Reel Review: The Price of Pleasure - Chandra Siddan

In November 2006 the Urdu service of the the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) commissioned a series of films under the Baat to Karni Padegi (We will have to talk) series on issues of sexuality in Pakistan. Three of the films from the series are reviewed here. Please note that the review includes spoilers. All the films are in Urdu. 

Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days
Christian Mungiu / Romania / 2007

Winner of the Palme d’Or and the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique; in English, The International Federation of Film Critics) award at Cannes this year, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is one of purest dystopian visions on cinema we have seen in recent times. Set in the winter of 1987 Romania in the last days of Ceausescu’s communist regime, the story of two young women unfolds over a nerve wracking day and night. Otilia (played powerfully by Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (played by Laura Vasiliu) are roommates in a student housing of a drab Romanian city and Gabita is in urgent need of an abortion. In the State controlled health care of 80s Romania, abortion is illegal and hence an underground operation faces Gabita. Otilia, the main agent of this story, has committed to helping her roommate get through the ordeal. 

Otilia’s journey turns out to be more harrowing than the pregnant woman’s since she has to compensate for Gabita’s unreliability and manipulative passivity. Starting with booking the hotel where the operation will be performed unbeknownst to the compulsively bureaucratic hotel staff, she also has to negotiate with the abortionist, pay him and deal with the aftermath. But the most harrowing test of her solidarity comes as soon as she brings the abortionist to the hotel room. 

The hotel room scene shot with a stark perfection has to be seen to be believed. Bebe, the abortionist, (played by VladIvanov) is one of the most convincing street fascists ever represented on cinema. Changing minute to minute from an oppressed underground service provider, to a fellow sufferer of a repressive State, to a paternalist laying down the line, to an aggressive blackmailer and rapist, Bebe is a fascist thug universal across space and time. A price has to be paid for pleasure – ‘It was not I who went fooling around’ he points out. He is the monster that repressive societies produce and becomes the real face of the State. In a masterly foreshadowing of his madness Otilia witnesses him yelling at his mother for having come out of her apartment where he had locked her up. A fascist is born where the enforcement of arbitrary rules has become routine. It is the very State that has abandoned its citizens that also provides the model for the underworld. 

So the enemy is not just Bebe – he is only one symptom of that which is rotten in the State of communist Romania. The hotel staff demanding IDs from every person going in and out, Otilia’s boyfriend who uses no condoms and ejaculates inside his girlfriend with no plan B should she get pregnant, his bourgeois intellectual parents obsessed with their relative power in the pecking order, their friend who takes offence at Otilia smoking in his presence, all contribute in illustrating a sexist, sexually repressive and vengefully punitive environment. Whether it is Otilia smoking or Gabita having sex or their friends wearing contraband lipstick they are all to be punished in different ways. This is an economy not of pleasure but of crime and punishment. 

While writer-director Christian Mungiu’s script is dense and the acting pitch perfect, the cinematography of this film is classically minimal. Intimations of a cruel world are evident in the drab and dreary colours of green and grey. Most scenes are shot hand held conveying the precariousness of the characters very effectively. The camera remains stationary on an unfolding scene as the actors walk in and out of them. One of Mungiu’s techniques is to not offer a shot of the most vulnerable character during her hardest moment. As Gabita and Bebe argue over whether Otilia is included in an ominous pre-agreed upon deal Otilia remains firmly off camera. 

Otilia’s visit to her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday party offers Mungiu a chance to deploy his satirical gaze at the smug bourgeoisie alive and kicking in a communist regime. In a medium shot with five people in the frame and many others outside, the camera displays the silent Otilia, still processing recent events and evaluating her relationship with her heavily mothered boyfriend, as the party continues. The older generation indulge in a self-satisfied wallow in their comfortable world – (and ironically, one of them is a doctor) – a world that has no room for erring country girls. This shot has the quality of the last supper. 

No cutaway mars its perfection. In a powerful stroke of agency, Otilia displays ‘the strength to force the moment to its crisis’ and breaks up with her boyfriend. She is now a woman with no illusions. Perhaps the film is as much about female solidarity as it is about criminalised sexuality and it is to Mungiu’s credit that he does not sentimentalise the relationship between the women. While a lesser artist would have ended the story with the cementing of the friendship after the harrowing journey, for him Otilia’s commitment to the blank faced Gabita comes up for serious reconsideration. And we face the harsh truth along with Otilia – loyalty is to the cause, not the person. It is political not personal. 

Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is based on a real event he had heard of and still affected him after more than 15 years. This film was developed from a series of stories he plans to bring to cinema called ‘Memories from the Golden Age’. Though set in the communist regime of 80s Romania there is something timeless and universal about this story. One can imagine numerous such events all over the world wherever State and/or society have frowned upon women acting upon their sexual desires. Sex is used as a master key to control whole populations, by instilling shame in sex not mediated or sanctioned by State/religion/society and by criminalising premarital sex, child births and abortions. Capturing a profoundly dystopian moment this film instills a dream of its opposite: a world where women seize the power to sexual agency and decolonise pleasure. 

Chandra Siddan
 was born and brought up in Bangalore, India. She moved to New York City where she studied filmmaking and then to Germany. Here she made The Gift, a short film and Williamsburg Experiment, a documentary. She relocated to Toronto, Canada in 2000 and founded the Regent Park Film Festival in 2003. She recently completed her first feature length documentary Remembrance of Things Present which won the Second Best Film Award at the 2007 Film South Asia film festival in Kathmandu, Nepal. Chandra may be contacted