2018, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 58, winter, 2017-2018
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days at the moment of neoliberal catastrophe
by Dušan Bjelić
“… the guilty should pay” — Gabita
Endless neocolonial wars, genocides, immigration crises, sovereign debt, global warming and racism at the state level are signs in the present global crisis of what Walter Benjamin would have called “catastrophe” and what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism.” A critical response to this crisis calls for a transnational perspective—one that engages the global crisis at a national context and treats national themes and crises as variations of the global crisis. As a medium of global communication, cinema operates simultaneously on global and local national levels, and as such, cinema is the perfect transnational locus for critical intervention. By entering the global market with a universally appreciated thematic as its “cultural commodity,” small national film productions, like those from Romania, invite a global critical response, which in turn, by interpreting the creative ambiguities of the film’s images in different cultural contexts, may clash with, or rupture, the local national interpretative frames of the film’s analysis. Such clashes of interpretation may open up the national cinema to a transnational critical perspective.
As a case study of a critical site of the transnational clash of global versus national interpretative frameworks, I will offer an analysis of the 2007 Romanian Palme d’Or winner by Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, not as it is more commonly interpreted as a commentary on the Romanian Communist past, but rather as a critical allegory of the Romanian neoliberal future.
The film tells a fictionalized version of a true story dealing with an illegal abortion during the Communist prohibition on abortion. It traces that experience as undergone by a young Romanian student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and shows the rape that she and her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) experience by the abortionist Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) in exchange for his service. The ghost of Communism underpins previous interpretations of Mingui’s film. In this case, interpretations converge around the claim that the film is about the two women’s experience of the regime’s structural misogyny. That seems to be the critics’ sole entry into the Communist past. [open endnotes in new window] As Constantin Parvulescu in his 2009 Jump Cut article puts it, the film “… is ultimately the story of two friends and a friendship”; for Doru Pop, Mungiu’s film “is a moral questioning of how people can make bad decisions and act maliciously against their fellow human beings”; Dominique Nasta situates this “moral questioning” within “the ‘war between women and Ceausescu,’” adding that the film can be seen“ as a kind of slice of life, a critical fragment of the existence of these two girls under Communism, showing how true friendship and solidarity were at work.” Notwithstanding the obvious relevance of such analysis, in my view, these analyses leave out an important untapped pool of signification in the film. In short, Mungiu has cooked for us more than the critics have served.
Instead of purchasing a critical entry into the Communist past from the standpoint of “oppressed subjects,” I will offer an analysis of the villain. By deploying the strategy of dialectical reversal, I will view the abortionist from the Communist past as an allegorical inscription of the Romanian neoliberal future. As a cultural criminologist, I surely appreciate the dialectical reversal of U.S. villains into social critics. Such is the mafia mob Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the main character of the HBO TV series The Sopranos (1999-2007), who, as an allegory of the social critic, puts a criminal face on U.S. global power.
In fact, Tony Soprano’s crimes of racketeering pale in comparison to the white-collar crimes by his Wall Street golf-club members who were plotting the financial catastrophe of 2008. Here one can recall Bertold Brecht’s line from The Threepenny Opera (1928): “What is robbing a bank compared to founding a bank?” Furthermore, Soprano’s homicides and torture pale in comparison to the crimes against humanity and torture committed by George Bush’s government while the show was aired. The fact that mafia mobs all eventually face justice while politicians and bankers do not reveals that criminals remain within the boundaries of legal justice as most of us do, while politicians and bankers are above it. This unjust discrepancy gives the villains the status of critics of the system.
To some extent, the villain in Mungiu’s film, Mr. Bebe, is at once a victimizer in the Romanian past and a critic of the Romanian neoliberal future.
At first glance, the story about abortion and rape in Communist Romania has no tangible link to present-day global capitalism, but abortion and rape do speak to a global audience. Analyzing the previous film interpretations of rape and abortion as metaphors of Communist oppression from an U.S. neoliberal context allows for a transnational co-extension of this metaphoric meaning to U.S. “disaster capitalism,” with let’s say, rape as its metaphor, or, in other words, it allows us to read the Romanian past as a neoliberal present. To this end, I argue that Mungiu’s film in the character of Bebe, perhaps unconsciously, stumbles upon the Romanian neoliberal future in this film about illegal abortion from the Romanian Communist past.
To be fair, Mungiu himself in one of his interviews stated that his “dark and sober film” “inspects the side effects of Communism … from a very human perspective.” But in another of his interviews, he frames the Romanian economy as the film’s preamble about illegal abortion:
“It was a way of saying that we have to boost the economy: to complete our plans in economics and agriculture we therefore have to increase the population. … Because of this reasoning, abortion was forbidden for much of the population.”
Mungiu’s ambiguous intention allows multiple and unexpected interpretations. Surely, one can interpret Gabita’s and Otilia’s rapes as a manifestation of their “tacit resistance” to the masculine cruelty of the regime and see Otilia as the Romanian version of Sonya Mermeladova from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, who prostitutes to feed her family. But if we step outside the implicit humanism of the victim, we are left with the reality of the disciplinary and dehumanizing power of global capitalism. Considering the historic fact that neoliberal capitalism invented the International Monetary Fund (IMF) during the Cold War precisely for the purpose of economically destabilizing countries like Romania to use national debt to intensify internal tensions and lead to social rapture, then “the side effects of Communism” extend to neoliberalism as well.
Surely, Gabita and Otilia were dehumanized by abortion and rape. However, as the film shows, they made a choice to these ends so that their dehumanization belongs not to choice-less Communist power but rather, as we will see, to a liberal power. And that power deploys choice and contract to transform Gabita’s and Otilia’s subjectivity to submission. More likely, as I will address further, Gabita’s and Otilia’s dehumanization resembles that of Maria (Luminata Gheorghiu) a Romanian woman from Michael Haneke’s film Code Unknown (2000), who endures dehumanization on a Paris street corner as a beggar.
Mungiu’s film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is part of his series of films about life under Communism called Tales From the Golden Age. The film is the most recognized and awarded film in the basket of the Romanian New Wave cinema, which emerged on the global scene at the beginning of this century. Films such as 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), The Paper Will Be Blue (2006) Aurora (2010) Beyond the Hills (2012) harvested numerous awards at prominent film festivals in Cannes, Berlin, Chicago and Locarno and earned the praise of film critics around the world.
As a whole, these films make up perhaps one of the most significant small national cinemas with the creative power of small and cooperative productions challenging Hollywood’s expensive and studio production industry. These are low budget films, with a common minimalistic aesthetic of social realism, all telling dark stories, shot with a fixed camera in real time and filled with rigorous dialogue. The directors, cinematographers, and script writers also like to call themselves the “generation of the decree,” referring to the Government’s antiabortion decree 770/66 introduced in 1966—more about this later. Born in 1968, Mungiu regards his film as an autobiographical return to the time when the government had forced his entire generation of future filmmakers into life. Naturally then, dialogue with the ghosts of the Communist past directly or indirectly dominates in all these films.
Mungiu’s film 4 Months… tells a story based on a real event about an illicit abortion paid in the form of a “voluntary” rape at the time of Ceausescu’s antiabortion regime. The central character in the film is Otilia, a young woman who takes on the burden of helping her college roommate Gabita get an illegal abortion. The story begins with two female students in their dorm room getting ready to meet an abortionist recommended by a friend. Gabita is the pregnant one and is somewhat disorganized in contrast to Otilia, who has taken it upon herself to organize the entire illegal operation. They go over the list of things needing to be done: Otilia is to meet her boyfriend to borrow additional money for the abortion and to check in at the hotel recommended by the abortionist. And while Gabita waits in the hotel room, Otilia is to meet the abortionist at the agreed time and place. In addition, we learn at her meeting with her boyfriend that Otilia is expected the same afternoon to attend her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday party.
For the time being, Gabita disappears from the story and the camera follows Otilia running around to collect money from her boyfriend, pay for the hotel room and meet the abortionist. Unexpected glitches follow her in the process. First, the hotel reservations made by Gabita earlier over the phone turn out to have not been confirmed, and additional free rooms are not available due to a convention in the city. She thus goes to another hotel and checks in. But because a single room is not available, she has to check into two rooms, which cost more than planned. She then meets the abortionist, who arrives by car at the designated place just as Otilia arrives. They meet, and another glitch emerges: to his surprise, the one who needs the abortion does not show up as agreed. His dissatisfaction and suspicion grow after he learns that they did not secure a room in one of the two hotels he had asked for. After getting assurances from Otilia that he can trust them, they head to the hotel where he meets Gabita.
He immediately expresses his dissatisfaction about Gabita’s failure to follow their agreement and sets up a commanding tone in order to prevent any further glitches. With a stern voice, he outlines the criminal and medical consequences if things don’t go his way. He explains the procedures: “After I put the probe in, you’ll bleed and the fetus will come out.” Gabita must remain still until the fetus comes out, which can last two hours or “three-four days.” He further instructs her not to let anybody into the room, and in the case of serious complications she should call medical emergency and hope for the best. All in all, after the procedure is done, she is on her own. During the course of his examination of Gabita it turns out that she is further along in her pregnancy than she had told him and Otilia, which only further complicates her abortion and adds to Bebe’s suspicions about her. He nonetheless agrees to proceed with the abortion under the condition that he is not paid in money. This puzzles the women and during the course of heated exchanges, it becomes evident that in return for his service he expects to have sex with both of them.
We learn that Gabita had agreed during her phone conversation with Bebe that instead of monetary payment they would “work something out.” He insists that their agreement should be honored. They protest, he threatens to leave, and Gabita and Otilia accept his demand. The rape scenes are left out. Gabita waits for her turn outside, smoking in angst; then Otilia waits for Gabita in the bathroom. This takes place in the room where the procedure is performed, and then instructions are given to Otilia to throw the wrapped fetus “down the rubbish chute.” After Bebe leaves, the two women sit in silence. After a short reflection about the event, Otilia heads to the birthday party while Gabita remains alone in the room.
At the party, Otilia maintains her composure, torn between her rape experience and insults by the guests, middleclass academics, about her modest social upbringing—she is the daughter of a soldier—while her boyfriend remains a silent bystander. Otilia leaves the party unhappy about his passive attitude and heads to hotel room. There she encounters a somewhat confused Gabita in the bed and the fetus on the bathroom floor. As instructed, she takes the fetus wrapped up in towel. She heads out into the night with the promise to Gabita that she will bury the fetus; in the course of finding the place she ends up throwing the fetus into a trash container. Upon her return to the hotel, she encounters an empty hotel room, only to find Gabita at the dinner table in the hotel’s restaurant waiting hungry for her meal. To her question “Did you bury it?” Otilia reminds her of their agreement and asks her never to talk about it again.
Bebe’s disciplinary power
As Foucault pointed out, power is the relation of forces, of one action against another, creating a relation of domination and submission. As Kristin M. Jones correctly observed, “Bebe is a law outside the law,” meaning that his power comes not from Ceausescu’s law as the law of the country but from some other register of power—it comes from his language. As we will see from the conversation in the hotel room, Bebe’s language primarily functions not as an instrument of communication, but rather as a disciplinary instrument of submission. Bebe’s illocutionary power arises from his perverse use of a “speech act,” of Gabita’s agreement with him “to work something out,” as an institution of contractual obligation.
There are two structural preconditions at work in Bebe’s rape narrative. The first is his understanding of woman as the agency of distrust, and the second is his masculine language of terror. Both preconditions appropriate a power grid based on creditor-debtor relations. Bebe’s rape narrative can be broken down into three strategic segments: contract, debt, and payment.
If Gabita and Otilia’s submission to rape marked the total capture of feminine chaos, the sloppy preparations for Gabita’s abortion mark the beginning of it. As agreed, Bebe arrives on time by car to pick up Gabita, but Otilia shows up instead. Gabita, he learns, is waiting not at the hotel as he had demanded. Sensing potential danger in this disorderly beginning, Bebe stops the car. “Trust is vital.” Otilia offers an assurance, “You can trust us completely.” Bebe takes her answer as confirmation of what in his mind is an oral “contract” between Gabita and himself.
As a creditor, Bebe understands that the economy of debt is predicated on guilt. As soon as he meets Gabita, he capitalizes on her sloppiness and instantly establishes a strategic dominance to increase the volume of Gabita’s guilt. “We’ve got off to a bad start, young lady.” His long silence gives gravitas to his words and forces Gabita to own the guilt. He has no time for small talk. Instead, he handles the conversation as a war of positions. His stern, patronizing voice broken by significant silences draws a line in the sand from where he gives orders to establish control over what he has perceived to be a dangerous feminine chaos. As if speaking to a child, he repeats his instructions. “I told you two things on the phone. One, get a room at the Unirea or the Moldova. Two, meet me in person. You think I asked for the sake of it?” By not following his instructions, Gabita has created a dangerous situation, which opens an abyss of guilt from which she and Otilia will crawl out raped.
From the start, Bebe sets up disciplinary parameters and reduces Gabita’s and Otilia’s maneuvering space to avoid rape. After the physical examination, it becomes apparent to him and to Otilia that Gabita is beyond the fourth month. This dishonesty only increases Gabita’s overall debt-guilt to Bebe. “I don’t know, miss.” Bebe responds, “It is very dangerous. Who did you think you’d find to do it [short silence] in the fourth, fifth, whatever month it is?” What he means to say is “because your condition is far more medically and legally dangerous, your debt to me will increase.” Bebe bargains as if at a bazaar, “But everything in this world has its price.” “We’ll pay!” Gabita insists, but to her horror she will soon learn that she is also a debtor in a new kind of economy of debt.
Establishing the inventory of Gabita’s broken promises and positioning himself as the victim, Bebe moves in to close the deal. First, to Gabita’s mention of payment, Bebe looks at her with mild surprise, “Young lady, did I mention money? Did I mention money on the phone?” Otilia intervenes with an explanation. Ramona, the friend who recommended him told Gabita the price for his services would be 3,000 lei. To nip the situation in the bud, the girls hope for a monetary exchange. Bebe, turns the conversation to Gabita and to his previous agreement.
Before inflicting a shock, Bebe strategically offers a narrative of a ‘mutual aid’ as a rationale for their submission to him. “Young lady, what did I tell you on the phone?... That I understand the situation, and I could help you. Right? Did I mention money?” In response, Gabita reiterates Bebe’s words, “You said we’d work something out.” With Gabita’s confirmation about their agreement, Bebe passes halfway through the very sensitive part of “negotiation.”’ “Precisely. That is why I asked you to come in person. So that we could work something out.” Gabita should appreciate, he continues, that he does not judge her, since, “In life we all make mistakes.” He has not, he further reminds her, probed into her personal life, “I asked you nothing, not your name, nor the father’s name. It’s not my business.” On the other hand, he had nothing to hide. He came with his card and he left his ID at the reception desk. “If the police come, they’ll get me first. I am risking my freedom.” This would be damaging for him given that he has a family and a child.
“So if I’m nice to you, if I help you, you should be nice to me too, right? That is how I see it.”
“Wait… I’m not sure I understand.”
Otilia senses trouble. To avoid a reversal of the shock therapy so carefully handled, Bebe reminds Gabita about the asymmetry of their strategic relation: he can wait but Gabita cannot, “You are the one in a hurry.” It is too late for any misunderstanding. He leaves no space for the girls’ conversational comeback or for a U-turn in their negotiations. He presses on with his victimization,
“What did you think? I risk ten years for 3,000 lei? Is that what you thought? What do you take me for? A beggar? Did you see me begging? Here’s what we’ll do.”
At this point the camera shifts from Bebe to Gabita sitting on the edge of the bed fearfully awaiting what is about to hit her. We hear Bebe’s voice:
“I’ll go the bathroom. When I come out, you will give your answer. If it’s yes, tell me who goes first. If it’s no, I’ll get up and go. It was you who came to me for help.”
The clarity is finally delivered without mentioning the “it.” The part “tell me who goes first” clarifies everything. We see Gabita’s face in horror as she utters, “I feel sick, I can’t believe this is happening.”
Heated negations follow as Gabita and Otilia raise the price to 5,000 lei, promising money they don’t have. Bebe rejects it; angrily, he heads to the door. Blocking Bebe’s exit, Gabita finally capitulates: “Please help me fix it… the way you said.” “The way I said?” “Yes, the guilty should pay. I screwed up.” She is suggesting “My friend is under no obligation.” In a stern voice, Bebe utters, “You don’t suggest! If anything, you ask. I said I’d help and explained my terms. If you don’t understand, no one’s forcing you.” To end this painful exchange, Otilia shouts in a crying voice, “Fine! Give her the probe and …” Bebe asked, “And what? You think I was born yesterday?” Otilia sits on the bed and takes off her shoes. To their horror, the “it” is about to happen. As if in the marketplace, Gabita and Otilia have made their choices and they have closed the transaction.
“Mr. Bebe”: allegory of a neoliberal catastrophe
Although Romanian and Western film critics place interpretative gravitas on Otilia and Gabita’s moral predicament, in my view they have failed to appreciate fully the interpretative value of Bebe’s language. For example, Ioana Uricaru characterizes Bebe’s language only as “verbal abuse”; for Doru Pop, Bebe’s language is “the cruelest sequence of the movie”; and Dominique Nasta characterizes Bebe’s dialogue as “probably the most explicit and crude of the whole film.” Western film critics tow the same line. Kristin M. Jones characterizes Bebe “in a frighteningly modulated performance”; Damon Smith registers Bebe as, “increasingly hostile over their inability to pay his asking price”; Ann Hornaday sums up his character as, “alternately practical and monstrous”; while for Stephanie Bunbury he is “the strange, mysterious Bebe.”
To be sure, all these enlisted putative features signify the power of Bebe’s cruel masculinity, but they say nothing about its technology. As authorized by Mungiu’s illocutionary genius, Bebe is comparable only to David Lynch’s perverse illocutionary monster articulated by Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) from Blue Velvet (1986) in his erotico-terrorizing scream, “Don’t you fucking look at me!” Perhaps Parvulescu unknowingly inscribes a nightmarish Frank Booth into Bebe when he observes that “Once Otilia and Gabita leave the dorm, their privacy is stripped from them. The abortionist enacts a nightmarish embodiment of such exposure”—much like, one may add, the one experienced by Dorothy Valence (Isabella Rossellini), who is stripped of her privacy when exposed to the nightmarish Frank Booth in her own apartment. Bebe’s type of person would be well known to any Romanian, like Frank Booth, who, according to Lynch, is “a guy Americans know very well.” In this vein, Parvulescu describes Bebe as “the ultimate other of real existing communism’s atomized society, unmasking its proximity to a contractless Hobbesian state of nature.” Similarly yet somewhat differently, Frank Booth, as I would paraphrase, is “the ultimate other of real existing capitalism’s atomized society, unmasking its proximity to a contractual Hobbesian legal state.”
The liberal words “trust” and “free choice” dominate Bebe’s language and allow Gabita and Otilia to come to his submission of their own volition, which Nietzsche locates in the meaning of the German word Schuld (which means both “guilt” and “debt”). Although the oral contract between Gabita and Bebe rests on his “barbaric” side of power, Bebe’s strategy nonetheless operates within a “liberal situation,” like one in the market economy. Gabita has a “choice” not to submit herself to rape by not having an abortion to the same extent that a worker has a “choice” not to work (until he/she signs the contract). What forces Gabita and Otilia to be raped is precisely the forced guilt of the contractual relations so dramatically expressed by Gabita’s “the guilty should pay.” So, by inserting Ceausescu’s “absent presence” as a mediating force regulating Otilia and Gabita’s silent submission to Bebe’s sexual violence, in much the same way “that the social violence of the regime was accepted by women and men alike throughout society,” Pop contradicts his own claim that Ceausescu’s power did not stem from the perversity of the social contract, but Bebe’s did.
The making of indebted subjectivity
At the center of this story is debt: a woman’s debt to the abortionist, and in the distant background, the nation’s debt to its Western creditors. Creating sovereign debt has been at the core of neoliberal strategic dominance. Old categories from nineteenth- and twentieth-century revolutionary discourse, such as labor, class society, ideology, were redefined by debt. The neoliberal economy rests not on the exchange of goods, but on credit and contractual relations between capital and labor. In such an economy, the domain of production shifts from the production of goods to the production of the “ethical” debtor or, indebted subjectivity. Considering this new economic paradigm, Mungiu’s film becomes very relevant beyond the Communist past.
Structuring the plot along debtor-creditor relations, Mungiu tapped into what Nietzsche called in his Genealogy of Morals (1968) “human prehistory”—“ the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor, which is as old as the idea of ‘legal subjects’ and which in turn points back to fundamental forms of buying, selling, barter, trade, and traffic.” Debt as a promised payment to a creditor lies at the foundation of communal life. As Nietzsche again put it, “the community … stands to its members in that same vital basic relation, that of the creditor to his debtor.” This “vital basic relation” makes not only woman’s procreative debt to the nation possible, but it also makes rape a way for the community to “collect” its debt. In a misogynic economy of pleasure, the woman’s body is in permanent debt to a male’s sexual desire. If all social relations, as Marx argued, grew out of gender relations, then rape as a perverse power grid in the neoliberal economy of debt must not be a stretch. At the core of this perverse entitlement lies, according to Nietzsche, sadism, “the pleasure of being allowed to vent [one’s] power freely upon [another] who is powerless. (…) ‘Of doing evil for the pleasure of doing it.’”
The debtor-creditor relation is predicated on the formation of the subjectivity of debt. To this end, a debt economy demands political pressure on the subject’s submission to the interest of the creditor. Central to such a barbaric invention of the personal space is a creditor’s ability to produce a debtor’s moral interior, new subjectivity of debt based on a painful self-submission by inducing “blame,” “guilt” and “conscience.”
Mungiu concisely and accurately authenticates Bebe’s production of Gabita’s and Otilia’s moral interior filled with guilt. The hotel room conversation between Bebe and the two women breaks down on two disciplinary a priora—Bebe’s commanding language and Gabita’s and Otilia’s self-transformation into submission. Bebe’s language, like Frank Booth’s, discloses almost to the letter the monstrous aspects of language, not as a medium of communication but as a tool of domination.
His language is to be obeyed. Bebe makes this clear to Gabita as soon as he meets her in the hotel room:
“I told you two things on the phone. One, get a room at the Unirea or the Moldova. Two, meet me in person. You think I asked for the sake of it?”
Unlike Frank Booth’s over-the-top shouts, Bebe’s whispering voice, full of significant intonations and forced silences and his flat facial expressions and occasional displays of a self-restraining aggression, discloses the monstrosities of Bebe’s character, although at the same time, Mungiu maintains a certain free-floating autonomy in Bebe’s language. Ceausescu had no copyrights on the Romanian language, nor could he control its use on the fringes of the police state. Such limitations allowed characters like Bebe to become something on the order of an “entrepreneur of language.” Bebe shrewdly utilizes a command in order to maximize the victim’s submission. This discloses the link between domination and profit.
Bebe reveals another important aspect of capitalism. As we know from the history of South Baptist entrepreneurship, capitalism begins not with an economic calculus but with baptism with something on the order of “incorporeal transformation,” a symbolic power to transform the body instantaneously into the sign of its own system, like “the transformation of the passengers into hostages, and of the plane-body into a prison-body.” In Bebe’s world, it means a symbolic shock aimed at rupturing the girls’ pastoral moral boundaries in order to open them up to their future. This is to the new disciplinary system of power based on the neoliberal rape-like economy of debt.
This brings us to the second disciplinary a priori regulating the hotel room conversation, Gabita’s and Otilia’s personal “capital” of submission. For Bebe to enter into relationships of rape with the two women, probably not the first for him, Bebe must have known that he could rationally invest his desire in their hidden capital of submission. To say it differently, when imagining and constructing Bebe’s character, Mungiu must have intuited an essential principle of the capitalist economy, namely, that in capitalism, the human becomes a subject investible for capital only if she makes an enterprise of herself through submission. The strategically concocted neoliberal narrative permeates Mungiu’s Bebe. Gabita’s and Otilia’s rationalization and willingness to submit to the non-monetary exchange proves Mungiu's deep inside into the essential function of “human capital” within the neoliberal grid of power, which is based not on economic rationality but on moral submission.
Central to this relationship is the creditor’s assessment of the debtor’s moral life, his or her daily habits, life conditions, commitments to social mores and conventions. We witness Bebe at the very outset making such an assessment about Gabita’s and Otilia’s “human capital” to submit: What are they made of and to what extent will his investment pay off?
At first, Bebe introduces himself in an open manner, as an honest man who takes a risk to help a woman in need.
“I have nothing to hide. I came in my own car. You can take my number. It’s maybe too late to start again, but I will say this: trust is vital.”
Trust is vital for various reasons. First, by getting from Otilia, “You can trust us,” Bebe creates an ethical bond between the girls and himself, as if saying, “We are together in this risky and dangerous enterprise.” By agreeing in “trust” he has implanted this ethical feature into Gabita’s and Otilia’s “human capital.” It therefore becomes part of who they are, trustworthy women.
Based on this strategic achievement, as we see later, Bebe will return to remedy the crisis of the creditor-debtor relationship when the women insist on monetary payment for the abortion. Because he was “honest” about himself, he expects Otilia to be equally honest about herself and Gabita.
“Has your sister ever done this before?” “How old is she?” “You live together?” “But you are not from here?” “Where are you from?” “Are you renting?” “How is it [life in a dorm]?” “What do you study”?
This is all vital information for Bebe’s investment. It provides him a measure of their ability to be molded into indebted subjectivities, the extent to which they will “work on themselves” to meet his invested expectations. He is like a wolf, who, upon entering the stable, counts the bodies and calculates his gains.
The creation of “human capital” as indebted-by-guilt subjectivity defines the catastrophe of the debt economy in Mungiu’s film. Gabita’s submission to the guilt induced by Bebe finally speaks out, “Please help me fix it. . .the way you said, … the guilty should pay. I screwed up.” To her suggestion to spare Otilia, Bebe responds, “You don’t suggest! If anything, you ask,” meaning that she is not in any position to negotiate. She is weak and he is strong; she is punished precisely because she is weak. By collecting on his debt, Bebe has produced two new subjectivities and a new form of debt. Along the scheme of “disaster capitalism” Bebe has made Gabita and Otilia see themselves as he saw them: as two self-made ‘whores.’ For that alone they will forever be in permanent debt to Bebe’s rapist gaze. Rape will be their secret and Bebe will own their traumatized psyches forever: “We’re never going to talk about this, OK?”
Mungiu navigates his characters through two economies, explicitly Communist and implicitly neoliberal. It is not a stretch to consider that Bebe’s “economic imagination” emulates today’s “disaster capitalism” at the time of Ceausescu’s forthcoming demise. The only economic argument made in previous reviews of 4 Months… comes from Parvulescu. He contrasts the students’ dorm economy of solidarity with the brutal external economy. He reads in Mungiu’s reconstruction of the Communist-era student dorm, a “nostalgic gaze” at the student dorm as “a communist utopia,” a “word of solidarity” where “property has minimal value and … everyone is willing to share” (including the money for Gabita’s abortion), proving that Mungiu registers the “side effects” of the Romanian economic context. But, in my view, Mungiu’s “nostalgic gaze” is ambiguous.
Debt figures in multiple intersections of, on the one hand, the explicit students’ utopian and administrative economies, and on the other hand, explicit and implicit economies. Gabita’s and Otilia’s debt links opposite ends of the explicit economy. The lei is Romanian legal tender which they borrow from their dorm friends to pay for Bebe’s services.
Let us consider the trajectory of the two debts related to rape, Gabita’s and Otilia’s debt to the dorm and to Bebe, in relation to the two opposing types of masculinities, Bebe the rapist and Otilia’s boyfried Adi (Alexandru Potocean), the solidarity-money lender. At first glance, passive Adi stands in sharp contrast to aggressive Bebe. While it is difficult to imagine Adi as a rapist, one can surely imagine (transnationally) a male dorm boyfriend as a rapist. If Mungiu could allow a story about the university professors having sex with their students at the family dinner table, then he must also accept another (transnational) fact that rape is prevalent in the student dorms.
Precisely because of its intimacy-inducing solidarity, student dorms breed rape; statistically speaking, a woman is more likely to be raped by someone with whom she has intimate relations and trust, like a boyfriend, a father, a relative, etc., than by a stranger. I take that Pop reinforces my claim when he writes,
“In Romania, it has been suggested that a rape is reported every 10 hours, and police records show that there are many violent acts [that] are never even officially recorded.”
Were Communist’s student dorms excluded? The borrowed money from the pool of the dorm’s solidarity, according to the plot and the girls’ received information about Bebe’s low cost, lures Gabita and Otilia into rape. Shouldn’t we infer that the trajectory of the dorm’s money, which lead Gabita and Otilia to rape, links on the level of the socially misogynic system of desire Bebe’s rape desire with the hidden student dorm’s rape desire?
Let me reiterate that Mungiu’s intentions are far from clear and that their ambiguities breed perversity honing Bebe’s critical edge. When power achieves the total submission of its resisting force, it reveals its abstract “diagram”—a grid of its disciplinary manipulation through which, in this story, Gabita’s abortion, despite the rape and all its risks, succeeds. By not showing the actual rape, Mungiu cannot prevent our afterthoughts about the catastrophic productivity of power.
This brings us to the implicit economy in which power is a productive force. The most perverse aspect of the story is precisely the productive aspect of disciplinary power. Bebe’s rape made Gabita’s abortion real. Mungiu created Bebe with the understanding that power produces reality before it represses, while punishment establishes the productive relations of power. Hence, Mungiu’s point, much like Foucault’s, is that social reality is by definition punitive in nature.
In so far as rape became a punitive currency in the transaction between Bebe and Gabita, Mungiu elevates rape into a working metaphor of the economy of debt in general and, in the case of Bebe, in particular. Perhaps Mungiu unknowingly “stepped” on Bebe’s allegory of the Romanian future as if on a hidden landmine, and as a traumatic experience remained repressed underneath the articulated intention. Perhaps the same applies to the previous film analysis.
Bebe: an allegory of post-communist Romania
In her book What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next? (1996), after her in-depth analysis of post-Communist conditions in Eastern Europe and Romania, Romanian-American scholar Katherine Verdery arrives at an unexpected conclusion:
“My skepticism about whether the former socialist countries are undergoing a transition to democracy and market economy has led me to propose instead the apparently absurd image of a transition to ‘transition to feudalism.’”
As an example of her claim, she uses the case of Caritas, “the largest and most far-flung of many pyramid schemes that sprang up in post-Ceausescu’s Romania during 1990-1994.” As in the case of Bernard Madoff, the founder of NASDAQ (the world’s second-largest exchange system) and his Wall Street Ponzi scheme, or in the case of the corporation Enron, such pyramid schemes caused massive losses in people’s life savings, pension funds, university funds, charity funds, homes and in some instances, it led to suicides, including Madoff’s son Mark Madoff on December 11, 2010. In the Caritas case, the founder, Ioan Stoica, a shady figure known before 1989 as “an accountant, a fixer for the Communist Party apparatus, and a black-market currency trader. . . [who]. . . seems to have also done time for embezzlement,” invented a “mutual-aid” pyramid scheme promising eightfold growth of the deposited amount of money every three months.
Caritas, according to the Romanian National Bank, in 1993 held “a full third of the country’s banknotes.” The lowest estimated figure involved around two million depositors, mostly “working-class families and pensioners” many of whom sold their houses and apartments and other valuables and deposited in Caritas a hope that they would be able to buy it back and still have substantial savings left. But Caritas also had a hidden class of participants: “former apparatchiks, current politicians, and the nouveaux riches.” While the pyramid lasted, this class with Stioca’s help managed to collect their profit in time at everyone else’s expense. The outcome of the Caritas collapse in 1994 shaped the Romanian “transition to ‘feudalism.’” This financial apparatus transferred millions of leis in people’s savings into the hands of newly formed “unruly coalitions, less institutionalized, less legitimate, and less stable than parties, [with a] territorial base . . . primarily regional or local rather than national.” Now as feudal war-lords, they rule over the ruins of Ceausescu’s Romania.
While Verdery still maintains the reality of Western democracy and the market economy in contrast to the Romanian “transition to ‘feudalism,’” Jean Baudrillard, on the other hand, registers the neoliberal economy of debt as a return to feudalism. “Credit,” he argues, “brings us back to a situation characteristic of feudalism, in which a portion of labor is owned in advance, as serf labor, to the lord.” This feudalistic rule of owning labor in advance through debt is an ancient rule that goes back to the Barbarian invasions of Europe.
George Duby’s analysis of early medieval history credits the Barbarian invasions for the rise of the new economy of debt imposed by force. An entitlement to collect presupposes relationships of domination and subordination. This ancient barbaric right to collect debt by force defines today’s financial capitalism in many ways. Consider, for example, the barbaric inscription by the German right to collect the Greek national debt or by U.S, investors to collect Puerto Rico’s national debt at the expense of social devastation equivalent to early feudalism. Even though enshrined in contract as the legal base of the capitalist economy, the economy of debt stems from the ability to inflict pain. This right, in Benjamin’s register would be a document of civilization, which is also a document of barbarism.
As a motto for her book, Verdery offered the following question-answer: “Q: What is Socialism? A: The longest and most painful route from capitalism to capitalism.” After agreeing with Marx’s insights about “commodity fetishism” as one of the defining features of capitalism as a state of illusion, she locates a variation of capitalism in the Romanian Communist economy of “plan fetishism.” To the same extent that illusion feeds capitalism so “socialist plans generated the illusion that everything is under social control.” But unlike in socialism where the government absorbs the blame for economic crisis, the illusion of market exchange in post-Ceausescu Romania would make the economy visible as a non-personal, yet still brutal “force of nature.”
So, when Pop makes claim that Bebe represents Ceausescu’s “absent present”, channeling the system’s subhuman forces through abortion and rape onto Gabita and Otilia, one wonders if Pop in fact registers a presence of germinating brutal “force of nature” streaming through the black market economy of the student dorm economy of the “fetish commodity” (the Hollywood movie East of Eden, the New Zealand TV show Thorn Birds, and ads for Kent, Salem Menthol and Marlborough cigarettes and Wrigley’s chewing-gum) soon to be incarnated in Caritas’ Stoica’s money fetish.
To the extent that one can argue that the embezzler Stoica is a harbinger of the forthcoming invasion by the “force of nature,” Bebe is a harbinger of Stoica. In this story about abortion and a double rape, Bebe is the agency of a “barbarian flow” cracking “the enclosing pastoral shell” of the two innocent women, announcing Stoica’s financial rape of the nation. Both criminals navigated Ceausescu’s black market economy, they crawled out onto the scene as sexual or economic rapists, skillfully utilizing their lure inside the system of illusion. Because the fetish is an eroticized object, co-extends money into an illusion of ownership of the female body, hence Gabita’s and Otilia’s rapes become the currency for Gabita’s abortion. In doing so, Bebe as allegory of post-Communist Romania teaches us a valuable lesson about the barbaric nature of the debt economy and forecasts the forthcoming Romanian ‘feudalism’ as confirmed by Verdery.
Abortion and the Romanian economy of debt
As an important authority on the social history of Romanian pro-natalist polices, Gail Klingman sums up their tragic consequence, “In Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania the ‘marriage’ between demographic concerns and nationalist politics turned women’s bodies into instruments to be used in the service of the state.” The Romanian economy of debt looms in the background of such a monstrous example of bio-politics.
No European nation after World War Two experienced industry as national catastrophe as did the Romanians under Ceausescu. Many catastrophes begin with a hope for a better life. Ceausescu’s hope to transform Romania into a modern, independent nation, where people like Otilia could work and realize their hopes, hinged upon massive industrialization. To this end, East European socialist countries, the USSR and China, as well as Romania, made two strategic turns—first, to move from an agricultural to an industrial economy; and second, in a “strategic opening” toward the West to obtain cheap Western loans for industrial development. Both strategic moves toward quick industrialization faced two challenges, both demographic and financial.
Ceausescu’s economic rationale to boost the labor force amid massive industrialization contradicted a normal decline in birth rates. In 1966, the Romanian birthrate dropped to 14.3 per 1,000 from 19.1 per 1,000 in 1960, a decline that stood in the way of Ceausescu’s economic policy. The same year the Romanian government introduced Law # 770/1966. The following year 1967, the birth rate went up from 14.3 to 27.4 per 1,000 only to drop in 1983 to the level of 1966. While the forced industrialization of a woman’s procreative sexuality might have been economically justified, it was still a monstrous idea. Because of these antiabortion policies between 1965 and 1989, 9,452 women died due to complications related to illegal abortions.
In one of his interviews, Mungiu ponders the abortion ban as a case of Romanian exceptionalism:
“And the Soviet Union promoted sex as a way of relieving social pressure. It was completely different in Romania. Even in Poland, despite the influence of the Catholic Church, the policy was different. This was something specifically Romanian. It’s difficult to find a good explanation. But, according to my research, the causes stem from Ceausescu’s motivations from 1966 on that were partially economic and partially propagandistic.”
But according to my research, the various forms of the legal prohibition of abortion in Romania existed a long time before Ceausescu. Since the union between the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1864, antiabortion laws existed in various forms until 1957, when the Communists abolished it. Before Communism, Romanian eugenicists between the two world wars placed the control of woman’s sexuality at the center of national security and demanded that the state protect the nation’s “biological capital.”
Romanian eugenicists used the term “biopolitics” long before Foucault. Biopolitica was the title of a book published in 1926 in Cluj by the most prominent Romanian eugenicist Iuliu Moldovan. “The reproductive family,” he wrote, “on whose purity our biological future depends, will be placed at the center of biopolitics….“. In the words of Marius Turda, “
"The biopolitical axiom shared by Romanian eugenicists and the racial scientist, 'The individual is nothing; the nation is everything,’ forcefully illustrates how the national body was planned and subsequently controlled between 1918 and 1944.”
This story about Ceausescu’s antiabortion law may also be seen as a story about the discursive continuity of Romania’s racial history. One should consider the fact that the Ceausescu’s pro-natalist policies, as Klingman pointed out, had a hidden racial agenda. Antiabortion measures were more liberal toward Romania’s Roma, Hungarian and German population in Transylvania where they constitute a sizeable group of ethnic minorities and have always been a source of Romanian ethnic anxiety; while the Roma population had very high birthrates, the government nonetheless considered this sector’s expansion a problematic.
One government report, for instance, evidences racial undertones vis-à-vis the Roma’s undesired birthrates, stating, “The exaggerated reproduction is determined especially by their lifestyle, the degree of their social and cultural backwardness.” There was a tacit approval of Roma abortion, as Klingman argues. Roma women regardless of age could get an abortion in Arad, a city in Transylvania, where a large Hungarian and German population resided. In other words, antiabortion policies were a national legal tradition tied to the interest of the state regardless of its ideological orientation.
Ceausescu faced neoliberalism as his second challenge. Neoliberalism came into life through a “shock doctrine” of manufactured debt. During two oil crises during the ‘70s, the OPEC countries flooded Western banks with enormous amounts of cash, inviting the bankers to figure out where to invest it. Because of the decline in industrial investments in the West, the developing countries seemed the best option for foreign investors. At the time, David Graeber writes, “Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (at the time, this was called “go-go” banking).”
The initial low interest rates skyrocketed overnight to 20% due to the change in U.S. money policies. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, this created a debt crisis among the developing countries, including Romania. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in as a debt enforcer to demand structural adjustments as a precondition for obtaining refinancing. Graeber continues:
“poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on basic foodstuffs, or even policies of keeping strategic food reserves, and abandon free health care and free education . . . all of this had led to the collapse of all vulnerable people on earth . . . of looting of public resources, the collapse of societies, endemic violence, malnutrition, hopelessness, and broken lives.”
Neoliberalism changed the economic gravitas. The interests of shareholders, bondholders, and other owners of security prevailed over the interests of the welfare state to protect the economic rights of citizens. During the 1970s, the neoliberal transformation of state financing lead to a massive increase of national debt of socialist and Third World countries heavily dependent on expensive Western loans. Contrary to its claims of introducing economic regulation, neoliberalism emerged as a new form of power and conquest by means of the debtor-creditor relation.
Unfortunately for Romania, the rise of neoliberalism coincided with the Romanian economic need to increase its debt; unlike other East European countries, like Poland and Hungary, Cornel Ban writes, “Romania only began borrowing on a large scale at a very inopportune time: in 1979 the interest rate shock triggered by the U.S. Fed made cheap development finance unavailable.” Romania became one of the first casualties of the emerging national debt economy, according to Ban,
“… oil and financial shock in the capitalist world percolated through the gas-guzzling Romanian economy and were interpreted as an imperative to disengage from international finance.”
To this end, the Romanian government imposed stringent austerity measures—all produced things were exported, domestic consumption and incomes were reduced, and exported electricity, oil and gas left Romanian homes freezing during the winters. Austerity measures, Ban contends,
“led the regime to adopt policies that eventually threatened its promise to deliver basic economic rights. Unfortunately for the regime, these policies and their consequences eventually contributed extensively to the dramatic anti-regime mass mobilization of December 1989 that pushed the uncivil society to withdraw its commitment to the regime.”
As living conditions worsened, so did antiabortion laws for Romanian women. “The pro-natalist policies introduced by Ceausescu in the 1960s,” Klingman writes, “were a mild version of what was later to become a draconian policy…,” including punishment for the abortionist and those helped in the process. Antiabortion laws and prosecutions of illegal abortions were the Government’s response to conditions favoring abortion. Klingman further points out,
“In 1986, Ceausescu introduced a campaign—unique in the history of Romanian medicine—to analyze the health of the population, particularly that of women between the ages of sixteen and forty-five, the years when most women are fertile. These exams, regardless of officially professed intention, subjected women of childbearing age to state control of their reproductive lives.”
By 1989, not only had Romania paid off its entire national debt ahead of schedule, but it had also accrued nine billion dollars of state surplus. Instead of improving the Romanian standard of living, however, Ceausescu fell prey to the neoliberal virus; he decided to turn Romania into a creditor nation and to use the surplus to provide loans to African countries and to the USSR. On the flip side, Romania’s citizens had to pay off the national debt to the Western banks under stringent austerity measures. To this extent, the Romanian population became captives of the government-enforced creditor-debtor relations. In reality, the Romanian State only regulated this relationship between Western creditors and Romanian labor.
In short, confining the events of rape and abortion to the personal experience of the characters, as Romanian film critics tend to do, glosses over the fact that human intimacy does not rest outside the omnipresent global context. The film accurately authenticates the structural exterior of the story shaping the story’s psychological interior on an intimate and personal level. The prohibition of abortion, as the film’s dramatic prerequisite, opens a point of tension between the structural and personal and the industrial and sexual, where Ceausescu’s desire for Romanian massive, quick industrialization intersects with Gabita’s desire for an abortion. The hotel room permeated with risk and fear attests to the moment of infrastructural clash between politico-economic and personal desire. The demand for more labor input and higher birthrates coincides with stricter antiabortion laws.
The mise-en-scène:an “infrastructural unconscious”
In Blue Velvet, David Lynch assembles iconic objects from different decades—an ambulance arriving at a crime scene from the ‘50s, a Montgomery Cliff poster from the ‘60s on Sandy’s (Laura Dern’s) bedroom wall, Roy Orbison’s hit “In Dreams,” Frank Booth’s bellbottoms from the ‘70s, Jeffrey’s (Kyle MacLachlan’s) narrow tie and his favorite Heinekenbeer from the ‘80s—to convey a sense of time and, when placed together, to convey the reality of a single dream. Lynch’s insight into what might be called “the infrastructural unconscious” of a most advanced “commodity-fetish” society unpacks the ways in which unconscious desires and material objects inscribe each other, molding a cultural matrix on a most ontological level.
Libidinally invested fetish-objects in his film assume illusionary agency but with real consequences; they become ghostly characters telling their own stories. The lyrics of “In Dreams” script an actual interaction between Frank and Jeffrey. When Jeffrey wakes up toward the end of the film on his lawn wearing a short sleeved-shirt printed with the single film frames used in the industry of dreammaking, referencing film montage as the technology of dreams splicing impossible temporal relations, the shirt design acts as the chorus in a Greek drama, announcing, “What you have seen up to this point was only Jeffrey’s dream.” [Images#36, 41]
Predicated on Verdery’s claim about the illusionary nature of capitalism and socialism’s fetish- based societies, Lynch’s “infrastructural unconscious” seems applicable to Mungiu’s film about Communist “fetish-planning” societies.
Born in 1968, two years after the introduction of the antiabortion laws, Mungiu likes to call himself a “child of the decree” (In Scott 2008, 9 of 14) of the Romanian antiabortion laws. As a child belonging to the generation of industrially induced births and as a director who made a film about this history experienced by women opting out of it, Mungiu compressed the sexual and economic, the intimate and political and the personal and artistic into a single plane of immanence whereby one domain inscribes the other. Mungiu inscribes the film as industry with a personal genealogy of Romanian industry as if to say, “As a child of Romanian manufactured births my ‘Oedipus complex’ belongs to the Romanian industrial-complex.” My biography and my intimacy are infrastructural. Taking a cue from Mungiu, the task is how to find and recover his genealogy in the missing industrial aspect of the story about a generational catastrophe inside the national industrial catastrophe.
I credit Pop’s and Parvulescu’s insights into Mungiu’s “infrastructural unconscious” inscribed in the film’s constructed mise-en-scène. Pop makes a valid observation when he claims that Mungiu constructed his mise-en-scène as a resonance box amplifying emotions or emotional emptiness. Parvulescu makes a similar claim about the mise-en-scène of the student dorm as Gabita and Otilia’s safe zone. For instance, he registers industrial objects as personal memorabilia for Mungiu’s reconstruction of the Communist past in the student dorm as a mise en scène:
“4 Months… is full of souvenirs from the late days of the Ceausescu era. (…) The camera takes us through cluttered dorm units, long and dark corridors and shared shower rooms. We are introduced to everyday activities and to hosts of products, staples of the time period. We learn about brands of cigarettes, soaps, hairsprays, shampoos, illegal movie-renting, powdered milk, instant coffee, a pastry; medicine, contraceptive pills, antibiotics and painkillers; dial-pad phones, dorm furniture; and identity cards… 4 Months… depict the milieu of the dorm as a world of solidarity… However, once Otilia … and Gabita … exit this microcosm of objects/fetishes, a different world starts to unfold.”
Agreeing with the claim that Mungiu’s mise-en-scène relates to characters and their emotional context, I argue that Mungiu also uses the mise-en-scène on the level of a critical concept and its rupturing effects rather than only amplifying their emotions. In fact, both are part of a dynamic whole, whereby an emotional charge is amplified by the mise-en-scène setting up the stage for its infrastructural rupture.
Like Lynch’s industrially produced unconscious, the recovery of the student dorm’s past material totality via “the nostalgic gaze” is possible only from Mungiu’s own extraction of the past cultural matrix from his traumatic industrial memories.
Although Parvulescu draws a sharp contrast between the dorm’s infrastructural interior and its infrastructural exterior, nonetheless he correctly sees “the dialectical relation between inside and outside,” i.e., the infrastructural continuity on the level of a critical concept rather than on a personal and emotional level alone. Like language and money, these prerequisite of all industries, have constituted the dorm’s social milieu, and according to Parvulescu’s correct observation, also of Gabita’s and Otilia’s innocent subjectivities; language and money have constituted the dorm’s exterior along the same rules. For example, the psychological comfort of the dorm plays a role in the girls’ naiveté to go along with the abortionist who costs less than other abortionists and who is willing to “work something out.” Just as the Romanian depositors’ trust in a “mutual aid” scheme promising eightfold profit in three months set them up to Stoica’s scam, so Gabita’s and Otilia’s student dorm naiveté set them up for Bebe’s “mutual aid” scam.
Mungiu makes evident the infrastructural continuity in and out of the students’ dorm in the very opening shot of the film rich with infrastructural meaning. It shows a pile of money placed next to an aquarium with two fishes on a table in the student dorm room. Much has been said about the aquarium and its metaphor of captivity in connection to the film’s last shot, where both women sit after the abortion and rape at the restaurant table in silence “liken isolated little fish caught in an evolving world,” but little has been said about the money in the opening shot.
Sure, the opening shot with the two fish in an aquarium enounces Otilia’s and Gabita’s entrapment, but the stack of lei placed on the table next to the aquarium in the opening shot suggests a monetary aspect to the metaphor of captivity. The silent money tells so much of what is “under the table” about the two characters, about their interpersonal entanglement with each other, with their friends and most importantly, with Bebe.
Mungiu uses the money to construct the story rather than just to have money in the story. From Shakespeare’s Othello to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, from Frank Capra’s It is a Wonderful Life (1946) to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), money as a fetish and source of illusions, as a means of social mobility, prestige, politics and most often as a desired object of crime has appealed to writers and filmmakers addressing the cultural matrix of capitalism. Often a criminal’s cynical reason articulates in a critical moment the cultural matrix of capitalism to expose its moral hypocrisy.
For example, in Andrew Dominique’s Killing Them Softly (2012), the hit man Jackie Cogan, (Brad Pitt), provides one such articulation. The client demands to be paid in full for the kill as agreed at the very moment when Obama giving his acceptance speech in Grant Park in 2008 is playing on the bar’s TV:
“This guy wants to tell, we are living in a community. Don’t make me laugh. I am living in America, and in America you are on your own. America is not a country. It is just a business. Now you fucking pay me!”
Here the hit man is a social critic of capitalism, despite its social contract, and despite Hannah Arendt’s claim that the United States is the most legal state, U.S, capitalism does not and cannot function within the boundaries of the law as long money works as a fetish.
In contrast to Parvulescu’s definition of the girls’ “innocence,” Mungiu is rather cruel. In fact, he punishes the women for their naïve understanding of money as a means of escape from an undesirable pregnancy. As Mungiu makes very clear, language and money are not a means of escape. Rather, they are disciplinary mechanisms of capturing those who desire escape. Stoica did not invent the pyramid scheme. It was there as a money game, as a technology of capturing those who were willing to play—money always circulates within scams.
Fully aware of it, Mungiu does not treat money economically, but rather politically, as a device for capturing desire for the women’s impossible escape from rape. In this regard, money parallels Bebe’s language’s scheme of capture. Money and language are at once the subject’s exterior and interior. They are external tools for obtaining certain goals, but they also capture and express the subject’s most intimate desires. In short, Gabita vested borrowed money in her desire to obtain an illegal abortion, while Bebe vested his language with his desire to rape. The clash of the two competing desires led to Gabita’s and Otilia’s personal catastrophes.
Decoding the ways in which these two infrastructural elements compose the characters and story offers the key to unpacking Mungiu’s mise-en-scèneas the locus of his infrastructural trauma.
By “following the money,” we learn about these two friends as the story turns into a catastrophe. Less “anal” about money than Otilia, Gabita does not keep money in her wallet as Otilia does. Instead, she moves it around, from the table to the shelf until she hands it over to Otilia. Orderly and reliable by nature, Otilia masterminds and multitasks the entire event which is about to unfold. We also learn that Gabita and Otilia borrowed the money from their dorm friends, including Otilia’s boyfriend Adi; “I’ll pay you back from my grant” she responds after receiving an envelope with 200 lei.
Borrowing an additional 200 lei becomes an issue in the hotel room after they incur unexpected expenses related to the room. The money further brings drama over the payment. In the heat of the argument with Bebe, Otilia offers 5,000 lei to Bebe, money they do not yet have and which will require borrowing an additional 2,000 lei in just a few days.
“Is 4,000 enough? 5,000? How much?”
“You have that kind of money?”
“We’ll borrow it.”
“Borrow it? You complain that hotel is 100 lei more, but you can get 2,000-3,000 just like that? How do you plan to get it?”
“And pay it back how?
“That’s my business.”
“How soon can you get it?"
“Next Saturday at least. “
“All of it, by next Saturday?”
Bebe and Otilia’s exchange over the money sets up the prelude to the rape; the ancient drama between “haves” and “have nots” is replayed as a clash of antithetical characters and desires, and yet their roles and the outcome of the conflict are historically predictable. At the end of the drama, resistance ceases and submission begins. Their time has expired and the rape releases tension into a monstrous tranquility.
The signs “written on the dorm room table” activate the post-catastrophic analysis in the same way that Jeffrey’s shirt in Blue Velvet activates the post-dream analysis. The stack of borrowed money lying next to the aquarium now is deemed obsolete, an object of false hope, a depot of trashed desire, and yet its obsoleteness renders the aquarium metaphor up to date. Behind Gabita’s, Otilia’s, and the viewer’s assumptions that the borrowed money will buy an abortion, Mungiu hides the cause of the catastrophe and allows the film to roll in pre-rape time; as soon as we enter post-rape time, the meaning of the opening shot changes. Now one can see Bebe’s rape desire lying in wait inside this infrastructural fraternity between the money and the aquarium in the girls’ dorm room. In retrospect, the same can be said for the two beds in the hotel room set up for a double rape.
Marx theorized money as a fetish generating the world of allure and illusion. The importance of Bebe’s refusal to accept money allows Mungiu to eliminate money’s purchasing value in order to reduce it to a pure illusion. Instead he follows the trail of money and registers an accumulation of activities, trust and hope, all leading to a trap. It works, on the other hand, as an archive of retroactive truth, like dream analysis. After the long and painful silence in the hotel room, the time of awakening arrives: “I am curious to know,” Otilia asked Gabita as if analyzing a film that she just saw, “Why did Ramona recommend this Bebe?” only to arrive at the unknown mechanical cause, at the glitch of their catastrophe:
Otilia: “I am just upset things ended up this way, because of your stupid ideas. We could have gone to Mrs. Jeni or whoever Dorina mentioned, could have done it differently.”
Gabita: “It’s easy to say that now. But remember, you agreed, you said if Bebe was cheaper, so what if he was a guy?”
One truth becomes clear: the money lures in the subject down to his or her coordinates of submission within the pyramid of wealth, power and gender, much like in Stoica’s pyramid. Why a close friend would recommend to another close friend a rapist as an abortionist translates into why a close friend would recommend depositing personal savings into Caritas? It turns out that Otilia’s concern about money is what “chose” the cheaper Bebe. A poor person’s desire to save money explains Otilia’s as well as Stioca’s depositors’ financial motivations.
Once again, the money charted the trajectory of their moral drama. As in a thriller a manipulated to kill road sign on a foggy night luring a driver over a cliff, the money lures Gabita and Otilia into a rape just as it lured two million Romanians to bankruptcy. Paying for an extra bed in retrospect marks the two-bed hotel room as the lending location of the two bodies already in free flow. Unfortunately for Gabita and Otilia, the solution to their problem belongs to a currency that belongs to a different economy.
Ironically, Mungiu locates the real value of money inside the student dorm. Only there is this constitutive instrument of the market economy and means of exploitation circulating in the opposite direction. At least Parvulescu sees it that way,
“the dorm as a world of solidarity, a protective matrix endowed with many features of a communist utopia, where money and basic needs never seem to be a problem (problems are usually overcome by mutual help). Property has minimal value, and even though there is commerce, everyone is willing to share.”
Gabita and Otilia borrow the money for the abortion from this pool of solidarity, from this spatial and temporal “utopian niche of the dorm.” The notion that borrowing money might help Gabita to obtain an abortion, from the post-rape perspective, turns out to be an illusion, a compass for the wrong roadmap. In retrospect, the entire misconstrued plan was cooked up inside “the utopian niche of the dorm.”
As it was in Cogan’s film, in Mungiu’s film money is an instrument of lure, deception and rupture, but unlike in Cogan’s film, the money is economically impotent for exchange just as Frank Booth is sexually impotent for sexual intercourse. Here comes Mungiu’s extraordinary insight. By making money economically impotent, Bebe’s cruel intention reveals money as a pure fetish. As such, Bebe unleashes the attached Eros from the fetish of money into rape.
With this powerful insight, Mungiu challenges the notion cherished by the neoliberal narrative today that creditor-debtor relations are relations of fair exchange. This notion collapses in the face of Otilia’s and Gabita’s rapes. Sure, dorm friends helping dorm friends, lending money to bail each other out is a human detail of solidarity captured by the system in which those at the bottom of the food chain, let’s say Gabita and Otilia, will eventually be, putatively put, ‘fucked over’ (think of Greece or Puerto Rico today) not as an exception to the rule, but as a rule itself; hence, bankruptcy laws, austerity measures, imprisonment, torture and assassinations.
Which Romanian women?
Let me in conclusion recap the argument. Romanian and non-Romanian film critics unanimously frame 4 Months… as a film about two young women’s resistance to the oppressive Communist regime which denied them their human rights to free speech and to contraception, symbolized in the very act of brutal abortion and rape. As Pop sums it up,
“Like the actions of Otilia and Gabita, who performed abortions as forms of painful resistance against an authoritarian regime, which was imposing on women a behavior (sexual and reproductive) that was considered unacceptable by them, there is another example of this type of woman’s resistance against male authority.”
While not denying the regime’s oppression, my disagreement is on the level of interpretation and on the level of the concept of power. On the level of interpretation, the film registers more than Communist power. On the level of the concept, while critics’ view of power operates within the assumed binaries of legitimate power based on social contract versus Ceausescu’s personal power of “a contractless state of nature” (Paevulescu 2009, 6 of 11), power is not personal, rather, it is a relation of forces beyond the legalistic “good and evil.” Its application, that is its disciplinary tactics and strategies, pressing on many points inside a social body produces realities as a disciplinary order. On the basis of the consequences of Gabita’s and Otilia’s transformations into “the subjectivity of debt,” Bebe’s disciplinary tactics and strategies belong to the debt economy of power. In this regard, rather than “resistance” Gabita and Otilia enacted a “radical submission” to the power based on contract; their subjugation prepared them for the Romanian neoliberal future.
So, what is the post-Ceausescu mode of victimization of Romanian women? After many Romanians lost their guaranteed jobs due to neoliberal privatizations, and after they lost their private wealth due to Caritas, many immigrated to Western Europe seeking employment, saving money and sending it back home to the rest of the family to build or rebuild houses, pay bills, or deposit to Caritas. In cinema, one such Romanian woman immigrant in France is Maria, whom Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown (2000) captures begging on a Paris street corner. Her “radical submission” is evident in her passive acceptance of her humiliation by a French teenager Jean (Alexandre Hamidi) who discards a piece of wrapping paper onto her lap as if she were a garbage container. Her passivity is not a Christian resistance, which Pope saw in Otilia (2014, 142), but rather an immigrant’s disciplined submission; although the nation of universal human rights par excellence protects her right to protest, she remains silent.
Later, Maria unpacks her humiliating existence to her Romanian immigrant friend. Once, when she was begging on the Boulevard Saint-German, she narrates in a crying voice,
“A man was about to give me 20 francs. But when he saw my outstretched hand, he threw the bill into my lap as if I nauseated him. I rushed back here and hid myself in the attic. I cried my eyes out all day.”
Rather than defending her pride, she learned how to swallow her humiliation. This is the debt she owns to the nation which has loaned her a street corner. As Elena Del Rio notices,
“Maria does not always appear as an immigrant in the film, but when she does, she is stripped of her dignity and her capacity for joy and action. Whether sitting on the sidewalk as s street beggar or handcuffed and deported back to Romania, Maria is the extreme instance in the film of the notion of ‘bare life’ theorized by Agamben.”
In Haneke’s film Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), an African immigrant from Mali, acts on behalf of Maria’s dignity and confronts Jean in an encounter that immediately turns into a scuffle. The police arrive, Maria is handcuffed and deported to Romania, Amadou is arrested and detained, but Jean is left unquestioned. One may say that in this scene Amadou replicates the political posture of the East European dissident standing up for human rights in the face of Communist oppression; the difference, one would assume, is that French law would compel the police to detain Jean. Instead, power acts from within local disciplinary apparatuses, not as a force of justice but as an instrument of punishment, as a force of humiliating submission. Because Maria was unable to obtain a license to distribute newspapers exposed her to the barbarism of an administrative deportation to Romania. If you have seen both films, you can feel Bebe’s “absent presence” in the cruelty of the legal system and see Gabita and Otilia’s humiliations inscribed on Maria’s humiliated face.
1. During the Cold War, the West recognized Eastern Europe solely in terms of dissident discourse about Communism’s repression of (dear to the liberal democracies) civil rights. Repressed subjectivity, in dissident discourse, became the sole point of critical entry into the Communist regime. However, Communism is no longer a threat to Romania. Putin is not Lenin but a neoliberal oligarch as is Jeff Bezos the owner of Amazon or Bill Gates the owner of Microsoft. The threat instead is neoliberalism, yet old habits die hard. Betrayed by Communism’s broken promise about a humane society, dissident discourse re-appropriates the humanism of the repressed subject to mount a critique of Communism while it glosses over the oppressive conditions of subjectivity today. In fact, Romanian today looks like any other East European neoliberal state. As a member of the EU and NATO, Romania hosts the U. S. Patriot Defense Missile system directed at Russia. Along Poland, Romanian also hosts CIA “Black Sites.” Romanian national debt in 2006 was 12,30% of GDP in 2017 is 37.1% of GDP. [return to text]
2. Constantin Parvulescu, “The cold world behind the window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian cinema’s return to real-existing communism,” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (Spring 2009), 6.
3. Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Press 2014. 144.
4. Dominique Nasta, Contemporary Romanian Cinema. The History of an Unexpected Miracle, London: Wallflowers Press, 2013. 196.
5. Film Catcher interview with Cristian Mungiu at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F7YzgdAJErA(Accessed October 3, 2017)
6. Richard Port, “Not Just an Abortion Film: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu,” Cineaste, Vol. 33, No. 2 (2008). 37
7. Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Press 2014. 201.
8. Kristin M. Jones, “Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Film Comment (January/February 2008)
https://www.filmcomment.com/article/review-4-months-3-weeks-and-2-days-cristian-mungiu/ (Accessed October 3, 2017)
9. Iona Uricaru, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: The Corruption of Intimacy.” In Film Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 4 (2008). 16.
10. Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Press 2014. 201.
11. Dominique Nasta, Contemporary Romanian Cinema. The History of an Unexpected Miracle, London: Wallflowers Press, 2013. 191.
12. Kristin M. Jones, “Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Film Comment (January/February 2008)
https://www.filmcomment.com/article/review-4-months-3-weeks-and-2-days-cristian-mungiu/ (Accessed October 3, 2017)
13. Damon Smith, “Once Upon a Time in Romania,” Filmmaker, Vol. 16, No. 2. (2008).
http://filmmakermagazine.com/archives/issues/winter2008/4months.php#.WbR5Kq2ZOek (Accessed October 3, 2017)
14. Ann Hornaday, “ ‘4 Months’: A Time and Place Brought Unerringly to Life,” Washington Post (February 1, 2008).
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/01/31/AR2008013103627.html (Accessed October 3, 2017)
15. Stephanie Bunbury, “Cannes glory for new voice”, New York Times (May 29, 2007). (Accessed October 3, 2017)
16. Constantin Parvulescu, “The cold world behind the window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian cinema’s return to real-existing communism,” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (Spring 2009). 6.
17. David Lynch, thecityofabsurdity.com http://www.thecityofabsurdity.com/bluevelvet/bvabout.html Accessed October 3, 2017).
18. Constantin Parvulescu, “The cold world behind the window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian cinema’s return to real-existing communism,” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (Spring 2009), 6.
19. Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Press 2014. 201.
20. Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man. Semiotext(e), 2012. 25.
21. Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library, 1968. 499.
22. Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library, 1968. 507.
23. Friedrich Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: The Modern Library, 1968. 501.
24. Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. 80.
25. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979. London: Palgrave 2008. 226.
26. Doru Pop “Rape and Sexual Violence in Contemporary Romanian Cinema,” Cine-Excess. http://www.cine-excess.co.uk/rape-and-sexual-violence-in-contemporary-romanian-cinema.html (Accessed August 3, 2017).
27. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 227.
28. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 159.
29. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 169.
30. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 171.
31. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 170.
32. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 194.
33. Quoted in Maurizio Lazzarato, The Making of the Indebted Man. Semiotext(e), 2012.
34. George Duby, The Early Growth of European Economy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978. 119.
35. Benjamin Walter, Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 256.
36. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 181.
37. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 181.
38. Katharine Verdery, What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. 181.
39. Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Press 2014. 200.
40. George Duby, The Early Growth of European Economy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978. 119.
41. Gail Kligman, “Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania,” In Ginsburg, Faye D. and Rapp, Rayan (eds.) Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 234.
42. Gail Kligman, “Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania,” In Ginsburg, Faye D. and Rapp, Rayan (eds.) Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 245.
43. Richard Port, “Not just an Abortion Film: An Interview with Christian Mungiu,” Cineaste, Vol. 33, No. 2, (Spring 2008). 5.
44. Maria Bucur, Eugenics and Modernization in Interwar Romania, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press, 2010. 10.
45. Marius Turda, The History of East-Central European Eugenics, 1900-1945, Sources and Commentaries, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. 302.
46. Marius Turda, “Controlling the National Body. Ideas of Racial Purification in Romania, 1918-1944,” In Christian Promitzer, Sevasti Trubeta and Marius Turda (eds.) Health, Hygiene and Eugenics in Southeastern Europe to 1945. Budapest: CEU Press, 2011. 350.
47. Gail Kligman, “Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania,” In Ginsburg, Faye D. and Rapp, Rayan (eds.) Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 241.
48. David Graeber, Debt – The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2012. 2.
49. David Graeber, Debt – The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2012. 2.
50. Cornel Ban “Sovereign Debt, Austerity, and Regime Change: The Case of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania,” East European Politics and Societies and Culture, Vol. 26, No. (2012). 751.
51. Cornel Ban “Sovereign Debt, Austerity, and Regime Change: The Case of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania,” East European Politics and Societies and Culture, Vol. 26, No. (2012). 747.
52. Cornel Ban “Sovereign Debt, Austerity, and Regime Change: The Case of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania,” East European Politics and Societies and Culture, Vol. 26, No. (2012). 751-2.
53. Gail Kligman, “Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania,” In Ginsburg, Faye D. and Rapp, Rayna (eds.) Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 238.
54. Gail Kligman, “Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania,” In Ginsburg, Faye D. and Rapp, Rayna (eds.) Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. 243.
55. Cornel Ban “Sovereign Debt, Austerity, and Regime Change: The Case of Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania,” East European Politics and Societies and Culture, Vol. 26, No. (2012). 765.
56. Perhaps Otilia embodies a part of Mungiu’s industrial genealogy. We learn that Otilia “came” to the “City” from Campulug, 65.5 km, or 1h 26 min drive away from the city of Brasov, the main industrial center of Ceausescu’s Romania. Brasov is also a university center for the technical sciences, which Ceausescu strategically established in 1971 by government decree to produce knowledge critical to Romania’s successful industrialization. As she mentions on two occasions, she studies technical sciences, suggesting that Brasov must be the city in the film, implying that her biography is linked to Romanian industry.
57. Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Press 2014. 127.
Constantin Parvulescu, “The cold world behind the window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian cinema’s return to real-existing communism,” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (Spring 2009), 4.
59. Constantin Parvulescu, “The cold world behind the window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian cinema’s return to real-existing communism,” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (Spring 2009), 4.
60. Dominique Nasta, Contemporary Romanian Cinema. The History of an Unexpected Miracle, London: Wallflowers Press, 2013. 197.
61. Constantin Parvulescu, “The cold world behind the window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian cinema’s return to real-existing communism,” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (Spring 2009), 4.
62. Constantin Parvulescu, “The cold world behind the window: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Romanian cinema’s return to real-existing communism,” Jump Cut. A Review of Contemporary Media, 51 (Spring 2009), 4.
63. Doru Pop, Romanian New Wave Cinema. An Introduction. Jefferson: McFarland & Company Press 2014. 204.