“The trick is to keep breathing,” says Dana (Judith State) as she takes a drag off the first cigarette she’s had in years, grinding it out after a couple of puffs. It feels somewhat inevitable she’d relent and take one, as they’re constantly offered to her by the Bucharest taxi driver (Alexandru Potocean) whom she has mysteriously engaged for the whole night. Smoking is one of the things you do on a stakeout, after all, and how else would you describe hanging out outside your own apartment building with a stranger, looking up at its darkened windows? Romanian director Marius Olteanu’s “Monsters.” is a remarkable debut — wise, compassionate, surprising — about a couple staking out their own slowly imploding marriage like it’s a partially dismantled apartment with no one home.
Divided cleanly into three segments and taking place over the course of 24 hours, the film is largely shot in a squared-off aspect ratio. This has the effect of turning closeups into portraiture that echoes the dimensions of a passport photo, while also making us constantly, low-level aware of absence: The warm-toned, reflective night-time photography from rising cinematographer Luchian Ciobanu is edged with black bars that frame single characters in aloneness, and that feel subtly off-balance and overcrowded when there are two.
Dana is coming back from a work trip, but after a quick crying jag in the train station bathroom is curiously reluctant to go home. Instead she negotiates with her surly young cab driver to drive her to a different destination (she and her husband are in the process of moving and so currently have two apartments), and then to park there a while. They help out a nosy neighbor in crisis and gradually Dana and the driver share some sparse confidences, but Olteanu’s spare, economical screenplay is characterized by an honest restraint in the portrayal of passing relationships: This is not the kind of film where chance encounters blossom into cathartic connection.
The second segment follows Dana’s husband Artur (Cristian Popa), over roughly the same period of time. We hear the other side of his phone conversation with Dana and discover that he is also lying about his whereabouts. In fact, by the clever use of the song “Fireworks” by First Aid Kit (with its sweet chorus of “Why do I do this to myself?”) in the otherwise scoreless film, we understand that while Dana is in the taxi, Artur is in the apartment of his Grindr date, listening to the same radio station.
Artur’s ghastly hookup is hilariously, skeweringly outlined; the weird power dynamics and grating lovelessness of the encounter contrasting hauntingly with the third segment, in which the gentle, mutual carefulness of his relationship with Dana is so delicately evoked. “I want to be who I should, for you,” Artur tells Dana, and over the course of their day together, they rescue each other regularly. Dana absorbs the impact of Artur’s grandmother’s disapproval; Artur plucks the childless Dana from a knot of women talking about motherhood at a party.
The actors are superb, right down to the way their bodies seem familiarly in sync with each other even if there is no physical attraction between their characters anymore. And though the film is not without humor and liveliness, it is most assured in its controlled tone of melancholy. How infinitely sad it is to have such mutual love without being in love; how guilty and helpless you feel when the one person who is most unreservedly supportive of you — of the truth of you — is also the one person that truth hurts the most. The universality of its pinprick-accurate emotions means that while, as with most new Romanian cinema, there is an element of social critique, it has insight and compassion that is applicable even in more politically progressive environments — anywhere people are together but apart.
At the dividing point between the middle and last sections, the frame suddenly expands to widescreen as Dana and Artur share the shot for the first time. And though we’re two-thirds of the way through, this is when the title appears: “Monsters.” It’s such a transcendent moment that it would be, in its own way, the perfect ending. But the final wisdom of Olteanu’s shrewd study is that it’s not about perfection or completion or revelation. It’s about continuation, about persevering when romance is impossible but every other kind of love remains, and the trick is just to keep breathing.