I am afraid this film is not cheerful, but it is deeply psychological. And because we come to feel strongly for the two young women, it is gripping—far more so than the conventional thriller in which people rush about after each other brandishing weapons.
A very basic plot process in fiction is first to enable the reader or audience member to get to know and like the protagonist. Then, according to Zillmann (1994), we mentally take on the plans of the protagonist, feel pleased when they succeed, and displeased when they are impeded. A demonstration of this was made by the distinguished discourse analyst, the late Tom Trabasso, and by Jennifer Chung, who was I think a film student at the time (2004). Their study is the best experiment I know on empathy in fiction. They had 20 viewers watch two well-known films, Vertigo and Blade Runner. All the viewers rated their liking for the films’ protagonists and antagonists. Each film was stopped at 12 points during viewing and ten of the viewers were asked, at each point, to rate how well things were going for the protagonist and how well for the antagonist. Their ratings agreed with the analyses of the researchers. The other ten viewers were asked to identify their own emotions as they watched. At points where the ten viewers who rated the action thought things were going well for the protagonist, the viewers who were asked to identify their emotions felt positive emotions such as happiness and relief. At points where things were going badly for the protagonist, the viewers who were to identify their emotions felt anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, and the like. In contrast, when the antagonist was succeeding, those who identified their own emotions felt negatively, and when the antagonist was failing they felt positively.
The process is rather basic. It can apply as well to watching a football match as to watching a film. But what great writers and film makers can do is to enable readers or audiences, as they find themselves following a trajectory of empathy, to understand better their own emotions, and indeed those of the people with whom they are empathizing. At times in Four months, three weeks, and two days, when not much is being said, the sense depicted by Anamaria Marinca who plays Otilia is so compelling that we audience members almost seem to hear her thoughts being spoken aloud in our own minds. The sense of empathy and theory-of-mind for a protagonist is, I think, more beautifully and strongly accomplished in this film than in any other I know. It's a very fine film, and I have placed a longer review of it in our archive of Film Reviews (for which please click here). The film gets a strong four on a five-point scale.
Tom Trabasso & Jennifer Chung (2004). Empathy: Tracking characters and monitoring their concerns in film. Paper presented at the Winter Text Conference, January 23, Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Dolf Zillmann (1994). Mechanisms of emotional involvement with drama. Poetics, 23, 33–51.