A Deed in a Vacuum
How to generate suspense out of under-privileging the viewer? If we think of one of the most conventional suspense sequences in mainstream cinema – the chase – we can also add that it is a great example of privileged perspective. When we look back on what still may be the greatest chase sequence in film – the car/train chase in The French Connection – the strength of the scene resides not least in the constant sense of privilege the film provides. Whether we’re seeing events from the sniper’s point of view, from Popeye Doyle’s, from the train’s, or from that of an innocent bystander, director William Friedkin and editor Jerry Greenberg constantly put the viewer in the best possible place for understanding the complexity of the situation. This is, if you like, logistical precision. How many films of the last few years have utilised this type of tension to engage the viewer? The Bourne films, The Departed, Casino Royale and numerous others.
Yet what about emotional precision – does this not often require under-privileging the viewer? This is one of the masterful elements in the Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where the director Cristian Mungiu frequently keeps the viewer in the situational dark as he maximises a very different type of suspense, yet not at all inconsistent with, or inferior to, the mainstream privileging. The most compelling example is when Anamaria Marinca’s character, Otilia, leaves her best friend, Gabita, in the hotel room, where the latter has just had a potentially dangerous abortion, to fulfil a social duty. Otilia has promised to go to her boyfriend’s parents’ apartment and celebrate the mother’s birthday. Otilia hasn’t met the mother before, and the film very skilfully works in all the social tensions of a girlfriend meeting the boyfriend’s parents, with at the same time the horror of what might be happening to her friend in a hotel room across town. The film has made it absolutely clear to the viewer that the abortion has been dangerous: Gabita (Laura Vasilliu) is as far into the pregnancy as the film’s title suggests, and the creepy abortionist who’s done the operation has warned the girls of the risks.
If Mungiu had cross cut between Gabita in the hotel room and Otilia at the apartment, much of the tension would of course have evaporated from the situation in the flat: of Otilia fretfully wondering how her friend is. We would have understood Otilia’s worry but not quite shared it. We would have known the situation was better or worse than Otilia could have imagined it because we would have known Gabita was safe or in danger. By eschewing the cross-cutting we cannot know just as Otilia cannot know. But to have done otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have been a dramatic problem, a necessary draining of viewer tension, for the filmmaker could still have, if rather mechanically, offered suspense. Mungiu could for example have shown Gabita haemorrhaging in the hotel room while at the same showing Otilia leaving the flat. Would she be able to get across town in time to save her friend? We would be given the privileged perspective, but what would have been lost in the process? Not suspense perhaps, but emotional precision. In the mechanical approach we would have had foresight; we would have the friend obliviously leaving the apartment while her friend is bleeding to death in the hotel room, but instead Mungiu gives us the opposite. As he says, in a Cineaste interview, “I didn’t use music, intrusive editing, or even close-ups if possible. I wanted to keep a proper distance from the subject and be honest with the story.” We have troubled empathy as Otilia wonders whether her friend is okay in the hotel, and so throughout her time in the flat she’s only half attending to the social situation as her friend may or may not be well, and the viewer’s position is empathically one with hers. We, like Otilia, also don’t know how her friend is doing in the hotel room across town. We have viewer empathy over viewer foresight.
Now, of course, there isn’t anything especially fresh in the technique, but it’s fresh in relation to context, and we can think of a couple of comments here that might be useful. One is Hitchcock’s, where he talks about building suspense in The Birds, with the director saying he could have cut between the girl and the kids in a key scene in the film, but decided to stay with the teacher while we wonder what is happening to the kids. The “old technique for getting suspense into that scene”, he says in Francois Truffaut’s book of interviews with the director, Hitchcock, “would have been a cross-cutting to the children down the steps and then back to the waiting crows, then backwards and forwards again. But that’s an old-fashioned method.” The other comes from Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, where, in a recent issue of Sight and Sound, he says: “while Americans watched our films closely and saw the essence of cinema in them – they made great use of European styles of film-making – we European directors never learned the American lesson of how to tell stories in a cinematic way so the viewer laughs and cries at our bidding.”
Yet like a lot of the finest recent ‘arthouse filmmakers from – Kiarostami, the Dardennes, Ceylan and Haneke – Mungiu seems to have absorbed Hitchcock and Hollywood but very much on his own terms, terms that are consistent with another of Hitchcock’s claims: that there are story directors and there are character directors. Hitchcock was a story director, but are Mungiu and the others not character directors in this bald dichotomy? Thus it isn’t enough to say that the arthouse darlings have simply mastered Hollywood manipulation, but, like Hitchcock, if in a very different style, have found new ways to avoid the old-fashioned: if Hitchcock pushed further into the issue of story; have the Europeans pushed further into the area of character, and if Hitchcock remains finally a filmmaker of problems (taking into account Paul Schrader’s useful if equally bald dichotomy that American film is interested in problems; European films dilemmas), are the filmmakers from Europe and beyond opening up these dilemmas suspensefully?
When we say we have viewer empathy over viewer insight this is, of course, consistent with the film’s theme – which is nothing if not about consideration for another, and how we perceive the other elsewhere. Often Hollywood might utilise the eschewal of cross-cutting for creating a higher degree of suspense: the suspense of the unknown over the known if you like, but for Mungiu it seems to be an existential, ethical issue. The lengthy sequence we’ve quoted above where working-class Otilia visits her middle-class boyfriend’s family, while Gabita’s alone in the hotel room, isn’t too far removed from the problem of the imaginary as Sartre explores it in The Psychology of the Imagination. Sartre proposes that “if I desire to see a friend I make him appear as an unreality. This is a way of playing at satisfying my desire. But I play at it only because my friend is in fact not there in reality. I give nothing to the desire; what is more, it is a desire that constructs the object in the main: in the degree to which the desire projects the unreal object before it so it specifies itself as desire.”
Sartre here is talking about a certain notion of the imaginary that European cinema has frequently absorbed: the desired imaginary, if you like, as opposed to the fraught imaginary. Whether it be films like Providence, Eternity and a Day, and Time Regained, the imaginary object is conjured up passively: often the Other is dead, fictionalised or in some way cannot exist except through a character’s imagination and memory. The fraught imaginary, however, is a common device of mainstream film. Think of all those sequences where the director will cross-cut from our hero hoping to rescue the heroine from the baddie and the film cuts between the hero’s chase and the girl’s peril. The hero can’t see the girl at risk, but the cross-cutting gives us not only a sense of the logistical problem to hand (how close is she to being killed; how close is he to the place where she is being kept and can he save her on time?), but also it allows him a fraught imaginary as he imagines while we actually see what is happening to her. It can be both logistically precise and imaginarily simplified.
Yet Mungiu is also very interested in the fraught imaginary over the desired imaginary, and so in his own way does exactly what Wajda claims European filmmakers don’t do – namely learn from Hollywood – but for his own specific ends. He offers the desired imaginary that the eschewed cross-cutting allows for – we and Otilia must conjure up what might be happening to Gabita in the hotel room across town – but at the same time this is not an idle imaginary at work, an imaginary that cannot impact on the reality nearby; it is a fraught imaginary where Otilia knows if she leaves the social situation she is caught in she can attend to her friend not far away. This is a particular type of empathy that contains simultaneously the suspense of a Hitchcock and the desire as empathy of the great European filmmakers like Resnais, Angelopoulos and Ruiz, evident respectively in Hiroshima mon amour, Eternity and a Day and Time Regained: that empathy of feeling that conjures up the dead in various manifestations, an empathy of course that Hitchcock was never entirely oblivious to and why in very different ways Vertigo and Psycho remain in themselves imaginatively empathic works.
4 Months… is a film that wants to explore a certain kind of communalism, a certain fellow feeling, as it witnesses the limits of Communism. The film may be set near the end of Ceausescu’s Communist regime, but it is searching out a very different type of Communism than that practised by the Romanian dictator. It instead seeks out a moment of communion as it examines the sociology of failed Communism. There is almost nothing to suggest in the film that people are living through communal ideals. Whether it is the abortionist hiking up his prices as he realises the pregnancy is so far gone, or, on seeing that the girls haven’t enough money, expecting them to sell their bodies to make up the shortfall, or, again, the boyfriend’s parents and their middle-class friends casually, condescendingly acknowledging Otilia’s lower class origins, the film shows a consistently failed Communism.
But then there is Otilia, a friend in deed, and the deed required takes in borrowing money for the operation, devoting the best part of a day to her friend’s abortion, a sexual encounter with the abortionist, and a fissure opening up between herself and her boyfriend. And all this is for a friend whose sense of gratitude is decidedly lacking, and whose own appetite after the abortion returns rather more quickly than Otilia’s when a mixed meat platter is plonked on the hotel dinner table. How good ought one to be without seeming like an idiot?
This isn’t really a question the film addresses. It instead focuses much more on the integrity of an action as readily as on the integrity of the person doing the act. So much so that even though Otilia asks her boyfriend what he would do if she became pregnant since they also practise unsafe sex, it hardly seems the reason why she helps her friend. Otilia seems to do so with the practical consideration of obligation. Yet this sense of obligation is towards herself as much as to Gabita. It is less a categorical imperative than a personal imperative. Much of the film’s power comes from the idea that she offers a personal imperative in a society that ostensibly should be practising categorical ones (a kind of Communist Kantianism), but most people seem caught up in personal gain or class superiority over communal action.
Thus the film captures a certain doggedness in Otilia’s’s gesture that proves absolutely vital to the film’s aesthetic. Though there is plenty camera movement, for much of the film it captures stillness rather than action. Mungiu’s images, like those of other recent Romanian films, like The Death of Mr Lazarescu, 12:08: East of Bucharest and Police Adjective, give the film an intense weight. If those great contemporary realists the Dardennes often suggest a camera playing catch me up with its characters’ actions; Mungiu settles for an inert aesthetic that suggests the opposite. He shows a world where movement seems weighed down by moral torpor. When Mungiu in Cineaste suggests that the political situation’s “major impact was to make us largely indifferent to morality”, we might add that his use of a “thriller rhythm” near the end of the film, as Otilia tries to get rid of the foetus, is the body’s actions transcending the ethical listlessness surrounding her. If the film finally feels like a spiritual work, a film that moves beyond its sociological content, it resides in what a personal imperative means in relation to a social imperative that is generally absent.
Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian may have suggested that by the end of the film “Marinca’s face has on it the end of innocence”, but we may perversely read it the opposite way: that the occasional good deed, no matter its price, is not the death of innocence but the birth of decency. Through the denial of the thriller rhythm in the early stages of the film, through to the thriller rhythm near the film’s conclusion, Mungiu offers a fine example of physiologising morality, of forcing the viewer into asking moral questions through a form that does not offer hindsight, but merely insight into the nature of a good deed against a backdrop of ethical irresolution. Such initial under-privileging for the viewer can lead to an intense sense of ethical privilege come the film’s conclusion. “I felt that if you’re honest but stay true to the story,” Mungiu says in Cineaste , “the audience will also react more honestly than if I was constantly imposing my own point of view.” In forgoing emotional manipulation for emotional precision, Four Months… offers an action that captures a first principle humanity within a more general social malaise, and allows the film to examine the cynical, without arriving at a cynicism of its own. In the Cineaste interview with the director, Richard Porton quotes Romanian writer Norman Manea’s musing on the “the state ownership of the individual”; yet Mungiu’s film shows how one person offers a deed that goes beyond the social, and the director finds a form in which to reflect it.