Otilia and Gabita—the story of a friendship.
Inside the hotel, outside the protection of the law.
Alienating camera angles.
Long takes of the raped characters induce the somber mood of remembering.
The camera struggles to capture the elusive.
A conversation about preventive contraception.
The abortus—4 Months' response to André Bazin's mummy metaphor...
... a comment on cinema's effort to conserve the past.
The film slides into darkness.
The aural trumps the visual.
Noise, vehement emotion.
The fetus is dumped: a thud in the dark.
4 Months… is ultimately the story of two friends and a friendship. Together, Otilia and Gabita confront the social other. Gabita needs an abortion, and the state refuses to help.[open endnotes in new window] The two young women have to rely on the services of an abortionist, offered outside the regulated territory of the law. While the encounter with other service providers within legal boundaries exposes them to the system’s hostility and corruption, the encounter with the abortionist ends in trauma. The communist state’s distrust and contempt for its citizens' basic needs (on a continuum from food and freedom of speech to contraception) is trumped by a more profound, almost ontological brutality at work beyond the realm regulated by the state. The discourtesy we see coming from hotel clerks is a far cry from the violence the two women are subjected to when in the hands of the ultimate service-provider, Mr. Bebe, the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov).
Mr. Bebe is the ultimate service provider because the nature of his services and the payment he demands give him control over the most intimate aspect of women’s health. The fact that 4 Months...’ protagonists are women, women who are raped, suggests that a true history of the Ceausescu era cannot be told without including or perhaps even starting from the way in which its most vulnerable and probably most oppressed subjects have experienced abuse. The more intimate the need of real-existing communism’s subjects, it seems, the more abusive the service. This is why 4 Months... builds the space of the dorm not only around objects and solidarity, but also around its protagonists’ privacy. Besides showing objects and salvaging forgotten registers of language, Mungiu’s film puts on display, for the spectator’s voyeuristic yet supportive eye, the intimacies of a women’s world (waxing, showering, etc). Once Otilia and Gabita leave the dorm, their privacy is stripped from them. The abortionist enacts a nightmarish embodiment of such exposure. He is the ultimate other of real existing communism’s atomized society, unmasking its proximity to a contractless Hobbesian state of nature.
4 Months...’ reviews emphasize Mungiu and Mutu’s effort to offer a non-voyeuristic picture of female private activities such as grooming, sexual hygiene, and, eventually, abortion. Although a non-voyeuristic camera is an utopia, the film aims at defining a morally acceptable way of representing its characters. It does so by contrasting early glimpses of the women's lives and the pleasures those moments offer the viewer with the abortionist’s invasive utensils and a narrative about payment in rape. He demands sex as payment for doing an abortion on Gabita. In depicting these abuses, the camera rejects phallic cinematic omniscience, even as the narrative problematizes many issues around penetration itself. Visually, the film peeps into “the life of others,” but it encodes the limits of such an exploration by using a static and limited perspective. Editing is minimal and produces long takes that often do not follow action and dialogue.
The visual limit 4 Months... imposes through static cinematography takes us back to the museum exhibit, whose recuperation of the past is also limited. Through the window of the exhibit, the viewer sees a more or less authentic assemblage that comes back from history. The glass of the case serves both as an opening into the past and as boundary. It is a physical limitation that separates not only the viewer from the viewed but also the present from the past. The object on display is lifeless; it just is there, deprived of its use value and interaction with other objects in a real-life milieu. From this point of view, the exhibits are far from the everyday. They function on a precondition of symbolic violence. They abuse the object twice: once by pulling it out of history; second, by placing it in the lifeless space of the display.
The limited perspective and static nature of 4 Months...’ cinematography draws on the conventions of the exhibit and uses them to suggest our distance from the past and to point to a symbolic violence inherent in the act of representation. As film, such an incursion into the past has the power to blur some of the shortcomings of the exhibit. Its spectacular re-enactments and its ability to display temporality—a certain continuous passage of time in the past—render cinematic representation more evocative. But 4 Months... refuses to hide its conventions. On the contrary, it emphasizes them, and this emphasis is the basis of its self-reflexive realism. The audiovisual medium can vicariously reconnect us to objects, words, clothes, spaces, vistas, and inter-human relationships. However, 4 Months...’ static compositions, its alienating camera angles and long silences emphasize, like the exhibit, that the past remains secluded behind the glass surface of the exhibit window (or the lens of the camera); that it is constructed thorough fetishes and symbols, and that it is as much an enlivened presence as an absence.
The existence of a real that escapes our symbolic capturing is indexed in 4 Months... by the use of off-screen sound. As the film progresses, voices become more segregated from bodies. There is a shift of importance from the visual to the aural, from what is seen to what can only be heard, from on-screen to off-screen, from realism’s poetics of presence to the horror genre’s emphasis on absence. Otilia and Gabita’s transition from the secure, cocoon-like space of the dorm into a world that grows in hostility also involves a transition from day to night, from natural to artificial lighting, and from a full mise-en-scene to frames that are visually empty—nothing more than a play of shadows. While the film starts by depicting a cluttered environment, full of props and attention-grabbing objects, each verbally named as if labeled in an exhibit, its last scenes are narrated through non-verbal sound.
This sound-image dynamics stages a double drama. One is the obvious drama experienced by the characters, the transition, typical of a thriller or a horror diegesis, from light and security to darkness and suspense. There is, however, another drama at play, that of the visual representation of the historical event itself. The project of investigating the distressing dimension of the Ceausescu era undergoes its own crisis. Such a drama of representation is suggested by the obsessive fixation of the camera on objects and characters, encoding the uneasiness and sometimes panic caused by acknowledging an insurmountable distance between subject and object.
There are several long, static takes in 4 Months... when the camera stays fixed on Otilia, making it entirely the task of the soundtrack to reveal what is happening around her. As in an exhibit, the staring camera waits for this objectified face to trigger the magic of the fetish and bring back a totality of communicative expressiveness. But the magic is not working. We concentrate on Otilia’s face, yet a deep understanding of her tragedy escapes us. Although the film insists on visual details, their role as vehicles of the past and as links to the other is limited. Visual fixation helps us understand, but it also records, as in an Andy Warhol film, an epistemological and ontological dissolution. The object's disintegration in front of the camera and the film’s sinking into visual darkness in its final scenes remind us that even the narrow focus on a limited number of objects, a character, or a face, both produces presence and reveals absence. Regardless of the camera’s proximity to the object, the distance between the present and the past, as well as between observer and observed, cannot be overcome. The abundant off-screen sound does not compensate for this incapacity of the eye. Sound encodes the real as remainder, as haunting/spectral other, reclaiming a different kind of presence/ absence.
To give an example of this progression from visual detail to audio expression, let me consider the film's presentation of its protagonist, Otilia. Since visual fixation dismantles the psychological unity of character, what does our gaze encounter when the camera focuses on Otilia’s face? What lies beneath the narrative's apparent invitation to empathize with her mute suffering, ranging from humiliation to rape, and her terrorized and terrorizing effort to dispose of an aborted fetus? If we stare enough at her, perhaps we can apprehend something even more threatening than what her narrated experiences introduce us to. Let us recapitulate the visual development of the film: At the beginning, the visuals emphasize objects and location. The camera then turns to characters, closing in on Otilia. It focuses less on action and dialogue, and image-sound redundancy decreases. Once the fetus is expelled, the hotel's surreal, alienating lighting gives way to dark frames whose signifying power is reduced to a minimum. Otilia wanders through the urban environment to find an anonymous trash receptacle in which to dispose of Gabita's abortion. A horror-film atmosphere sets in. For a few minutes, the camera is unleashed, allowed to follow the character. The main visual signifying elements here are its jerky moves and its failed effort to produce discernable images. Otilia’s heavy breathing—voice reduced to the real of the breath—is the only signifier the film allows its viewer to hold on to. 4 Months… ends by staging an effort to return to image and voice—to presence. The camera now rests at an uncanny angle. In the post-traumatic silence of the last scene, Otilia and Gabita try to return to dialogue. But this return is no longer possible. Language has reached its limit.
The experience of rape and abortion encodes both the drama of the characters and the otherness of the world onscreen. We realize that not only the abortion event has come to an end, but also the struggle to responsibly represent this politically traumatized world. In interviews, Mungiu, who wrote the script, talks about the autobiographical dimension of his work. But, in fact, he made a film for all those who have already forgotten this world, or have not experienced it at all. 4 Months...’ characters not only embody suffering under Ceausescu; their traumatic experiences also reveal an unbridgeable gap between their world and ours. It is no longer possible to understand them, emotionally, at least not through identification. There is no such thing as a subjective common denominator that can function as a vehicle of empathy across time. Otilia, Gabita and Mr. Bebe remain separated from us by the cold surface of the exhibit window.
The film creates several layers of estrangement—the characters’ estrangement within the 1980s atomized society, the spectators’ estrangement from them, the Ceausescu-era survivors’ estrangement from their past and from themselves. The aborted fetus becomes a metaphor of this alienation. Its rejection allegorizes the failure of the memorial project. Thematizing this failure, 4 Months... uses it to its advantage, making the project somewhat successful in its very failure. Otilia’s run through the ghostly streets of Bucharest to dispose of the fetus reproduces the viewer’s own disorientation and anxiety. The effort to understand the past via traditional cinematic means is aborted, dumped. But this failure allows for a different attitude toward its subjects. They are no longer regarded as “one of us,” but as other, radically and irrevocably other.
The last scene's post-traumatic predicament attempts to make the impenetrability of the past visible. We have spent ninety minutes in the company of two characters, trying to understand them and their world. But the only thing we have really grasped is how limited our access is. The scene is one of mourning. The two women on screen mourn a child whom they can not imagine bringing into the world. For our part, we mourn the fantasy of an organic link with the cinematic other, who remains opaque—an opaque face as well as an opaque social actor, whom we cannot approach, among other things, because of our inability to understand relationships on the model of friendship that Otilia and Gabita share.
As one of 4 Months...’ reviewers puts it, the abortion is completed, but a feeling of incompletion persists. The narrative achieves closure, but the characters remain elusive. The subject reveals itself as an empty frame, which the film refuses to fill with a spectacular presence. The last shot thematizes the exhibit window as both a promise of representation and a mark of radical difference. The two protagonists are sitting at the table in the deserted, dimly lit hotel restaurant. Otilia has returned from her adventure dumping the fetus, and Gabita has come down from her room to have dinner, because life goes on, and she is hungry.
Offscreen sound thematizes the camera position as placed both inside and outside the restaurant. We can hear minimal dialogue and music inside, but we can also hear cars on the street. This paradoxical location is clarified by a strike of cinematic genius. The filmmakers allow the headlights of the passing cars to reflect on the transparent surface that separates the eye of the camera from the mise-en-scene and unravel its existence. We are reminded of our position as spectators. We look at the characters from outside, from behind the glass.
Significantly, there is another glass wall in the background, occupying the surface between the two protagonists’ heads. This surface is neither a window nor a mirror, neither transparent nor reflective, but something in between, both opaque and see-through. It is veiled, semitransparent, revealing as much presence as projected shadows. Offscreen music tells us that behind this screen-within-a-screen, a wedding is taking place—the accepted framework of mothering and sexuality. As it turns out, the glass walls create three worlds. First is the space outside, the space of the spectator, behind the allegedly transparent surface of the exhibit window. Second is the narrative space inside the restaurant, where the two protagonists act their own lack of transparency. The third space is the realm of history, of Ceausescu’s Golden Age, which we try to get hold of via the mediation of both the cinematic apparatus and the symbolism of the plot. This last space is even more blurred, forever elusive.
The last frames of the last scene present us with an unusual concluding cut, a cut on motion, suggesting a semantic opening rather than an appropriate closure. We see Otilia turning her head, but we never find out toward what. Something out there has drawn her attention, but the film ends without disclosing its source. We are reminded of the first shot, which, without musical support, started by showing the characters in the middle of an activity. We can read this ending in two ways. On the one hand, 4 Months... has just offered us a “slice of life,” and refuses to yield to conventions of closure. The film ends the same way it began—in ellipsis. On the other hand, this cut whispers to us that something has been intentionally left out, which brings us back to 4 Months...’ thematization of framing. According to this second reading, the film ends not in the middle of a cinematic sentence (ellipsis) but with a question mark: What was left out and why? It is possible that the film leaves out the ultimate close-up, the face-to-face encounter with the other, the intersection of a character’s gaze with that of the spectator. Why, then, is this acknowledgement of the camera suggested, yet never confirmed? Why is it constructed as a presence and then edited out as an absence? 4 Months… is committed to an ethics and politics of realism. Mistrust in the cinematic apparatus is not only the starting point for a critique of representation, but also of an effort to recuperate the anthropological power of cinema. It is by acknowledging its frame (and limits) that film can respond to the call for a scrupulous representation of the other. Otilia’s gaze cannot be allowed to reach beyond the already thematized conventions of filmmaking. This would contradict 4 Months...’ poetics, its awareness of the insurmountable distance between representer and represented.