Current research interests have prompted recent re-visits of Children of Men and Pan’s Labyrinth. Next up: Waitress, Juno (sigh), and Knocked Up. These all came out within about a year of each other in 2006/2007 and have at least one thing in common. But more on that later. The Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was highly acclaimed, even winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007. There are debates out there as to whether the film’s meaning is to be found chiefly in its political background (the last days of Communism in Hungary) or its narrative foreground (a clandestine abortion). Incidentally, this aspect of the film shares a huge amount in common with Children of Men, which Žižek insists is all about the background. Like Children of Men, however, the title and foreground (at least) of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days suggest more than just politics.
The long take is a technique that challenges traditional cinematic politics since Eisenstein, tethered as it is to the Hollywood style and system with its flashy editing that forces the viewer down a particular optical avenue. The long take, on the other hand, as a rule tends to defy the traditional power-grab of the filmmaker and allow the viewer a freer range of thought and vision within a frame (at least in theory); Bazin notwithstanding. Certainly, the meaning of the frame rests largely on what is outside of its boundaries; this is the case no matter what the editing. The digital trickery Children of Men, creating the impression of long takes that in fact hide Hitchcockian cuts (see Rope), conceivably undercuts this apolitical technique. Or, perhaps the deceit aligns coherently with the film’s narrative content. On the other hand, plenty of films defined by the long take seem equally defined by their political agendas. When the theoretical becomes concrete, all bets are off. In 4 Months, the long take contrasts with that in Children of Men by lingering on uncomfortable scenes with little or no camera movement. The camera seems there in the room, but hidden, rather than the documentary-style cinematography of Children of Men. Rather than intrusive, it is static and surveillance-like, a method that also aligns perfectly with the film’s background of a Communist regime that is always potentially watching. And whereas Children of Men‘s narrative has to do with the film’s events and the large, social response to those events, 4 Months‘ narrative revolves around the responses of particular characters to the film’s events.
Spaces also play an important role here. Almost none of the film is shot outdoors, and those parts that are outdoors relate to a sense of agoraphobia within the characters. The outside is so dominated by the regime, the totalitarian presence, that the indoors are equated with something nearer to “safety.” Tropes of the Anne Frank attic are utilized, the notion of the corner as a safe haven. Apartments and hotels can function this way, unlike houses. Houses are large nests of safety with multiple tiers and corners within; apartments are themselves corners with doors that shut out other foreign, yet also inside, spaces. In the hotel here, there is still the impression of prison; “guests” may not enter and exit at will. Their passports are confiscated during their tenure in the rooms, and they cannot make a discrete exit from the building. The bathroom space in the hotel is exploited for the sake of the narrative of 4 Months. It becomes the realm of safety once the hotel “corner” is violated, intruded upon, raped. The room space was supposed to be safe and sterile, medically and otherwise. Once the doctor reverses his role and becomes more interested in his own dirty form of pre-payment, the women escape to the bathroom to cleanse themselves, flush out intrusive elements, and expel the fetus before it can be disposed of elsewhere. The unavoidable presence of the regime even in indoor spaces, spaces with the pretense of safety, renders the entire world of Communist Romania both dangerous and oppressive.
The sociopolitical background of the film becomes foregrounded during the sequence at the boyfriend’s parents’ home. The viewer has been primarily engaged with the character of Otilia until this point, and now the engagement becomes even stronger. An extremely long take keeps the focus on Otilia at the dinner table as a group of middle-aged, middle class couples complains about how much easier the younger generation has it these days. The camera seems as uncomfortable as Otilia and her boyfriend, even as it remains transfixed on her throughout the ordeal. Having come from being voluntarily raped for the sake of her roommate’s successful abortion, the dialogue demonstrates the fundamentally oblivious middle-class even as the Communist regime attempts to collapse class boundaries. Who is punished most during the process of socialization? Not those for whom it attests to exist.
Whatever the predispositions and agendas of the filmmaker, the film itself is remarkably neutral toward the main narrative concern of executing a successful abortion under the radar of the authorities, who have declared it illegal. Further, this abortion takes place almost exactly halfway through the pregnancy, making the act technically a murder under Hungarian law at the time, rather than a lesser charge when an abortion takes place during the first trimester. Viewers with strong agendas for the rights of women or the unborn could easily both make a strong respective case using evidence for this film and come up wanting. Abortion may be in the narrative foreground, but the film uses it as a tool to explore the experience of a women and her roommate who have chosen – for a reason that isn’t made particularly clear – to take an enormous risk by breaking a serious law. Predictably, there is no definitive conclusion of any kind, to say anything of a happy ending. Since the governmental situation remains the same at the film’s end as it does at the beginning, any real sense of conclusion would be superficial. The film gives priority to the character of Otilia, avoiding melodrama and siding the audience with the much more intelligent woman in the film. And while Otilia’s actions reflect faithfulness, loyalty, and strength, to emphasize these aspects of her character would be equally as superficial as a reading of Children of Men that focuses on Theo’s character transformation, although these may be important components of the films. However, by emphasizing the character of Otilia over narrative events, the film does raise this component over the narrative. Returning to the long take, this technique can be utilized to various effects. In Children of Men, the long take tends to highlight narrative events, action sequences. In 4 Months, the long take typically highlights the character of Otilia; her responses to events, her feelings of what is happening around her, pondering the next course of action. So while very little transformation takes place in the character of Otilia – other than a new sobriety at the harshness of her existence – the film subtly seems to function as an apologia for women. Otilia’s ultimate success in helping to pull off the abortion – using her sexuality, her intelligence, and her courage – brings her character and all its ramifications to the foreground and relegates the narrative to the background, along with the politics.