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Monsters, non-confrontational day and night

Monsters, Marius Olteanu's feature debut, is a non-invasive but intimate look at less than 24 hours in the life of a Bucharest-based couple who passes through a dead end in their relationship. Made out of three parts, the film follows 1. Dana's night (Judith State), 2. Arthur's evening, and 3. the morning and the afternoon of the following day, which they spend together.

The stake of the drifting love story is not to reach a conclusion; on the contrary, it seems to be a case study of two young adults living in Bucharest who cannot draw conclusions, a fictional framework that Marius Olteanu makes full use of, breaking it into pieces, mixing chronology and delivering it into an effective formal design, structured so precisely, almost academic, that it takes the form of a non-classical ABC.

The film opens with a right-left traveling passing through the wagons of a train in the North Train Station. It is the train Dana has come down from, as we find out later, but, more than that, it is the frame that introduces the 4: 3 format, which will change over the film in 16: 9 and then back to it. This is a good way to keep the viewer alert about the screen format – showing the train in 4: 3 traveling is atypical, giving the feeling of a slowdown that would be delivered differently by the frame width of the other standard formats, 16: 9 and 21: 9. In this regard, the North Train Station bustle is propelled by this cut-off effect brought in by the format – people coming in and out of the frame, small talk, etc.

Next, we see Dana in her own rush, coming out of the bathroom, choosing a taxi where she is kicked out from by the taxi driver (Alexandru Potocean), trying again at the same taxi and heading to the destination. There is a special complicity between her and the taxi driver, to whom, at the end of the ride, she proposes to park all night in exchange for 500 lei. The Dana’s night fragment works on clichés and dosage of details provided systematically, less when delivered as an avalanche by a third party – her neighbor. The most important element introduced in this first fragment is Dana’s reluctance to talk about her, both in front of her nonchalant neighbor and her complicit. But, despite the protagonist’s reticence, her complicity with the taxi driver counterbalances what happens next in an ingenious way.

Arthur’s evening is, chronologically speaking, before Dana’s arrival in Bucharest. After an attempt to contact his wife, the man goes through a routine preceding a date on Grindr. His date is an older man (Serban Pavlu), a discreet bisexual as well. Here is brought in unison Dana’s and Arthur’s lack of confrontation. The date goes from bad to worse and is a successful chain of comical moments with awkward silences and premature ejaculation. The constant of Olteanu’s characters is the refusal to give concrete answers – both the older man, whose real name is not revealed, and Arthur resort to evasive answers so they won’t have to face their own stories – “that’s just how I am”, “this is how it was meant to be”, “you ask too many questions” etc. Along with Dana, they are the uncommunicative characters, easy to put in antithesis with the invasive ones, the neighbor in the first fragment and Arthur’s grandmother, presented in the third. The date between the two men is the best built moment in the whole film, and the lack of confrontation is well masked by the performative process of an online date between two discreet bisexual men – as few details as possible offered in long discussions that are meant to be the foreplay to the sexual act. Olteanu delivers a ground-breaking moment for the queer Romanian cinema, a brief introduction to the online gay dating subculture, but the constant of the characters, who do not carry out their conversations, places the film at a comfortable distance, and when bisexuality seems to be discussed, the dialog is shut off.

At the end of the second fragment, a contrast is felt. The duo Dana-taxi driver and the couple Arthur-Alex (the fake name used by Pavlu’s character) live atypical experiences for the premises they start from. If in an impersonal premise such as the client-taxi driver that kind of complicity arises, the personal premise of the sex partners keeps a certain distance and the indignation that generates the comic of the situation.

The moment of reunion is the one where the screen changes its format to 16: 9, enhancing this way the idea of a singular portrait that the format has followed so far – we see Dana snuggling by Arthur in bed. The third fragment does not follow the expectations created, nothing loosens up, and the lack of confrontation is carried through to the end. But not without a jump (and a fall). Face to face with Arthur’s grandmother, a rather thick character who babbles about traditional values, uninitiated in the contemporary society, full of monsters, whose product the two young people are, Dana casts the first and only confrontation, quite diluted and vague – “I don’t want a child because I have nothing to offer besides insecurity!”. Otherwise, things remain suspended – an alone together, strangers in the same bed.

Olteanu’s constants and the way he changes their sides represent the strength of the film. Despite the fact that the three fragments are unequal quality-wise, Monsters remains a winning directorial bet. The study of characters addressed in the film narrative does not become preachy, nor does it issue a verdict, which, especially in the final sequence, where the two look away from each other and wait a response that doesn’t seem to come, articulates the sensation of lack of depth in the narrative created along the way by avoidances and dismissals.

A film review by Călin Boto

Translation by Andreea Toader

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