The title of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days refers to how long one of its characters waited to do something about her unwanted pregnancy; Cristian Mungiu's picture, the surprise Palm d'Or winner at last year's Cannes festival, focuses on the final day of the eponymous period, long after an abortion would have been considered a criminal act in Ceausescu-governed Romania. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is the one who's knocked up, but the rigorous camera remains mostly on Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the college roommate valiantly shouldering the risks of the clandestine operation, everything from getting money from her boyfriend to scheduling the hotel meeting with an abortionist. This being a black-market maneuver in a crumbling dictatorial state, however, everything goes wrong, and nothing goes more wrong than the abortion itself, staged like Vera Drake guest-directed by Gaspar Noé -- the setting is a bare room, the abortionist (sardonically called Mr. Bebe and chillingly played by Vlad Ivanov) is balding and calmly businesslike, until he erupts; he reminds the nervous young women that "trust is vital" but also that he's been inconvenienced by their gaffes, so the price of the procedure is harrowingly raised. Mungiu's framing of this passage is, like every other in the film, ruthlessly and suffocatingly intimate, with characters pinned in middle-distances over unbroken, interminable takes. The deed is done but the heroine's anguish is far from finished -- Otilia still has to venture out into the engulfing void of the night and into the cramped spaces of a birthday dinner, which to her are one and the same.
4 Months has been largely received as the highest crest of last year's curious wave of abortion-blues flicks (Waitress, Knocked Up, Lake of Fire, Juno). In fact, it's been hailed as the anti-Juno, an uncompromising back-alley riposte to that movie's fantasyland of expectant slang-slingers and understanding parents. Imagine Juno's gal pal running around the streets looking for a dumpster for the bloody fetus in her purse, or the titular wise-ass herself having her pop-referencing rights abruptly taken away as she's squeezed into a tangle of generational tension at the dinner table. No, Mungiu operates on a rigid, 24-hour anxiety mode, brutally but scrupulously dissecting institutional oppression and the desperation that follows. So it's with caution that I say that I prefer Juno's faux-Sundance cotton-candy to the dour Iron Curtain borsch of 4 Months. It isn't just a matter of orange tic-tacs versus rubber fetuses, but of characters affected by a sudden pregnancy versus characters exclusively defined by it; for all its preciousness, Jason Reitman's film had a wider variety of conflicting emotions (not to mention a keener sense of human absurdity) than Mungiu's unrelieved gloom. Plus, I am more than a little suspicious of the convenient "Romanian New Wave" tag. American tastemakers are always eager to stake their claim to a new foreign movement, and the lavish praise and hype heaped onto Romanian films that focus on elaborate mazes of miserabilism seem to me as reductive as the gloating emphasis on the Brazilian films that focus on cretins pointing guns at each other. (In both cases, there's the feeling of a broader, richer cinema that's being kept from us.) A sobering film, but let's now see some Romanian musicals.
Juno came to my mind again, and in the worst sense, during In Bruges. I still like that film's performances and sneaky emotional detours, but I concur with the backlashers that Diablo Cody's chunks of blog-wit should never have been put into human mouths. The same quippy strain runs through playwright Martin McDonaugh's feature debut, where no chit-chat passes by without an ornate bit of would-be profane drollery. (Samples: "You sell horse tranquilizers to midgets?" "I retract the bit about your cunt fucking kids." "That's for John Lennon, ya Yankee cunt!") The plot has a pair of buddy hit-men forced to cool their heels in the titular Belgian burg following a bungled assignment back in London; Colin Farrell is the jumpy fuckup struggling with his conscience (didn't I just see Farrell pulling this crap in that Woody Allen thing?) and Brendan Gleeson is the calmer, older pro who, in one of the film's many wrung-to-death jokes, is actually interested in seeing the medieval touristic sights. At first, the picture is merely a dull, fish-out-of-water comedy just an anal-pillow away from Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. It's not until the two happen upon a Bosch canvas at a museum and begin to ponder death and sin that McDonaugh reveals the pretension behind the actors' mugging and the corruption behind the story's shagginess. A moment or two occasionally come through, such as Ralph Fiennes' livid Cockney boss picking bullets like a dieting matron picking candy ("I know I shouldn't, but..."), though In Bruges is mostly the kind of "rubbish made by spastics" its characters make fun of during their trip.
Rambo. Sure, why not? Sylvester Stallone's one-man death squad is an interesting outgrowth of the '80s, or at least he originally was in First Blood. Essentially an account of a killing-machine that's turned against its makers, the first movie was fascinatingly packed with contradictions, awkwardly perched between a '70s-styled critique of surplus male aggression and the new decade's sheer enshrinement of it. The two sequels are less confused, thus less interesting, but the films always made for intriguing relics of their eras. The latest film, written and directed by Stallone, finds John Rambo catching snakes in the Thai jungle, his back turned on the horror around him ("Fuck the world" is one of his few lines not mumbled beyond recognition). The old warrior is a sad pagliacci, really, until the fair maiden (Julie Benz) is threatened by hordes of expendable Asian jackals, and the hero opens not a can of whupass but an entire encyclopedia of ways to dismember the human body. ("I've seen some shit, but never shit like this," one mercenary marvels at the vast carnage. The audience is supposed to do the same.) Like Rocky Balboa, Rambo is Stallone's attempt at giving one of his iconic characters a decent Viking funeral -- he surveys his own private D-Day invasion, then gives himself a pastoral coda. Sly may be a crass tyrannosaurus, but he's not a fake.
Reviewed February 17, 2008.