Cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel created a three-part criteria for movies in her seminal comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Adopted as the Bechdel Test, movies that meet its standard must feature 1) two female characters who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man.
Easier stated than spotted in execution, the test has considerable currency nonetheless. NPR’s Neda Ulaby did a piece on it and Bitch blogger Rachel McCarthy James organized television shows around it.
As a feminist and pop culture enthusiast, I believe it the test be a useful tool for dismantling and refashioning canonical texts. Out of conversations with like-minded friends, I’ve helped generate lists of movies that pass the test. Taking cues from the A.V. Club’s New Cult Canon, I will be writing on some selections as a feminist rejoinder in the next eight weeks. In addition to the three points outlined above, I will emphasize female directors and global and independent cinema. I also intend to strike a balance between critically lauded and less commercially successful or cult movies, as I think that distinctions between the art house and the multiplex are ludicrous.
We begin the series with a feature about two Romanian college-aged women who survive a February day in 1987 that’s too stressful to dwell on boys. When you’re living in the twilight of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign, there are more pressing matters. Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days focuses on roommates who try to procure an abortion, an illegal procedure under the dictatorship.
4 Months went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes but was ineligible for nominations from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This slight has deeper political import for me when I consider what garnered Oscars for that year. I cannot speak for Stefan Ruzowitzky’s The Counterfeiters, an Austrian feature that won Best Foreign Film. However, it’s hard for me to opine No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood’s allegorical significance or debate Juno’s true or intended political agenda when a movie so poignantly renders the narrow margin of reproductive choice for many was in its company. While it situates the governmental sanction against abortion in a particular national and historical context, I was able to imagine a future and recent past akin to this in my own country with little trouble. The only movie that rivaled the cultural relevance of 4 Months for me was the film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, which lost Best Animated Feature to a movie about a French rodent whose culinary skills make even the most jaded food critics weep with delight.
Docile and flaky Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu) is the expectant mother, whose stage of pregnancy provides the movie its title. Proactive and brave Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is the friend who accompanies her throughout this harrowing journey and serves as the film’s protagonist. Though diametrically opposed in disposition, it is tough to say whether the state engineered one of them so ineffectual and the other headstrong and resourceful. Regardless, the grim realities of adult responsibilities under or outside of a Communist dictatorship can bring out the best and worst in people.
Otilia picks up the slack when Găbiţa fails to accomplish a crucial task or lies about the execution of something in plotting out her abortion. The procedure must be done off campus. This requires booking a hotel room, which becomes quite a task when grilled by an incredulous staff. A plastic sheet must be draped over the bed so that blood doesn’t stain the sheets and serve as evidence. A menacing Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) was alerted to perform the abortion but received contradictory information from Găbiţa. Otilia ends up tying up her roommate’s loose ends and paying the price for her carelessness when Bebe rapes both women as cruel punishment for putting him in a precarious situation. She also has to negotiate her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean), a petulant young man who wants to use his mother’s birthday party to introduce his partner to family and friends who make sure Otilia is aware of her lowered class standing that a polytechnic degree won’t help her transcend.
Watching Otilia navigate these situations is riveting. This can be attributed to Marinca’s mesmerizing performance and Mungiu’s canny employment of long shots and lack of reliance on a film score. The mediated austerity creates a meditative space for the protagonist to reflect on her current situation yet ramps up the terror when her environment caves in on her psyche. Witness when Otilia is surrounded by Adi’s family and sits through a phone call that may be from Găbiţa, who is recovering in the hotel. The scene gives her just enough room to recognize that she must escape the situation without Adi. When the two friends share a dinner table at the end of the movie following Otilia’s harrowing trip to dispose of the fetus, Marinca and Mungiu demonstrate for us why the pair can never speak of what happened that day, as well as why Otilia has no energy to eat.
Mungiu’s stationary camera also picks up on other minor but crucial details throughout the movie. It begins by establishing the goings-on in Găbiţa and Otilia’s dormitory, where several young people are studying, hanging out, and trading black market and pirated goods, which was commonplace. It suggests that we could turn our attention to any of these students and follow an engrossing story. However, the masterful acting and storytelling displayed in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days justify this as the main narrative and secures its entrance into the Bechdel Test Canon.