colleagues in New York, he'd probably be praising them for their formal control, literary qualities, and insistence on moral and political questions, but since he's been beaten to the punch and remains compulsively contrarian, he has to twist himself in knots to declaim them as 'bullcrap'.

Set in Ceausescu's Romania, 1987, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has been labelled an 'abortion movie' but, as with Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, abortion is only the movie's macguffin: the real subject of this movie is to watch how a person copes with living in a repressive society in which bribery, ID checks, and lies are pervasive. Director Cristian Mungiu uses his supporting characters to show us the different ways a person can choose to function in an inherently corrupt system (SPOILERS): one can retreat into childish helplessness, as the pregnant Gabita does; one can become an opportunistic predator, as the abortionist does; one can blithely ignore society's problems, as the guests at the dinner party do; or one can turn into an anonymous functionary, just doing one's job, as with the movie's various hotel workers and cops. Forced to navigate through these options is the movie's protagonist, Otilia, a well-meaning young woman who exists in a world in which there can be no good outcome, just a string of bleak options, and the film is the story of her harsh coming-of-age.

What makes the movie rise above its own grimness are the authenticity of the performances and direction, and the tension and momentum of the story. When Otilia finds herself trapped in the above-mentioned dinner party and a phone rings, it's as suspenseful as anything in a Hitchcock movie. Later, when Otilia wanders through the nighttime streets on a grim mission, the film becomes chaotic, pitch-black, as existentially scary and nightmarish as 28 Weeks Later or Inland Empire.

It's a terrific, unflinching achievement and Armond White does himself no favors by choosing to be obtuse, as he does here.

(PS: Added 4am) I would have to say that the film is pro-choice, if I had to label it as such, because its primary interest is to show the awfulness involved when otherwise decent people are forced to circumvent the law. Somehow Armond White, in what I can only reconcile as an example of his being so perversely liberal he becomes ultra-conservative, deems the women in this movie 'biologically irresponsible' - who's the real post-feminist? It's one of his more maddening pieces of writing in a long time.


cjkennedy said...

Terrific movie and amazingly suspenseful.

Armond White is an entertaining clown.

Jeff McMahon said...

I would like to laugh him off, but I can't - he's just too smart. He's an auteurist to a fault, I was amazed that he gave a bad review to DePalma's Redacted a few months ago, and I don't think he's ever seen a Spielberg film he didn't like. In this case I really think he's too wrapped up in his major crusade, to correct the faults of the New York liberal critical establishment, that he goes wayyy off-mark and barely pays attention to the film in the first place.

s said...

jeff, you didn't find the style distracting? during otilia's final wander, i could only think: we're in a horror movie, now? why are we following her from behind? there was enough about the movie that convinced me that life sucked there and then, why these devices?

Jeff McMahon said...

On the contrary, 'S' (?), I thought that shift was just about perfect: it was still in keeping with the handheld, real-time, aesthetic of the film but was modulated in just the right way: to make expressive the point that Otilia was in just about the worst possible situation she could possible be in, wandering through the dark with something horrible and incriminating in her bag, and what is going to happen to her? It's a terrific example of the filmmakers using the pre-established style in such a way to immerse the audience in an emotional situation. That it resembled a horror movie was totally appopriate to that moment of the narrative.

s said...

sorry, jeff--it's steven, not sure where the "teven" went. i guess it seemed to me that the camera either stared blankly at otilia while she squirmed and suffered or used the grammar of one or another genre to frame her. your argument makes sense, that the shift at the end was appropriate, which makes me think that my problem was that the shifts jarred me out of the world of the movie and into thought about what the camera was up to, when the world was plenty compelling, by itself.

also, you know, great blog.