Like, for example, the critically acclaimed Romanian movie The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the abortion movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile in Romanian) is filled with details that may not be needed for the plot but that convey what day-to-day life is (was) like in Romania, is slow to very slow at times, is about a very weighty topic, takes place over the course of a few hours and is practically shot in real time, has a kind of naturalistic style to it, and is set in an environment that seems to be perpetually gray and somber.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in 1987, at the tail end of the Communist Ceausescu regime. It is relentlessly grim. The first half hour is especially slow, with little indication what the movie is even about (I had read enough ahead of time to know), and then becomes decidedly more intense. It has two significant relationships that are psychologically interesting to contemplate, or really four if you include the intriguing interaction of the abortionist with the two main characters.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is about a college girl (Gabita) getting an illegal abortion, and her friend (Otilia) who is helping her through the process. If anything it’s more about Otilia, who is on screen perhaps twice the number of total minutes Gabita is. Whoever got Gabita pregnant is evidently out of the picture entirely.
Under instructions from the mysterious abortionist that Gabita has heard about through the grapevine, the girls secure a hotel room. Otilia brings the abortionist there. He puts them on the defensive by criticizing their having put them all at risk by deviating in various ways from his instructions. He’s also not satisfied with the amount of money they’ve brought.
But he’s willing to overlook it all, and proceed with the abortion, provided they both have sex with him.
They do, he sticks something inside Gabita that can take hours up to a couple days to induce abortion (during which time she must not move), he leaves, and the girls have an understandably tense exchange about what just happened.
Otilia goes off to keep an engagement she very much tried to get out of but couldn’t–meeting her boyfriend at his family’s home for his mother’s birthday dinner. They have a decidedly uncomfortable dinner, then in his room she reveals why she’s been in such a pissy mood (though not the whole story certainly), and proceeds to take it out on him for–well, I’m not sure for what, except for being a man I suppose.
She then hustles back to the hotel, to join Gabita to deal with the aftermath of the abortion procedure. The whole movie, as I say, takes place over the course of less than a day.
OK, I had a lot going through my mind watching this movie. More than usual, and more than I’m going to be able to articulate, but I’ll hit two or three points as best I can as the ideas come back to me.
The abortion itself is a surprisingly crude and unpleasant affair, though maybe my image of illegal abortions is too influenced by Vera Drake,where the abortion process is presented as being far less traumatic. Now, a large part of that is attributable to the fact that the title character Drake has such an extraordinarily caring and nurturing bedside manner (which, um, is in contrast to the abortionist in this movie), but even the physical process itself seems far milder in that movie.
Even though I kind of want to say Otilia is the protagonist of the film–as she is more developed as a character and Gabita is more “the girl having an abortion”–the abortion sequence itself is very effective in conveying what a devastating experience this is for Gabita. It’s going to be traumatic to at least some extent regardless, but she has unwanted sex out of desperation, puts her friend into a predicament where she has unwanted sex to help her, has the guy who pseudo-raped her poke around inside her painfully, has to lie there rigid and in semi-shock waiting and hoping to abort at some point, has a verbal conflict with her friend, and is left alone by her friend. Not good.
Otilia is a cold one in a lot of ways. Hardened by the environment I suppose. But I was struck throughout this movie by how little warmth she displays toward Gabita. She doesn’t console her, put her arm around her, speak in a gentle, nurturing manner to her, even smile at her. She moves through the day with an attitude of grim determination and responsibility, if anything impatient with Gabita for not being as in control and responsible, and thereby making things harder for her.
You know who she puts me in mind of? The kind of stereotypical old fashion, emotionally closed, breadwinner dad who doesn’t go in for open shows of affection. The “Why do I have to tell you I love you? Isn’t it enough that I work like a dog to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads?” kind of male.
One could imagine her saying “How can you accuse me of not being warm and compassionate toward Gabita? Look at all I did for her, making the arrangements for the abortion, borrowing some of the money, having sex with the abortionist when it was the only way to get him to go through with the procedure, and on and on.” And it’s true. Behaviorally, you can’t go much farther for a friend than she was willing to go. She didn’t verbalize it, but she absolutely earned a “You owe me big time!” from Gabita with what she did for her.
She just isn’t very nice about it.
And then with her boyfriend she’s just openly bitchy. Honestly, what I thought about most while watching her way of dealing with people, but especially her hostile behavior with her boyfriend, is how little tolerance I have for a woman like her, especially in a relationship.
In the grand scheme of things, being irrational and accusatory and going off on someone close to you because you’re having a bad day or your hormones are doing this or that is hardly the biggest flaw a person could have. In the abstract I can recognize that. And I can recognize that on balance, heck, this woman is the hero of the movie. She’s strong, she’s intelligent, she’s resourceful, she holds things together in a crisis, she makes a huge sacrifice out of friendship–this is a pretty damn impressive person.
But I’m content to admire her from afar. She’s not someone I could feel close to. I know, you have to be tough to deal with life in Romania under the Communists and all that, but there are good, strong people who are also nice, in any kind of environment. She’s not one of them.
By the way, moving on to a completely different topic, I’d be a really crappy rapist, even broadening it to include the kind of exploiting of a person’s vulnerability to get consensual sex from them like the abortionist does here.
And I don’t just mean for the ethical reason that you’re hurting somebody and violating their rights and all that, though obviously there’s that. I’m thinking of it more in terms of how coerced or pseudo-coerced sex like that would totally miss the point of having sex as far as I’m concerned.
I like sex for at least a couple of major reasons. One, I crave connecting with people on a deep, intimate level. Sex for me is largely about the emotional closeness. Two, there’s an ego, scorekeeping thing to it. It’s a big rush that someone hot enough for me to be sexually attracted to actually wants me. Probably the majority of the time I like the awareness that I “did” so-and-so more than I liked the actual sex. There’s a feeling of accomplishment to it, a feeling of being accepted and affirmed by someone in an important area of life.
The physical pleasure of sex is frankly a distant third for me. I like the intimacy, I like the communication, I like having someone open up to me. And I like the ego rush of being wanted and having one of those exalted beings of the female persuasion deem me worthy of sex. The physical stuff pales in comparison.
OK, so let’s look at that in terms of pressuring these two highly unwilling women to have sex. It’s not intimate, it’s not a way of getting close to them, it’s not a way of getting on the inside where they let their guard down and are really willing to communicate and open up. It’s also not a manifestation of their choosing someone as worthy to have a threesome with them. By definition if the way you’re getting sex is by coercing or pseudo-coercing someone, then there’s no ego boost that these hot college girls are affirming your sexual desirability. Stealing someone’s gold medal doesn’t make you an Olympic champion, it doesn’t ground any sense of accomplishment.
Or same thing with actual rape. It doesn’t have the two main things that I value most about sex. It isn’t just that you’re obtaining those things through unethical means; you’re not obtaining them at all.
Yeah, you still get to do the physical stuff, and I’m not saying the physical part of sex holds zero appeal for me, but it’s a really, really watered down, cheesy version of sex when the physical acts are accompanied by no shared intimacy and joy.
Now I suppose the typical rapist wouldn’t necessarily disagree that the psychological part of sex is equally or more important than the physical stuff. He’d just have a very different set of preferences when it comes to the psychological stuff. Presumably it would be the very coerciveness itself that would be appealing, the sense that you have power over someone, that you have defeated them. The fact that they’re not wanting to do it isn’t something that lessens the experience; it’s what makes it so good. What is power after all if not getting people to do things that, independent of your will, they would not do?
So if the rush is in having power over someone, controlling someone, defeating someone, sadistically hurting someone, then they like sex for something other than just the physical sensations of the acts just like I do. It’s just very, very different non-physical stuff from what appeals to me about sex.
But in thinking about this in connection with the abortionist, I found myself puzzled about him and just what exactly was going on in him psychologically. He never struck me as anywhere near as creepy as he presumably should have.
I mean, how would one expect someone who acted as he did toward these women to come across? If the fact that the sex was forced or exploitative was part of the appeal for him, if he got off on the power of getting sex from unwilling women, you’d think maybe he’d have a leering, sneering quality, maybe a kind of strutting, arrogant awareness of his power. If it generated guilt in him but he just couldn’t help himself when he had an opportunity, you’d think maybe he’d be hesitant or look conflicted or maybe be apologetic afterwards. Or if his behavior was more a product of some other kind of mental or emotional disability, you’d think he’d come across as noticeably irrational or unstable.
But he seems sane, competent, and–other than being slightly irritated that certain instructions haven’t been followed–not antagonistic. He doesn’t come across as contemptuous of the women, or sadistic.
Just before he leaves he speaks in a caring manner to Gabita, urging her to call him if she suffers any complications or has any questions, offering to stop back to check on her, and even reaching out and gently patting her before exiting. None of that comes across to me as phony, or as a lame attempt to apologize for or mitigate how he’d treated her and her friend earlier.
Overall I’d describe his manner as matter-of-fact and businesslike. A bit impersonal and detached perhaps, but more in a professional way than a hostile way.
It took me awhile to identify it, but ultimately I realized that he has the manner of someone engaging in a kind of low level, everyday, economic exploitation. It isn’t like a personal, sexual, or misogynist thing.
It’s more like if a person owned a store in a poor neighborhood and knew he was charging a little extra and cutting a few corners to put some extra money in his pocket, but in a way that he’s long ago made his peace with as “what everybody does” or “the way the world works.” The abortionist reacts to their attempts to get out of having sex with him kind of like such a store owner might react to sob stories from customers wanting him to give them a break and lower the price on something or give them credit because they’re going through hard times. He’s like someone who’s hardened himself to things like that, and has an attitude of “Hey, nothing personal, but it costs what it costs. Business is business.” He’s put himself in position to derive certain benefits, and he’s not going to let himself get bogged down in sentimentality over how it all ultimately affects his customers.
Some people in Romania make a few extra dollars illicitly in the black market; he gets to have sex in exchange for risking his freedom providing illegal abortions. No one’s hands are clean; people do what they have to do to get what they want in life in a tough environment. That seems to be his attitude. As indicated by the way he speaks to Gabita just before he leaves, if anything he wishes these women well on a personal level. But business is business.
In terms of pacing and watchability, this movie ranks slightly above the aforementioned The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and some of the more dry or obscure foreign films, but below a good mainstream movie. But beyond that, there’s some fascinating stuff going on with the characters and the situations, so for overall quality I’d rank it reasonably high.