Confrontations. On Monsters, with Judith State and Cristian Popa

4 October, 2019

Tuesday morning, 10:30, Cafe Origo.

Judith State is sitting with a reporter who is shooting off a set of pretty difficult questions in her, considering the hour: what makes you feel happiness; what makes you feel sadness, what makes you feel fear? Judith takes her time to answer as she pauses throughout, repeating some words with an emphasis. She’s either laughing at her train of thought (“If I were in Lisbon and I’d accidentally cut myself, I’d probably have pastel de nata flowing out of my veins”, she jokes, gesturing with her long fingers), or, at times, slipping into a place that’s light years away from her table. She’s uncompromisingly honest with herself and self-critical (“I’m blessed, it’s a luxury to be able to choose your own projects”), the word gratitude pops up frequently in her discourse, and she seamlessly veers into the territory of emotion and the metaphysical, candidly, without forcing the topic.

Same day, 20:30, The National Museum of the Romanian Peasant.

Cristian Popa is waiting in front of the restaurant in the museum courtyard, as the film is screening in the adjacent cinema. He didn’t want to see the audience before the screening (he’s here for a Q&A session) and so I jokingly ask if he’s afraid that a group of homophobic neo-nazis will storm the cinema in light of his queer scene with Serban Pavlu, as it has happened in the past at the Romanian Peasant Cinema. He says he doesn’t really care about people who’d protest a screening; he’s the type that would much rather talk about technique rather than interpret his character. The half-empty, half-dark terrace seems to amplify a sort of confessive atmosphere, which leads to Cristian saying “okay, don’t write this down” quite a couple of times.

At first, this discussion was supposed to be a dialogue with both actors at the same time, but their schedules didn’t match up: both are caught up in rehearsals. So, we split our meetings in two, in a form that coincidentally pays tribute to the formality of Monsters., Marius Olteanu’s feature debut. In short, the film tells the story of a married couple (Dana and Arthur) in three tableaux: the first two taking place simultaneously, as Dana wanders the streets of Bucharest, and Arthur meets a man he encountered on Grindr, then climaxing in the third part, as they come together. Maybe (un)surprisingly, the two actors’ experiences and methods are quite different – but ultimately connected by the same incentives.

How did you first meet Marius? And how did you land one of the leading roles?

Judith State: In fact, I met him at the casting for Sieranevada, and we had instant chemistry – we went together very well, both on a professional and human level. After the film, we had the chance to work on two other projects – an UNICEF commercial and a music video. It was for the song that runs over the credits of Monsters.: „Underground”, by Dreamology. He sent me that song and asked me if I like it and if I’d be interested in shooting something for it – and the result was one of the very few dance clips which feature me that I truly love.

Then, last winter, Marius wrote to me at one point (I knew he was in the pre-production phase of his film) and said that he’d really like to have me play a small part in one of the sequences. I was very happy about that, of course. I was supposed to play one of Dana’s friends at the baptism party, the scene where they talk about pregnancy, kids, expectancy dates and so on. We met at Artichoke Cafe with the other actresses, Rolando and Cristian and did some rehearsals. And at one point, some of the women on the team actually started talking about having kids, as two of them were pregnant, Rolando was an expecting father, Cristian has two kids, so on…. So I was quite absent in this discussion (laughs).

I didn’t realize this in the moment, but when I was discussing it with Marius afterwards, I could clearly see myself doing it. I’ve already been in this situation for so long (laughs) that I think I must have developed some sort of instant defense mechanism, if a given discussion goes there. I try to become invisible, because the inevitable outcome is someone asking: “So, Judith… what about you?”. Time passes by, and so on. And Marius was intrigued by this tacit “protest” I had against the topic and saw the character of Dana in me: some sort of caution, discomfort, an incapacity to adapt to social standards and norms.

Cristian Popa: I worked with Marius on a commercial about four years ago, but that was it, for the moment. Regarding Monsters., Simona Ghiță (casting director) told me about the casting: by that point, I didn’t know who the director was and only had a few pages of the script. Then we met one morning and I performed at the audition. I was the last actor Marius considered for the role, out of approximately 40 others – including Sorin Leoveanu. I had just finished a role in an adaptation of Uncle Vanya at the Ploiești National Theatre and everything was sort of charged – I’d prepared a pretty long monologue, about this dream with a lot of blood and bizarre imagery. I felt that Marius was paying a lot of attention – you simply notice it.

A couple of days later he called me back, we did some rehearsals with Ioana Flora [who was, at the time, casted in the role of Dana, based on her performance in Olteanu’s 2015 short Blank Score, which was the basis for Monsters.], and with Pavlu. However Marius forgot to mention if I’d succeded the audition, so I had to ask him about it like a month later, like “Hey, am I in the project”? (laughs) And since the shooting was delayed from fall to spring, I had time to rehearse, to understand some things and to build up the character, to talk to people with certain experiences… and to create a Grindr account. I was kind of shy about it, it all came down to just a couple of virtual chats. A friend of mine who is gay told me that it wouldn’t have been right to meet someone I met on the platform, because I’d be betraying expectations by showing up and saying “Well, you know, I’m here to do some research…”

How did you relate to the film’s main premises, throughout the process? Especially the part about playing a character that refuses to conform to a certain standard, in terms of identity and so on.

Judith State: At one point, a reporter said to Marius that she feels that Dana’s character is so unwavering in her individualism, that she never is in any way apologetic for her way of being. And I resonated with that. When someone asks me if I did a character study beforehand – and, since I came quite late into the project, I didn’t have the time to do so, but assuming I did, I don’t think I would have performed differently. I feel that it’s actually me up there. I related a lot with her story and her personality. And, generally, in everything that I do, I try to use myself, my intuition, and not so much what others may think about me, just like Dana. Of course it doesn’t always work out and I regret it, but mostly I try to be true to myself, my principles, my thoughts and ideas, an attitude which guides me to seeing the right path. And it’s the same with Dana.

Cristian Popa: I know where this is going (laughs). But, truth be told, I’m not “taking my character home”. Obviously, I put a lot of work into giving the character shape, but if there’s a place where I experience something to the fullest, it’s either the stage or the set. I can’t handle it otherwise. I’ve acted in a lot of different roles – including characters that are pedophiles. For me, it’s just work. I start off by using elements that the director provides and, ultimately, there’s certain things that are hidden deep inside of us – you just have to search for them or the director has to push the right buttons so he gets a specific kind of reaction out of you. It’s great to work with directors who know how to properly collaborate with their actors. Marius was really strict, methodical, he knew what he wanted – although there were a couple of scenes that had to be modified; including the final sequence, that had to be reshot.

But maybe it isn’t the act of justifying yourself, but rather, being in a position where you’re asked to justify yourself is uncomfortable.

Judith State: This really bothers me – explaining myself, justifying – it drives me insane. The only ones we owe explanations to are ourselves, God or whomever we believe in as a transcendental power, and our parents. These are the only three instances that matter, and, I highlight, we are on the first place. A direct, honest and at times painful confrontation – other than that, nobody should ask for any explanations.

I understand that the shooting took place in a (mostly) chronological order, according to the script – starting out with the separate parts, then onto the third part, where the couple is seen together. I find it interesting because that implies that you’re passing through events in a way that is very similar to how the characters perceive them. Did this have an effect on your performances, separately and together?

Judith State: The film was mostly shot in chronological order – the first sequence was the one in the train station: Dana on the platform, Dana in the washing room, Dana looking for cabs. It was quite useful to shoot it this way, but the entire context was helpful: the fact that I suddenly entered the project and didn’t know almost anybody on set, not even Cristian. It helped me achieve a sort of detachment, an interior gaze and a sort of state of suspension, a bubble. And I think that the role conveys this isolation and silence – it nurtured all that I felt while I was on set. The team was wonderful – and I’m still in contact with a lot of them. And Cristi, well, he is quite wild, quite introverted – so we resonated well, from that point of view. Our first “getting to know each other” chat was somewhere around, like, the third week of shooting.

But the characters know each other so well that they don’t have any more space for any projections or disillusions – they can’t lie to each other anymore, even though they might try. And that helps us create this feeling of shared loneliness. Rilke says that love is the greatest challenge that we face, and that everything that leads up to it is just a preparation for it, two lonely entities that protect and respect each other.

Cristian Popa: I didn’t have the entire script from the very beginning, I only received it by the end of the rehearsal period. To me, it mattered a lot that I spent time studying, rehearsing, trying to understand the character on the basis of his interior life, rather than his physique and visible actions – and that’s where Marius contributed. I couldn’t have simply arrived on set with some ideas in my mind, and have the character turn out the way it did. And we rehearsed with Judith on weekends, and she got into the flow pretty quickly.

I liked the character’s path – alone. On that bridge (in the final sequence) we had a very specific kind of energy, we lived the sensation to the fullest. It was very helpful to rehearse with Ioana Flora and also that I got along with Judith so well (I met her at a rehearsal, she accidentally spilled a glass of juice on me) – we had that sensation of simultaneous distance and closeness, which is visible in the film. Our first scene together was the one where we call each-other in the taxi. We rehearsed on the phone – I received Judith’s phone number (“Hi, Cristian here”, “Hello, this is Judith”) and Marius was on the third line, giving us feedback. Then we slowly moved onto the scenes where we’re together, coming closer due to the rehearsals.

How did you wrap around your character? And how did you see the relationship between Dana and Arthur, from this position?

Judith State: That’s a good term – wrapping around her. I couldn’t say that there is any major difference between me and the character, at all. I don’t understand this notion of representing someone that is a stranger – I don’t believe in this. When you’re performing, you’re pretending – but it’s still you. I simply acted like I would have, in the given situation – being on the set, Marius giving me all sorts of indications. Even though I’m not in the same circumstances as Dana, relationship-wise, or the one that doesn’t wish for children. But, had I been that, I would have most probably reacted that way.

Someone in the audience once asked me if the two really love each other. I asked her to answer the question and, to her, the answer was no. They do, though! They love each other dearly. It would have been easier if they didn’t. That’s why everything is so difficult, so painful – and I hope that this is tangible. They are saving each other. The only moment where it sort of slips out of hand is when Dana asks Arthur if he wants a child; she would have wished for him to say no. She wants a confrontation, a context where they can come to terms with certain truths that she is aware of – and even though they’re not expressing it clearly, their bond is very real, in the same way that it’s clear that something’s not quite right.

Cristian Popa: I tried to make a sort of character description for Arthur – even though usually it’s not in my practice to do so. Which isn’t necessarily bad. I was much more interested in his state of mind, in “embodying” him. And as I was watching the film, I realized that I was experiencing his solitude: this is Arthur, a lonely guy, who goes to a baptism organised by his wife’s friends. He has nobody to confess to, he hasn’t told anyone but Dana that he is gay. And that’s why he is meeting up with a Grindr date – he has nobody to spend his spare time with. He finds support in his relationship with Dana, to whom he can have a civilised talk about what he feels – she knows about him, and he finds out about a possible infidelity. But, still, there are many things left unsaid, that have to be solved somehow, and the ending doesn’t offer a very clear resolution.

Monstri. (2019)
Monstri. (2019)

What I find interesting about Monsters is that you face the image of two people who reject all sorts of social customs and gender roles, a way of thinking and living that is anchored in a sort of toxic, dogmatic traditionalism. 

Judith State: I didn’t have time to distance myself, to make any sorts of judgments – I was simply there. Everything came afterwards, as I was becoming conscious of things after they had already ended. After the premiere, a friend of mine came up and said, “Man, this story isn’t all that uncommon – we know people, friends even, that are facing such problems. But once you see the evidence on screen, it hits you like it’s something you never even thought about.” I don’t think the film shows an extreme, unprecedented situation – I think, in fact, that it shows life as it is. What we’re experiencing right now in society is that we’re constantly hiding things, or cosmetising them. And it’s not just in regards to how we perceive others – we, too, tell ourselves stories that we love to hear, and that’s what happens when you are insincere with your feelings, your experiences. But, underneath this exterior, the two characters stand their ground. They neither justify themselves, neither apologise for who they are.

Cristian Popa: I didn’t consider this. I mostly try to limit myself to the act of following what the director asks of me. I’m rather more simple. (laughs) The neo-nazis can come and boycott screenings, I wouldn’t care less. I didn’t think about how the character relates to his exterior, on how society judges him, because I didn’t see how this would have helped me construct the character. He loves Dana, but he also feels attracted to men. He’s alone. He loves and respects his grandmother, even though he knows what to expect of her, and that she doesn’t like Dana. A good person. Just like in the dialogue in the final scene: “I think you’re a good guy / I think I am.” He isn’t in any state of conflict, he doesn’t want to affirm himself – he feels judged, yes, but he is afraid to speak out. Nobody except Dana knows that he is gay, but sometimes he feels guilty. That’s where their bond, their trust resides: she immediately knows if something’s wrong. But if Dana is out of the picture, then Arthur doesn’t have anyone left – his fear of tearing this apart makes him ignore the way society regards him.

Monstri. (2019)
Monstri. (2019)

How do you think audience members who can relate to such representations, who might’ve had very similar life experiences, resonate with this?

Cristian Popa: I don’t know – In Romania, at least, I don’t think the audience was very interested in this. But I did receive a lot of messages from LGBT+ people in Romania, who told me that they have enjoyed the film. My strongest experience so far was in Taiwan, at the Taipei Film Festival, where I was presenting the film. After the screenings there were these long autograph sessions – where I would get asked about what the gay community in Romania is facing, how they’re regarded by society. I even had someone from South Korea telling me that it’s a very taboo subject for their country, that people still hide their sexual identity. Taiwan legalised same-sex marriage this year.

I think that was the precise moment where, on the basis of this interaction – there were three screenings, so three Q&A and autograph sessions – that I suddenly had a feeling of nurturing, of understanding towards individuals that have to face difficult situations on the basis of their sexual orientation. Many of them were teenagers and I can assume it was quite hard for them to talk about these things. It was very emotional and I felt like a better person. I know this might overshadow what I said earlier – about this being “just work” – there is also a social, activist component to what I am doing.

 I know it’s a naive question, but, ideally – what would you like the viewer to think about, as he or she’s leaving the cinema after seeing Monsters?

Judith State: Marius also said this – it’s a film that doesn’t hand out any verdicts or clear-cut answers. If it manages to send some questions out, it’s wonderful – even more so if it manages to bring the audience to question their position in regards to their surroundings, their openness. Everything that surrounds us has always been sort of the same, but I believe that now, more than ever, we are invited to stare at our own belly buttons and away from others. It’s a sort of rarity and luxury, a gift to be able to gaze at the Other, to take steps to meet them.

Cristian Popa: Those who will follow the film closely and will put aside their preconceived notions will definitely be struck by it. It’s a very human kind of story, beyond everything, about two people who are alive, yet unfulfilled. And we have to face the fact that life isn’t just happiness. There’s a strong bond between the two characters beyond everything, and that’s what will stay with the audience – that’s what’s going to make them reflect.

Simultaneously, there are certain kinds of viewers that reject, deflect films with propositions such as these, which create discomfort, which ask you to question your own values, especially regarding intimacy – I’m also thinking about the reactions to Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not, which, of course, is more “radical” in terms of form and message, but which bets on very similar hypotheses.

Judith State: I didn’t get to see Touch Me Not, unfortunately. But yeah, it isn’t comfortable – a lot of people come and say that they have enough problems already, that they just want to go to the cinema to unwind, forget, disconnect. But everything that seems to be happening around us right now is pushing us towards superficiality and self-deception; we’re under the impression that we’re solving our own problems, but we’re just running away from them. And how long is this supposed to go on? Clashing with reality is inevitable. At our Q&A in Ploiești, with just 30 people in the audience that discussed the film for over an hour, we heard everything from “this is a very necessary and sensitive film” to “well, it’s clear that the title refers to these people, who are demonized”. And I had mixed feelings – happiness and sadness. Happy, since people were actually discussing these things, and that the film had set the context, in spite of certain frictions that appeared amongst the audience members. Sadness, because the film isn’t going to be in cinemas for a long time, so the context won’t be there either. And they’re necessary. This notion of the majority – “we are normal, everything that isn’t the like us, simply because it’s in smaller numbers, is completely wrong.” It isn’t always right! We know too few things about the people that surround us, and everything that has to do with labeling has to be immediately questioned. It’s essential to doubt yourself, to accept that sometimes you simply do not know.

Cristian Popa: Sometimes you lack the necessary disposition: the one that allows you to watch something that puts you into this position, but I believe that art has the obligation to ask questions, to create discomfort but also ecstasy, to actually mean something. To make it unable for the audience to simply pass on by, indifferently. I think that a film such as Monsters. can help you understand certain things a little better, to open some doors that let some light in, that help you find some answers to what is going on inside of you.

Flavia Dima Flavia Dima
Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short fim festival, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. For Films in Frame, she's in charge of interviews, along with Laura Musat. Favorite international film festival: Viennale.