Sunday, February 24, 2008

Beyond the Politics of Abortion: "Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days"*

It’s tempting to file away “Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days” as an issue movie. But Cristian Mingui’s film about two college women’s attempt to illegally terminate a pregnancy stretches beyond abortion. Set in the communist Romania of 1987, “4-3-2” never gives any indication as to whether abortion should be legal. Instead, using the procedure as a focal point, the film paints concise but intricate psychological portraits of its key players.

Unpredictably, the expectant Gabita is not the film’s protagonist; her friend Otilia fills that role. Gabita, in fact, is not even a trustworthy character, a quality to which the film’s title pays homage. Helpless, irresponsible and manipulative, she stands in contrast with the heroines of films such as “Juno” and “Knocked Up.” Mingui’ s film also varies from recent American films about unplanned pregnancies in that it offers no information about how Gabita came to be pregnant. There’s no drunken miscommunication about condoms or sexual initiation on sofa chairs á la “Knocked Up” or “Juno,” respectively. The absence of a back story robs the viewer of the opportunity to make a sexist judgment of sorts, to designate Gabita as either a good girl whose limited sexual activity landed her in a quagmire or a promiscuous bad girl who got what she deserved. That said, there’s indeed judgment of Gabita’s pregnancy—from her directly. When abortionist Mr. Bebe hints that she and Otilia will have to have sex with him before he performs the procedure, Gabita says that the guilty have to pay.

Yet, it is Otilia who arguably pays the most. Because Gabita is too irresponsible to even bother securing a hotel room for the abortion, we see a desperate Otilia haggle with and lie to the personnel of two different hotels to obtain a room. We see Otilia secure the funds needed for the abortion and her first meeting with Mr. Bebe, a meeting for which Gabita should have been present but declined to show. Despite these acts of devotion to Gabita, it appears that Gabita lies to Otilia about what exactly needed to be sacrificed to make the abortion happen. As it turns out, Otilia is the first of the women to sexually service Bebe. A scene in which she washes her vagina and brushes her teeth indicates exactly what she had to part with to aid Gabita in her quest.

“4-3-2” makes a point of portraying vaginas on screen. There are full frontal nude scenes involving both Otilia and Gabita, but vaginas in the film are not fodder for entertainment, as they are for the group of geeks in “Knocked Up.” Rather, they and, by extension, women’s bodies are purely functional. To remove any hint of eroticism, no other parts of the female anatomy are shown on screen, sans an anonymous backside in a shower scene. The intention not to eroticize is stressed when Otilia changes shirts with her breasts turned away from the viewer. The result is that it is all the more unsettling when vaginas are depicted, be it when they are being cleansed or penetrated.

Also unsettling is that it is Otilia’s responsibility to discard the aborted fetus, a crime that could land her in prison for years. The scene in which she first catches sight of the fetus is the closest “4-3-2” comes to making an indictment of abortion. It is the first fictional feature film (that I know of, anyway) to depict an aborted fetus. Initially, the viewer watches Otilia’s reaction to the fetus, a mixture of wonderment and horror on her face. Then, the viewer is allowed a look. The camera lingers long enough to reveal that Gabita was so far along in her pregnancy that the fetus resembles not a sort of sea creature but a very tiny baby covered in a bloody, applesauce-like goo.

It is as memorable of a scene as Hitchcock’s close up of Janet Leigh’s lifeless eye in “Psycho.” But it is one that Otilia is determined to forget. She tells Gabita that they are never to discuss the events of that night again. Even if that promise is kept, there is little doubt that Otilia will relive those events for years to come.

The question that remains at the end of the film is what motivated Otilia to play such a large role in Gabita’s quest for an abortion. In a callous move, Otilia leaves Gabita in the hotel room alone during the abortion to attend a birthday dinner for her boyfriend’s mother. Once there, she tells her boyfriend that she has been helping Gabita get an abortion and explains that she could count on Gabita to do the same if the roles were reversed. Given how irresponsible Gabita is, this is doubtful.

So, what is Otilia’s motivation? Is it that, as is revealed mostly during the birthday dinner, that she has a rural, lower class background and knows that an unplanned pregnancy would derail her one opportunity to transcend it? Is this why she goes to such lengths for Gabita? Or is that Otilia’s maternal exhibitions make her ripe for martyrdom?

The viewer can’t be sure, and this is one of the reasons why “4-3-2” works. As in life, the characters can’t be boxed into tidy little packages. Precisely because of their complexities and flaws, we ache when they do.

*Contains spoilers


Nittle said...

Insightful analysis of the film. For me, an even more jarring scene than the visceral aborted fetus lying on the bathroom floor in a towel, is watching Otilia sitting with her boyfriend's family in that dining room. As the the conversation swirls around her, the camera stays rigid on her, a long, still shot, as she squirms in her chair, her mind and heart far away with Gabita in the hotel room; not her boyfriend, pictured over her right shoulder.

In the end, I don't think this film was so much an indictment of abortion, as an indictment of the stifling nature of the communist state, and the situations it thrusts its two main female characters into. Perhaps the saddest part was the one you mention, where Otilia says to Gabita that they must never mention the event again. This makes a shared dangerous situation taboo from processing, understanding, healing or possible catharsis, instead repressing it in their minds. Maybe a stretch, but it seems as this psychological repression is a kind of microcosm for the repression the country's people are experience economically, socially, and spiritually.

The vaginas in the film, I believe, might even steer straight past eroticization, past utility and into the realm of revulsion, demonizing female genitalia, and the women in turn. This is evidenced by the Bebe character, the way in which he verbally abuses Gabita, sexually abuses Otilia, and then proceeds to clinically perform the abortion completely without any sense of emotion. A complicated, but in the end, fascinating movie.

Nadra said...

Wow, this is a comment worthy of its own post. I agree that, rather than being an indictment of abortion, the movie is an indictment of the communist state. Yes, the dinner scene was also gripping, uncomfortably so. I wanted to address that more, but the post was getting long, and I was running out of steam.