After viewing Cristian Mungiu’s utterly mesmerizing and criminally underappreciated “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” I may finally understand the meaning, or at least one aspect, of the much debated term, mise-en-scène. To explain my sudden realization I will focus on (with regret) only one scene, the first shot of the film, and analyze the crucial role that certain objects we see on screen will play within the film’s greater plot and theme.
The importance of a scene’s physical objects in film or theater is one element of the definition of mise-en-scène. This potentially elitist term is literally translated as “putting on stage,” depending on your source (thanks, Wikipedia!). In my English undergrad days I learned that this definition can be interpreted as follows: everything you see before you on screen or stage will serve a purpose at some point in the play or film. Hence, if there is a gun lying on the table, it will ultimately be fired. There is no gun on the table in the scene I am describing in Mungiu’s film; there is, however, a plastic tablecloth and a bizarre fish tank; two objects whose presence give new, haunting significance to the term mise-en-scène and its cousin, foreshadow.
The first image in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is a cluttered table. Among the table-top objects is a tiny, ticking clock, an ash-tray with a still-smoking cigarette, a stack of what could be study notes, and an odd fish “bowl” which resembles something like a picture frame. Within this absurd aquarium, two orange fish swim in shallow water. I smell a metaphor, don’t you? We’ll get back to that later.
As the camera pulls away from the table, we first see a girl with dark hair and a fragile, innocent disposition sitting on a bed smoking a cigarette. Her name is Gabita, and on this day, she is going to have an abortion. As the camera’s vision widens a little more, we discover that there is another girl in the room with dirty blond hair who appears to be the more mature of the two, and also that both girls are in a college dorm room. The blond roommate’s name is Otilia, and she is going to help Gabita arrange this abortion—which, by the way, is an illegal and extremely dangerous undertaking in 1987 Romania. Once the two women are within our frame of view, they begin deliberately removing objects from the table, including the tablecloth itself. Gabita wipes the tablecloth clean before folding it and placing it in an open suitcase on her bed. The only object remaining on the now bare table is the odd fish tank.
Let’s start with the plastic tablecloth. Following this first scene is a marvelous over-the-shoulder long shot of Otilia walking the corridors of her dormitory, running into friends and bartering items. At one point during this take, someone yells to Otilia that Gabita’s father is coming for a visit. Otilia relates this news to Gabita, who then removes the plastic tablecloth from her suitcase and meticulously spreads it back onto the table, as if she will be having a four course meal with her father. We do not see Gabita return the tablecloth to the suitcase.
Later in the film, when Gabita and Otilia arrive at the hotel room where the abortion will be performed, they are joined by the “doctor” whom, in display of sick humor, is named “Mr. Bebe.” It is here that the phrase “termination” is finally uttered. Mr. Bebe coldly and pitilessly tells Gabita that she “will not require an anesthetic” because “the pain won’t be that serious.” He then tells her that there could be serious bleeding, and “if you bleed all over the room, we’re in trouble. That’s what the plastic sheet was for.” And that’s what the tablecloth was for. “Left it in the dorm,” Gabita shamefully admits. It is a sad and hopeless day when the purpose of a plastic, flower-print tablecloth is to catch the stains of abortion. It is an even sadder day when said tablecloth is forgotten.
What is innovative about Mr. Mungiu’s use of the tablecloth is that he is challenging one of the key tenets of classical mise-en-scène. Although it adds to the plot’s mystery and suspense, the tablecloth itself is never actually used. This whole aspect of what is absent, what’s not “put on the stage,” is part of the film’s brilliance. This isn’t to say that Mr. Mungiu is necessarily a minimalist. He shows us plenty. The unblinking long takes of Mr. Bebe inserting the probe into Gabita, and the nearly indiscernible aborted fetus lying in a plastic bag on the hotel bathroom floor are brutally graphic in their unfettered realism. But even more haunting is what Mungiu hides from the viewer. For one, although he shows us the dead fetus, he does not show us Gabita’s actual abortion. Instead, his camera follows Otilia to her boyfriend’s house. While Otilia is painfully sitting through her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday dinner, we can only begin to imagine the utter solitude, the tension and the terror of Gabita’s ordeal. Likewise, when Mr. Bebe forces Gabita and Otilia into momentary prostitution in return for his services, we do not see the sex. Rather, Mr. Mungiu keeps the camera in the hotel bathroom as each woman waits their turn. Both women’s reactions in the bathroom—Otilia coldly and mechanically washes herself, Gabita quietly sobs before doing the same—are enough to convey their utter shame and disgust. Thus, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” is something of a paradox. It is a film that gets under our skin thanks to its decidedly jarring images, but it is ultimately what we don’t see that haunts us long after the final credits.
But what about that fish tank? When Otilia and Gabita are in their dorm room early in the film, Gabita tells Otilia to remind “Daniella” to feed the fish, to which Otilia replies, “They’ll be fine without food for two days.” Fast forward to the last shot of the film, which finds both women in a hotel restaurant. Gabita explains to Otilia, who is upset with Gabita for leaving the hotel room, that she left because she was “starving.” The film ends with Otilia looking hopelessly out the restaurant window while Gabita carefully reads the dinner menu. We don’t need to have the fish tank sitting on the table alongside these women to realize that they too are trapped in shallow water, drowning.