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On DVD: “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” and “Diva”

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06172008_fourmonths.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

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.

06172008_diva.jpgAmerican 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.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

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Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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