Berlin 2019: Monsters review


Following in the footsteps of Adina Pintilie’s controversial Golden Bear winner Touch Me Not, Marius Olteanu’s Monsters is a tragic saga that explores the social taboos surrounding sexual identity and female emancipation in modern-day Romania.

It’s been over a decade since Tudor Giurgiu released the lesbian romance Love Sick. Since then, Romanian directors have tended to avoid LGBTQ+ topics. It’s not surprising. Last year, the criticism surrounding Pintilie’s unconventional exploration of intimacy fuelled corners of the right-wing to widely reproduced comments from the press to justify their rejection of a film they believed threatened their core values. Later in the same year, there was a referendum to establish a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. It failed, but only because a fifth of voters bothered to turn out.

Instead of hiding in the shadows, Monsters continues where Pintilie left off, albeit in a slightly more conventional fashion. A relationship drama told across three chapters, the film explores the relationship between modernising cultures and sexual identity, but pushes the envelope further by examining the psychological impact of living in a society where women are still primarily regarded as mothers and wives. Focusing on the lives of a husband and wife struggling to self-actualise, the film’s construction is precisely managed, with the first two chapters unfurling across the same night. The first opens on Dana (Judith State) as she washes away her tears in a train station bathroom before jumping into a cab and spending the night travelling around Bucharest. The second follows Arthur (Cristian Popa) who, after an intense gym sessions, visits the apartment of a man he met on Grindr to have awkward, casual sex.

Olteanu isn’t forthcoming with information about the couple’s past, instead forcing the audience to explore their body language and carefully calibrated confessions to understand the conflict that burns within them. These two nocturnal chapters are both shot in 1:1 ratio, with this prismatic composition perfectly suited to their respective nights of introspection. But it also alludes to the violence and pain often required to achieve any semblance of fulfilment – something echoed by cinematographer, Luchian Ciobanu’s camera work, which constantly obscures them in the glare of windshields and windows.

In the film’s final chapter, the pair wake up next to each other in their marital bed. The ratio expands to 16:9, but the emotional fireworks they risk setting off never ignite. Instead they depart the house together to attend a friend’s daughter’s baptism, before having dinner with Arthur’s conservative grandmother who lambastes Dana for failing to give Arthur a child. Do the Monsters of the film’s title relate to the pair’s inner demons, or how women like this will view them if they choose to be true to themselves?

Unlike a conventional romance where love blossoms, here we observe two people attempt to dismantle their supportive relationship in order to achieve some semblance of contentment. But perhaps it’s not a simple as it sounds. Towards the end of the film Arthur asks Dana “Why did you stay with me?”. It’s a question she can only answer by asking him the same thing back, with the silence that follows suggesting that perhaps a loving relationship isn’t always the most nurturing space for an honest and liberating exploration of identity.

The Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. Follow our coverage here.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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