Tarantino? The Coens? Wong Kar-Wai? Each fell to a Romanian upstart at Cannes ’07

Tarantino? The Coens? Wong Kar-Wai? Each fell to a Romanian upstart at Cannes ’07

Palme Thursday is A.A. Dowd’s monthly examination of a winner of the Palme D’Or, determining how well the film has held up and whether it deserved the highest prize awarded at the Cannes Film Festival.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days (2007)

For those American cinephiles who don’t ever make the intercontinental trek to Cannes—I feel your pain, folks, I’ve never actually attended, either—there’s something very bittersweet about the annual announcement of the Cannes lineup. Even more so than reading fest dispatches, perusing the inaugural list of selected movies can inspire intense pangs of excitement and envy. There’s so much promise in those virgin lineups, composed almost entirely of movies unseen by all but their makers. Each Cannes competition slate doubles as a kind of pre-made Netflix queue, featuring new works from world cinema’s greatest auteurs. The films may turn out good or bad; before that, though, they’re just objects of anticipation, lumped together on one tantalizing bill—the menu for a film-buff binge that lasts nearly a fortnight.

For pure allure, no Cannes lineup in recent memory can top 2007, which was stacked high with potential masterpieces. Opening with My Blueberry Nights, the English-language debut of Wong Kar-Wai, the fest included new movies by (deep breath) Béla Tarr, Alexander Sokurov, James Gray, Catherine Breillat, Kim Ki-Duk, Carlos Reygadas, the Coens, Julian Schnabel, Christophe Honoré, and several other notable directors. David Fincher’s great Zodiac, which had opened Stateside a couple months earlier, was also in competition, as was a longer cut of Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse chapter, Death Proof. And that’s to say nothing of the filmmakers relegated to Un Certain Regard (like Harmony Korine and Hou Hsiao-Hsien) or those featured in the parallel festival Director’s Fortnight (like Gregg Araki and Anton Corbijn). Every day seemed to offer a new crop of beloved auteurs. Every line of the full lineup provoked a new nod of recognition. 

Yet, among these renowned artists, there was one name that didn’t ring many bells. Who, just about everyone had to wonder, was Cristian Mungiu? He was Romanian, and he had a film with an unwieldy title in competition. Had he also directed the grueling health-care polemic The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, which won Un Certain Regard two years earlier? No, that was countryman Cristi Puiu, whose shorts and features had helped put the nation’s recent cinema on the map. Mungiu, too, had a few films under his belt, but none had made much of an impact on an international level. In a lineup laden with heavyweights, he was an unknown.  

Screened on opening day, after the world premiere of the Wong Kar-Wai film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days took the festival—and its jury—by storm. As is sometimes the case at Cannes, a number of flashier efforts were no match for a stark slab of neorealism. But this was not a Rosetta situation, in which the jury seemed to be willfully taking a stand against more popular choices. Even those who preferred a different movie (No Country For Old Men was probably the other favorite) seemed unable to argue with handing the Palme to Mungiu’s uncompromising period piece. Possessed of both a fierce political spirit and a lean, patient aesthetic, it announced the arrival of not just a vital new voice, but also a burgeoning movement—the so-called Romanian New Wave, which peaked here, a few films in, with its most gripping and empathetic work.

In simplest terms, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days is about the worst day of a young woman’s life. Over what feels like maybe a 12-hour timeframe, just about everything that can go wrong for her does. A college student on a mission in Communist Romania circa 1987, she’s manipulated, insulted, intimidated, violated, and deeply traumatized, all to help a friend through dire straits. The woman is played by Anamaria Marinca, who wears every hardship and hard decision on her stony countenance. It’s a tremendous performance, one that involves conveying unwavering determination in the face of endless trials. Her character is first seen wandering her dormitory, haggling with fellow students over soap and cigarettes, in what seems for a stretch like real time. (The camera, always trailing beside her, is a silent and commiserating witness.) Besides establishing a culture of back channels, in which the deprived bend the rules to get what they need, this opening passage speaks volumes about the protagonist. She is, we can tell from the start, someone who gets things done.

Very gradually, Mungiu reveals the nature of the central dilemma and the meaning of the title. Marinca’s helpless college roommate (Laura Vasiliu, a meek foil for her co-star) is pregnant—and yes, she’s four months, three weeks, and two days along. With the father nowhere to be found and her academic future at stake, Vasiliu has opted to terminate. Trouble is, under the rule of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu—the on- or offscreen villain of just about every Romanian movie—abortion is not just against the law, it’s punishable with lengthy prison sentences (under his 23-year rule, the fertility of Romanian women was highly, and invasively, monitored). And so the two girls have arranged for an illegal procedure, to be performed in secret at a hotel by a back-alley doctor. To put it mildly, the plan does not go off without a hitch.

There’s a very faint element of farce to some of what occurs in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days, though it would be a mistake to call any of it “funny.” The film just keeps piling problems onto Marcina’s plate, compounding her troubles with inconveniences. Early on, she’s forced to borrow money from her boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean), and in exchange must attend a swanky birthday dinner for his mother. (More on that incredible scene later.) At not one, but two hotels, she spars with the concierges, bickering about rates and reservations and the complicated I.D. policy. Bureaucracy, a common target of the Romanian New Wave, is partially responsible for her woes. But so, too, is Vasiliu, who does everything wrong—from failing to book a room to forgetting the proper “equipment” to lying about what trimester she’s in. These missteps have consequences both minor and major. Though it wasn’t widely acknowledged in reviews, this is at least partially a film about transference of responsibility, and selfishness in the face of selflessness. Mungiu is tracing the undoing of female friendship within an oppressive environment—a topic he would return to in his follow-up, the terrific Beyond The Hills.

In quite a literal sense, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days is a pro-choice movie. It damns a society that robs women of their right to choose—and not just what to do with their reproductive organs, but what profession to get into, who to marry, and how to live their lives. Marinca, who fights for her roommate as she would fight for herself, knows what pregnancy means for a girl of her age: It’s a future decided for her, the death of option. To her boyfriend’s family, she’s just wife material, and by refusing to pull out when they have sex—the topic of a heated argument late in the film—Potocean is, perhaps on some unconscious level, attempting to trap her in that role. Of course, Marinca does make choices, few of them easy.  The hardest one entails an immense sacrifice, and the movie quakes with the full horror of her ordeal.

That scene, the film’s dramatic centerpiece, is a harrowing negotiation: In a couple of epic, unsparing long takes, Marinca and Vasiliu attempt to reason with their hastily secured doctor (Vlad Ivanov), a figure of calculating, rational menace and a predator that could only exist in a society that narrows its citizens’ options so severely. Suddenly, the girls haven’t enough money, but do they have something else to offer? Bargaining is another key component of the movie, which frequently finds Marinca trading favors (her company for a loan, in the case of Potocean) and bartering with other citizens (over the price of a room, over restrictive policies, etc.). But her parley here ends in harsh terms. The scene concludes with a pregnant pause of despair, two women unable to believe what they’ve subjected themselves to. I’m reminded of a similar moment in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, in which the Austrian director fixes his camera on two mourning innocents, forcing audiences to share their grief for minutes on end.

Thrillers were big at Cannes in 2007: Looking beyond obvious genre contenders like No Country For Old Men, Zodiac, and We Own The Night, many of the other selections also folded an element of suspense into their narrative fabric. What was The Man From London, but Béla Tarr’s icy, slow motion take on noir? Though not exactly Hitchcockian, didn’t both Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Banishment and Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park pivot around crime and death? In its own austere, reputable way, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days is a thriller, too. There’s a palpable sense of dread in much of the film, which finds its heroines risking not just arrest, but maybe their lives, too. At one point, Marinca discovers a concealed weapon, and Mungiu lets the implication of that “instrument” hang in the air like a storm cloud. Later, in a more subtle portent of doom, an I.D. un-retrieved from the hotel front desk hints at a threat lingering nearby. That sense of unseen danger, lurking just off-camera, finds its fullest embodiment during a nighttime errand, in which Marinca braves the darkness of the city for one final task. Without ever making the menace explicit, Mungiu creates the overwhelming impression that his heroine—and, by extension, the accompanying audience—is being watched and followed. If he wanted to, the man could make a crackerjack horror film.

But the best moment in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days—the one that combines suffocating tension, social critique, and even a sliver of black comedy—is arguably the movie’s most mundane. Reluctantly keeping her promise to Potocean, Marinca drops in for his mother’s birthday party, a shindig attended mostly by wealthy doctors. Check out the scene below, a master class in acting.

What’s remarkable here is the way Marinca seems to be both present and not present, responding politely to the condescending remarks—“Simple folk often have better sense than the educated,” one guest says about her working-class parents—even as her mind is miles away, back in that hotel room. Mungiu just sits on this torturously dull dinner, letting Marinca stew in private, silent anxiety while strangers speculate about her future. And then the phone rings, faintly and off-camera, for what feels like a small eternity. Marinca has given the number to Vasiliu in case of emergency, but now she’s stuck at the table, wedged between blathering professionals, unable to tend to what could be a life or death situation. (I’d call it the most suspenseful offscreen phone call of the festival, but that would require ignoring a very terrifying sequence in No Country For Old Men.) The whole scene adds agonizing insult to great injury. Of all days to have to meet the parents…

It’s context, ultimately, that lends 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days its full, cathartic power. Like most of the films lumped together into the Romanian New Wave, this one tangentially concerns the reign of Ceauşescu, a long-gone tyrant whose influence is still being felt in contemporary Romania. Crucially, Mungiu hasn’t just set his film during the waning years of the leader’s rule, right before he was ousted from office and executed by the people. He’s also made his heroine a university student. Either literally or symbolically, that aligns her with the demonstrators—many of them students—who helped fan the flames of dissent in 1989, when Ceauşescu sealed his own fate by ordering security forces to fire on unarmed civilians. When Marinca turns, in that final look to the camera, is there more than just weariness scrawled across her face? Is that the spark of revolution dancing in her eyes? By looking at the movie through the lens of history, its day from hell becomes the straw that broke the dictator’s back. Improbably, in this gauntlet of misery, a glimmer of hope emerges—and a gripping film becomes a great one.

Did it deserve to win? Stephen Frears, who headed the Cannes jury in 2007, recently spoke about the experience in an interview with the BBC. “They were very anti-American,” he said of his fellow voters, a group that included Maggie Cheung, Sarah Polley, and Michel Piccoli. “But I kept saying that American films are watched all over the world. This cut no ice with a few bolshy women on the jury.” Without a doubt, 2007 was a spectacular year for American movies at Cannes. If I’m forced to determine what, if anything, would have been a better choice than the truly fantastic 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days, three U.S. contenders—each a highlight of its director’s career—spring to mind. With Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant rapturously evokes the headspace of a teenage skater, resulting in one of his most transporting visions of frazzled youth. A future Best Picture Oscar winner, No Country For Old Men finds the Coen brothers in rip-roaring genre mode, fashioning an existential noir out of Cormac McCarthy’s Texas outlaw saga. And, finally, in what I’d ultimately choose as the best in show, David Fincher crafts one of the most obsessive, detailed-oriented crime procedurals ever with Zodiac—a masterpiece that looks stronger with each passing year and subsequent watch.

Next up: A Man And A Woman and The Birds, The Bees And The Italians

Filed Under: Film

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