Maybe it’s jumping the gun to say so, but is the Romanian New Wave kaput already? The latest and most-Cannes-honored post-postmodern, hyperrealist, ex-dictatorship, young-auteur film movement seems to have already fizzled after Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007) emerged with last year’s Palme D’Or, nothing new has appeared at the world’s festivals from Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristi Puiu, Catalin Mitulescu or Radu Jude, at a time when they should be leaping on their global visibility and market success like five-year-olds on a summer puddle. In his prime, Godard would’ve churned out five features and three shorts in the three years since the scent of Romanian sulfur first hit the air with Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005). Who knows what’s keeping them (Puiu hasn’t had a credit in three years), or what bureaucratic Kafka-ness they must battle to get one of their extraordinarily inexpensive movies made, but the worst-case scenario has us looking already elsewhere on the globe for a freshly imagined gout of cinematic energy.
“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” may be the best of the Romanians, in part because, like “Mr. Lazarescu,” it constitutes a kind of state-of-the-art naturalism, down to the longueurs, underlighting, open-ended narrative and extraordinarily confident use of off-screen space. (When it’s done well, nothing looks as easy as evoking a three-dimensional world outside the frame.) But it’s a cleaner-running, more mysterious machine, because while it’s equally cataclysmic, it lacks Puiu’s film’s deadened sense of inevitability. It’s an ordeal by anticipation; if you’re a newcomer, the less known the better. Let us say just that it’s about the struggle to obtain an illegal abortion, and the repressed crucible at the film’s squirming center does not belong to the pregnant character. We’re not immediately cued up to know who we’re supposed to be empathizing with, in a crowded co-ed dorm a few years before the fall of CeauÅŸescu Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), the pregnant, nerve-wracked brunette or Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), her pragmatic blond roommate? Rolling out in long single takes that give the film an acute sense of ticking-clock anxiety (this is the way to do it, not clusterfuck-edit your material in a vain attempt to “make us feel” your story’s apprehension), Mungiu’s movie is about the minute-to-minute things that can and will go wrong, leading up to a hotel room face-off with a brooding, manipulative, completely unreadable abortionist in a leather jacket (Vlad Ivanov; both he and Marinca have netted critics’ awards) that plays so subtly and under-the-breath that only when it’s over do you realize the weight of what transpired. What we don’t see as in, what’s happening during a long, mercilessly suspenseful birthday dinner scene that is more concisely conceived than any ten American films this year is what Mungiu uses to knock the air out of us. It’s a raw, uncompromised and deliberately inconclusive film as a whole, and as such justifies its new wave hype by being antithetical in almost every facet to what American movies ordinarily do and how they’re shaped.
American cinephiles, at least, like their new waves to have a sociopolitical purpose battling oppression, recovering from totalitarianism, emerging from war or cultural anemia or pre-industrialized stasis. But the “cinema du look” French mini-wave of the 1980s enjoyed some eyeball-time here, although its only ambition was to be as glossy, cool and auto-Americanish as possible. To be fair, inaugural figurehead Leos Carax didn’t really belong in the grouping, but Luc Besson and Jean-Jacques Beineix certainly did, and their movies divided, and still divide, those who think they’re empty and glib, and those who think that style and ironic pulpiness are fab ends unto themselves. The announcement movie of the “movement” was Beineix’s “Diva” (1981), what with its supercool attitudinizing and cohesive vision of Paris as a parade of secret cultures, movie-movie posturing, quixotic passions, multi-culti matter-of-factness (years before it became truly chic) and post-punk fashion.
Here’s why “Diva” was a global hit: it conjured a modern urban universe in which everyone is an impulsive, hell-or-high-water artiste, whether they’re actually producing art or merely cluttering their rooms with wrecked cars and doing jigsaw puzzles. Everyone dallies and obsesses; aping Godard, Beineix sets up a suspenseful crime tale and then loiters in an apartment for a fat dose of flirting. The fugue of high and low Euro-culture is one of the school’s pervasive ideas, and here Beineix cooks up a dynamic in which a messy underworld of music piracy, murderous police corruption, kleptomania, chain-smoking, thuggery and movie fetishism revolves, bizarrely, around opera, and a particular reclusive, record-refusing diva (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) fond of “La Wally.” It begins, more or less, with a shoeless woman running for her life in a raincoat (nod to “Kiss Me Deadly”), graduates to tableaux of a nude-model Vietnamese girl coasting through a puzzle-piece-strewn millionaire’s loft on roller skates, and a moped chase through the Metro. Beineix’s idea of quickly transitioning from the street to the underground is to watch a passing woman get her skirt billowed up over an subway grate, and then cut to a shot from beneath. The film is not jacked on crank, exactly, but it’s restless and consistently inventive; nothing in it is ordinary, and no shot is drab or uninhabited. It may be Americanized after a fashion, but it’s also intensely French.
[Photos: “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” IFC Films, 2007; “Diva,” United Artists Classics, 1982]
“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (Genius Products) and “Diva” (Lionsgate – The Meridian Collection) are now available on DVD.