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Dana and Arthur are a married couple in their forties whose relationship is at a crossroads. Facing pressure from a society and family that seems to love them together, they’re also driven by desires that are pushing them apart. On one fateful day, the two have to decide if the biggest proof of their love is finally letting go.

“Monsters.” is the feature directorial debut of Marius Olteanu, who also wrote the script. Starring Cristian Popa and Judith State, it world premiered in the Berlin Film Festival’s Forum section, and played this week at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival. The film is produced by Parada Film in co-production with We Are Basca, with the support of the Romanian Film Center, in collaboration with the Romanian public broadcaster TVR. International sales are handled by Alpha Violet.

Olteanu spoke with Variety about the complex ties that bind married couples, the role that family and society play in shaping our relationships, and the reason why in difficult times, the trick is to keep breathing.

This film came from a somewhat unorthodox place. You were doing a series of interviews with long-married couples about love, and how and why their relationships did – or didn’t – last. Did you know what you were looking for at the time? 

I knew already that I wanted to make a film about love, and about what happens with love between two people who stay together for a longer period of time. Maybe the physical attraction ends, and they’re past the best moment in their lives. [The characters in “Monsters.”] are not that young. There are some ties there in the film that you don’t necessarily see immediately, like the fact that they decided to sell the old apartment, and to get a new one. Probably they had to have a loan to get that apartment, which ties them for a longer period of time in the future.

It might sound less emotional, but sometimes there are ties in this way, too. Everything is not just emotion and love. Sometimes there are more grounded aspects that keep people together. I was interested in seeing the situation from several angles. It’s not just the tie between the two of them, but it’s also society, and family, and the people around them. I changed my point of view on the subject quite a lot of times because of the interviews, because some of them weren’t giving me exactly what I was expecting them to give me.

You struggled to cast the male lead, Arthur, because of the prejudices against homosexuality in Romanian society. What was it like working with Cristian Popa as he prepared for this challenging role?  

It was a complicated process. There were a lot of jokes, and the jokes were trying to hide the fact that some of the actors had issues and insecurities in order to play this part. Some of them actually admitted that they were worried about what the other people were saying. Serban Pavlu [who plays Arthur’s romantic interest] said, “It’s funny that when I’m thinking about it, I realized that people don’t have any problem with me playing a serial killer [in the HBO series “Shadows”], but I can already think of some people who are going to have a problem with the fact that I’m playing a gay character.” Which I think says a lot about how we relate to this topic [in Romania].

Even with Cristian and Serban rehearsing the sex scene, they didn’t feel comfortable immediately. There were a lot of questions, and there was some shyness and discomfort. But I think that in the end that helped quite a lot because we realized that this topic is so touchy that we actually rehearsed a lot. That helped a lot during the shoot. Also, we discovered a lot of things while doing these rehearsals.

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Popa and lead actress Judith State actually went to couples counseling in character while preparing for the film, and you’ve said you found yourself rewriting the script on the fly to accommodate the many new insights you were having. Was constant reflection and reappraisal important to the creation of “Monsters.”?

This was something I tried to do all through the process. I did the interviews, and what the interviews brought to me, I incorporated into the script. In the casting sessions, I discovered things that I incorporated into the script. I did exactly the same thing when I rehearsed with the actors. We were discovering things together about the characters: something that wasn’t working, or something that made more sense going in a different direction than the one that was suggested by the script. I tried to also bring the script toward the actors — to make the line between the actor playing the part, and the part, as blurry as possible. Arthur wasn’t necessarily as insecure as he is now in the film, but I think this is something that Cristian Popa brought to the character. It felt so natural that I didn’t want to lose it. I didn’t want to make him act against it.

For a first-time feature director, how did you deal with all those unexpected new insights and challenges?

It was something I expected, and it’s something that I really enjoy. At the end of the day, if I’m leaving the set with the same ideas that I came with, then it makes it much less interesting for me. I want my ideas to be challenged, and I want to leave emotionally and intellectually richer from this experience. I have no ego problems; if something I discover on the set is better than I imagined, I have no problem incorporating that into the story.

You and DoP Luchian Ciobanu made the bold artistic decision to use different aspect ratios at different times in the film. What was behind that choice?

We realized pretty soon that this is a film that talks more about the things you don’t see, than the things that you actually see. The emphasis is on the hidden part. We started thinking how are we going to show this in the film? We came up with the idea of having the story told in the square format so a lot of the things are hidden from view. I have to admit that I was really happy when people from the audience told me they were really frustrated by all the things that they wanted to see outside of the frame that they couldn’t. So yes, it was a question of what’s hidden from view, and what you can see, and how you judge people most of the time without really seeing the full picture.

In the first section of the film, Dana takes her first cigarette drag in years and says, “The trick is to keep breathing.” That advice comes up in different forms throughout the movie. Do you think that’s an important lesson for filmmaking as well, now that you’ve finished your first feature?

[Laughs.] I’m trying to remind myself that everyday, and I tried to do that during the shoot, too. It’s definitely useful advice. No matter how hard it feels sometimes, if you’re trying to understand what’s happening to you, and if you’re keeping this belief that you’re going to get through it, it’s probably going to happen. In the past two years, or even more, we’ve all been going through some rough times. I think it’s good to remind ourselves that if we keep our heads straight, and we continue to think and understand what’s happening, then it’s probably going to get better. The trick is to keep breathing.

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Luchian Ciobanu/Alpha Violet