This year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Film Festival, 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days, opens with the image of two goldfish in a bowl. It quickly becomes clear that this shot represents what it feels like to be one of the two female characters in the story. Using minimalist camera work and a devastatingly effective narrative, director and writer Cristian Mungiu creates a gripping portrait of life under a totalitarian regime. But, more importantly, he depicts life as lived by a young woman in a society that ruthlessly censures sexual mistakes. This is a movie that speaks very much to the condition of women in this and other countries, despite the fact that abortion is legal here.
The film begins with a brisk but astonishingly detailed picture of life as a student in Romania in 1987. Everyone gets a piece of the black market action: the blonde protagonist Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) has to barter for everything from cigarettes to shampoo. Every building is careworn and sagging on the outside, dirty and shambolic on the inside. Stray dogs roam the streets. The movie doesn’t erect any neon signs over its plot points. Everything important is expressed in passing glances and half-said remarks. We learn over time, however, that Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), Otilia’s roommate, needs to have a late-term abortion, and that Otilia is navigating the bleak cityscape to get a hotel room and arrange everything with the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov).
From a jittery, impressionistic style in the first half hour, the camera becomes deadly still as the girls settle into the hotel room to consult with the mountebank doctor. Ivanov is absolutely mesmerizing in these long, horrific, yet irresistible scenes in which he explains the abortion procedure to the girls’ mounting terror. Ivanov’s character morphs from a clipped-toned doctor to an unscrupulous businessman and a depraved monster within a single monologue. It’s a brilliantly written, finely acted feat. Mungiu made the daring choice of concentrating not only on Gabita, but also on Otilia, who carries the emotional burden of the film marvelously. She can reveal her inner conflicts with the shift of an eye.
The tension of the hotel room scenes is broken only by Otilia’s trip to her boyfriend’s house to celebrate his mother’s birthday. We come to realize that there are a host of problems Otilia has to face with her boyfriend, from class snobbery due to her humble origins to his expectations of how she should behave. She finds no comfort or assistance in him.
There’s been a lot of commentary on how the film is a pitch-perfect portrayal of life in Communist Romania, and it is. But this distances us from the painful fact that life can be equally claustrophobic and painful for many young women in the United States. Most of the problems besetting the two girls are not exclusive to women in Cuba and China now. The totalitarian regime only magnifies the sense of being constantly censured, constantly watched, and having to beg for consideration. Olitia and Gabita are like goldfish in a bowl that is itself in a bowl.
More than an even-handed account of abortion, or a critique of totalitarianism, 4 Months is a sensitive story about the pressures of womanhood, of what panic can drive a person to do, and of how this desperation can be exploited to sickening lengths by the debased hyenas of the world.