Radu Muntean on ‘Alice T.’ Directing Actors, Lensing Lead Characters

The Romanian name auteur weighs in at Locarno with a portrait of a problem daughter

Romanian director Radu Muntean poses during

LOCARNO, Switzerland  — All you need is love. But Alice, a foster child looked after by her foster mother whose husband has walked out of them, is horrified she isn’t lovable. So she seeks constant confirmation, seemingly by the hour, of her mother’s unquestioning love, forgiveness for her unacceptable behavior. Unreliable, rude, confrontational, a bad student, a violent bully, a near pathological liar, Alice gets pregnant, inspires her mother with her a reborn life dream of maternity, then decides to abort. Set in a well-enough Bucharest, Locarno International Competition contender “Alice T.” shapes up into a cautionary tale about pushing love too hard. Variety talked to Romania’s Radu Muntean, a Cannes Festival regular, about what may be his most challenging film, given the serial obnoxiousness of its lead character.

Audiences are bound to start asking very early in the film why Alice behaves the way she does. One explanation is huge, huge insecurity at being adopted and then abandoned by her foster father. Alice needs the center of attention and constant proof of her mother’s unconditional love, via her mother’s forgiveness of Alice’s serial bad behavior. Could you comment?

You’re right. The unwanted child background makes Alice constantly eager to prove herself. She is whoever you want her to be or whoever it is convenient to be, in a particular situation. Even if she is getting all the attention and love from her mother, Alice’s thirst for unconditional love is impossible to satisfy. That’s her drama.

To what extent would you see Alice’s maneuvers as hyperbole for a contemporary youth whose status is marked by constant attention and approval.

I think inside most of us adults is a teenager searching for approval and, eventually something meaningful. In “Alice T.”, this search for one’s identity is more important than, let’s say, the psycho-social portrait of the contemporary teenager, although I admit that to an extent, the film can also be read in this way. I don’t think I can make films about characters that I cannot, even remotely identify with, so for me, Alice is definitely no alien.

Alice dominates the film: That’s her playbook in life. So what decisions did you and Tudor make when it came to deciding camera set-ups. Could you mention one other crucial directorial decision?

The audience is bound to stay with Alice for the entire duration of the movie. I tried to choreograph the actors movement inside the one shot scenes and position the camera in a way that Alice either has the center stage or we see something of an importance to her. It is not a subjective perspective of the character but one of the audience, via the main character. In this audience-character relationship, I try to be the middleman and to discretely point towards the important part of the shot, using the focus, small camera movements and lots of “off” sound.

I believe this is lead Andra Guti’s first film. In his review of your last film, One Floor Below, Variety’s Jay Weissberg praised the confidence you give actors, which as always, serves you well, Jay said. How does this inspiration of confidence work?

I think it’s less about that and more about acknowledging that I don’t say “cut” until I’m completely satisfied. 30, 50 takes, or the next day. Every actor I worked with knows that. Otherwise, just talking  about the characters, a lot of rehearsals and some extra intensity at the shooting. With Andra it was special. Probably because I could train her from scratch and mostly because she’s got extraordinary instincts, it was easier than with most theatre trained actors.

This is your sixth feature, I believe your third with the same prestigious sales agent, Films Boutique, a repeat international co-production with France’s Les Films d’Apres Midi and Sweden’s Chimney. Such repetitions are often the sign of a filmmaking practice which in industry and artistic terms works well. But by a sixth film directors often want to try something new. 

What would you say is innovative about “Alice T”?  And do you see your career immediately continuing along the same lines, with a similar scale of film and focus – on characters whose behavior speaks of larger societal ills?

Storytelling wise, “Alice T.” is in the line with my previous film, but I think it’s more radical. It doesn’t deliver a conclusion, in the traditional way and it is conducted more abruptly. To be honest though, I don’t necessarily have the ambition to innovate, but to refine my ways of delivering stories that interest me and to make those stories stick to the mind of the viewer. And for that, you need, among other things, the kind of artistic freedom that the collaboration with companies like the ones you mentioned, can provide. If it’s working, why change the recipe?

In other words, regarding the latter part of question 5, what are you working on now?

Together with my long time co-writers Razvan Radulescu and Alex Baciu, I’m working on the next script which will be exploring the concept of generosity. Also, we’re thinking of developing a series, but we’ll see about that.

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