Romanian actors rocked the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. After savouring the brooding, smouldering performance by Alec Secareanu in British director Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country – the closest thing to Brokeback Mountain you’re ever likely to see – there was Cãlin Peter Netzer’s erotic and ultimately fractured Romanian relationship drama, Ana, mon amour, where Diana Cavallioti and Mircea Postelnic totally enthralled. In both films there’s graphic on-screen sex, including full frontal male nudity; still a no-no in movies, particularly when it comes to sex scenes. Yet it’s done so tastefully that the actors didn’t hesitate. Both films screen at Sydney Film Festival over the next few weeks, and I met both onscreen couples together to talk about their work in each film.
God's Own Country
Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor became great buddies when playing lovers in the film, a hugely personal story for the heavily bearded, openly gay director Francis Lee, who hails from the film’s farming milieu in provincial Yorkshire. Knowing the strictures of sheep farming, Lee was tough in his auditions and specifically flew to Bucharest, where he quickly realised Secareanu was the one. Lee based the character on a Romanian man he worked with in a junkyard after quitting acting.
“I wanted to show how it felt as an outsider coming to the UK; full of hope, wanting to change your life and being met with this terrible negativity and racism,” he says.
Josh O’Connor, who plays the repressed other half of the sheep-farming couple, hails from the south of England and is absolutely nothing like his character.
Interview with Francis Lee (director of God’s Own Country)
The actor-turned-director who has worked for the likes of Mike Leigh (Topsy-Turvy) here makes his debut feature, which took out the best director award when it screened in Sundance as well as an audience prize in Berlin.
FL: The central relationship, about two people falling in love, probably for the first time; I have experienced that. I wanted to explore how difficult being in love can be, and how [difficult] making yourself vulnerable to somebody can be. I grew up as a sheep farmer in Yorkshire, my dad’s still a sheep farmer on the same hill where the film is shot, and I now live on that hill. All elements to do with the farm, the landscape, the mud, are all very much autobiographical in terms of how I saw that world and how it made me feel.
HB: Did you have sex in the mud?
FL: No. (laughs heartily)
HB: It’s an incredible image and scene in the movie. How did you decide to do that?
FL: It was about building tension. Johnny only responds to people sexually and he couldn't respond to Gheorghe in any other way and this built and built and he didn't know what to do with this energy. In that early twilight misty morning when they are still bleary, I wanted it to feel very physical. I wanted it to feel very connected to the land, to the landscape that they were part of and therefore they did it in the mud.
HB: There was also a bit of aggression.
FL: Johnny’s sexual energy at that point in the film is very aggressive. The only way he knows how to have sex and to respond to somebody is in that animalistic way, and it was very important to represent that. So that when he progresses within his relationship, the kind of sex he has changes and it changes him.
Interview with Alec Secareanu and Josh O’Connor (lead actors of God’s Own Country)
JOC: The first time I met Alec I thought he was a lovely man, but once we were cast we kept a distance. We shot the film chronologically so for the first two weeks of rehearsals we worked at separate farms and lived separately, and we’d only see each other on set doing scenes that were very closed and not really making much eye contact or talking. Then gradually as the relationship built, Alec moved into the cottage I was staying in, and we became friends and still are friends.
HB: Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal developed a special bond [during the filming of Brokeback Mountain].
JOC: I know for sure our friendship will keep going. I do think we’ll look back on this as an important, exciting moment in our careers and in on our personal lives. We also went to places emotionally that were really hard and we really supported each other. I don't think that happens often on film sets when you’re stuck in your trailer and not really talking to anyone.
AS: It’s a very beautiful story. Francis sees it not as a gay love story but as a general love story, because you can see two people connecting beyond words. There is not a lot of dialogue in the film and they speak with their hearts and bodies and body language. They learn things from each other; they show each other things. Gheorghe is trying to show a different way to look upon the world that Johnny’s living in. I’m proud of working with these two beautiful people.
HB: Has your family seen this movie?
AS: My girlfriend Cristina, who is an actress, saw it last night at the premiere. She cried in the end, it’s so good.
JOC: It was really sweet. I was there with Alec and Cristina and every now and then I’d wind her up, “I have photos!” he chuckles.
Ana, Mon Amour
Cãlin Peter Netzer’s unflinching follow-up to his 2013 Golden Bear winning Child’s Pose showcases the talents of seasoned theatre actors Mircea Postelnic and Diana Cavallioti, as they play a couple in a co-dependent relationship. Ana’s extreme anxiety has led to her addiction to prescription drugs, and Toma is committed to help her through it. He ultimately marries her, against his family’s wishes. The film, which is based on the novel, “Luminita, mon amour” by the film’s co-screenwriter Cezar Paul-Badescu, took two years to write. It keeps us on our toes as the story criss-crosses through various stages of the relationship over the course of a decade. The changing hairstyles help us keep up.
“The actors had to know what they were talking about in the film,” Netzer explains at the film’s press conference. “So I had them study psychoanalysis and we rehearsed for many months. It was hard work, especially with the time jumps. I asked them to move in together for a couple of months but it didn't work out and Diana left.”
“It seems I didn't satisfy her!” the tall, dark and handsome Postelnic, 38, quips, to peels of laughter.
"It wasn’t necessary to live together," says Cavallioti, a striking, feisty 30 year-old who recalls a young Emily Watson. Still, taking on such an intense role was never easy, sex scenes included.
“I was asking myself if I was going to be able to do this movie and one of my first [questions] was, “Do I trust Cãlin?" And I said, “Yes I trust him”. When I entered this project it was with an open heart. We are talking about intimacy on so many levels that it’s not only about the sex scenes, it’s more than that.”
Interview with Diana Cavallioti and Mircea Postelnic (leads of Ana, Mon Amour)
MP: Everything we did during the preparations and rehearsal stage ultimately helped us feel relaxed for the sex scenes, but I think it’s difficult for anybody to show themselves in front of the crew. They were careful about it, so there weren’t as many people around for those scenes.
HB: Was it hard to prepare given the fractured storytelling and your different looks over ten years?
DC: We didn't shoot it chronologically, of course, but we rehearsed it chronologically. So we prepared for every period: this is where I have long hair, this is when I have my first period, this is when I was sick and had my nervous gestures with my nose and hand. Everything was really detailed.
HB: You’re kind of in the mid-age range of your characters. The long hair really makes Mircea look younger.
MP: It was a great experience working with makeup and with three or four wigs, then Toma started balding and it affects you immediately. So one day I’d have long hair and the next day I’d see myself bald. It gives you something special and you have a certain feeling of the character.
DC: I think men are really stupid because most women like bald men. I mean, why is it a problem? It’s just a testosterone thing.
MP: It’s like you lose your manhood. It’s like Samson losing his hair. He’s not a man any more; he’s not strong.
HB: Did you feel like that?
MP: Yeah a bit, but at some point I was looking at myself in the mirror and thinking it’s not for real, but I also look OK with the balding. I could imagine what it would be like for him losing hair over the years. I think it’s hard.
DC: It’s the same thing with women and wrinkles. Oh my God I have a few. It’s just the beauty of life. You can see this one is from the time I got divorced and this one is because I laughed a lot!
MP: It's a map of your life.
HB: Is it hard to find such interesting roles in Romanian films?
DC: It’s a very big problem, especially in Romanian cinema to find these kinds of characters. I haven't seen a young girl playing a normal part in Romanian cinema for ages, a character with a normal life and family problems. The screenwriters could work it out better.
HB: I spoke to two Russian critics who said you never see penises in Romanian cinema, and there are two films in the festival starring Romanians where you see it.
DC: We like to say that we’re open-minded but when you get to the point, “Oh maybe I don't want to discuss it”, “I don't want to see it”, “Oh my God it’s offensive.” It’s such a mixture, because we all have that Communist kind of thinking that our parents instilled in us. We fight with what we think, and with what we are supposed to think. It's a battle. I don’t know which side will win. But it’s a no-win situation from my point of view. Yes, you don't see this kind of nudity in Romanian cinema, and I am so eager to see the reactions because I think it’s going to be massive, massive for Romania. (chuckles)
MP: It is taboo of course in Romania, in Romanian society, the whole thing of even talking about sex, being open about sex and seeing nudity in movies. But if on television at two o’clock in afternoon you see someone being close to totally naked, nobody has a problem with that. But if you see it in a movie, even if the movie calls for it – and for this movie it’s very important for the story – there is a problem. You cannot see that.
The problem is we are so concerned about what other people think. We cannot show this or that because they’ll think I’m something I’m not. That's exactly the thing we’re talking about in the movie, about what other people think. But it should be about what you think and feel and only about you, and that's all.