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The monsters are all too human in Romanian writer-director Marius Olteanu’s anguished relationship drama, which unfolds over a 24-hour period in contemporary Bucharest. Touching on dark themes like painfully closeted sexuality and bitter family friction without amplifying them into sensational melodrama, Monsters is a thoughtful and well-acted two-hander with a minor-key, naturalistic aesthetic. The relentlessly glum tone of this Berlinale world premiere will limit its appeal beyond the masochistic misery junkies who attend film festivals and fringe art house theaters, but Olteanu’s chilly debut feature should enjoy a warm welcome in Berlin, where Romanian cinema has built up a strong prize-winning pedigree.
Olteanu frames the story using the bold stylistic conceit of a variable screen ratio, maintaining a 1:1 square format during the opening sections to illustrate the claustrophobic isolation of the two protagonists, but then widening and narrowing the screen during the final act as their shaky emotional connection fluctuates. This is a strong visual metaphor, used to memorably poignant effect by Xavier Dolan in his 2014 Cannes prize-winner Mommy, but on its own is not quite enough to serve as a major selling point. Monsters remains an emphatically indie auteur creation in its pared-down plotting and somber tone.
Monsters is divided into three chapters. The opening section belongs to Dana (Judith State), a haunted-looking thirty-something woman fresh off the train as night falls over Bucharest. Cinematographer Luchian Ciobanu’s long, elegant, lateral camera pan finds her sobbing mysteriously in the station restroom, then steeling her resolve and hiring a taxi for a fraught nocturnal ride through the city. Dana seems to be heading home, but after a tense phone conversation she changes her mind and directs the driver (Alexandru Potocean) to another address. Their journey takes a farcical turn when two neighbors, a heavily pregnant woman and her husband, hijack Dana’s cab for an emergency ride to the hospital. As the hours roll by, Dana pays the driver to stay with her on a long gloomy vigil, chain-smoking and dropping bleak clues about her troubled marriage.
For the second act, Olteanu turns his focus on the nervy, broodingly handsome Andrei (Cristian Popa). Wandering restlessly through Bucharest, checking his phone for missed connections, Andrei lingers on a railway bridge and appears to contemplate suicide. Instead, he hooks up with an older married man for a sexual encounter that seems deeply awkward for both and ends with a bleak, loveless dismissal. Afterwards, a despairing Andrei has a tearful phone conversation which loops back to Dana’s chapter. We finally learn they are husband and wife, their stories running in parallel timelines.
The third part of the triptych reunites Dana and Andrei for painful crisis negotiations on their imploding marriage. Her wounding claims of infidelity and his tortured bisexuality hang in the air as they dutifully attend family functions and play the role of conventional couple in public, almost convincing themselves. A fractious visit to Andrei’s mother (Dorina Lazar), who berates the duo for selfishly not giving her grandchildren, adds an extra layer of psychodrama. But instead of cranking up the emotional temperature, Olteanu leaves any firm resolution hanging. He returns to his visual motif of trains as the couple tug away at the knotty love-hate bond that both seem terrified of losing.
Monsters is a quietly absorbing, serious-minded snapshot of a couple in crisis, but the monotonously gloomy mood does leave you itching to shake the protagonists out of their self-destructive torpor and maybe try just having a little fun. It is hard to fault the two lead performers, who both convey intensely lonely, internalized anguish with scant resources. The flexible screen ratio also puts a pleasing stylistic twist on the formal austerity of indie cinema. But a few more of these Brechtian touches and a few more decisive narrative twists might have added some welcome zing to an otherwise inert, introverted story.
Production companies: ParadaFilm, Wearebasca
Cast: Judith State, Cristian Popa, Alexandru Potocean, Serban Pavlu, Dorina Lazar, Gabriel Rauta
Writer-director: Marius Olteanu
Producers: Claudiu Mitcu, Robert Fi?a, Ioachim Stroe, Marius Olteanu
Cinematographer: Luchian Ciobanu
Editor: Ioachim Stroe
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: Alpha Violet, Paris
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