Andi Vasluianu on The Other Irene: Inside the Curl of Romania's Next Wave

By Diane Sippl


Andi Vasluianu in The Other Irene 

At the South East European Film Festival Los Angeles (SEEFEST), April 29-May 3, 2010, held at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles and UCLA’s James Bridges Theater, I discovered The Other Irene, a spellbinding new Romanian film directed by Andrei Gruzsniczki. The lead actor, Andi Vasluianu, was on hand to receive the Best First Feature Award in behalf of the director and was joined by Corina Suteu, Director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York. In this interview with them both at their hotel in Hollywood, our long talk ranged from the “New Wave” and the “Next Wave” in Romanian cinema, to The Other Irene, to Andi Vasluianu’s acting for the stage and the screen for directors such as Radu Muntean and Cristian Nemescu as well as Andrei Gruzsniczki.

At least five years ago, a non-stop rush of Romanian cinema began to distinguish itself by scrutinizing daily life in the years leading up to and immediately following the overthrow and death of Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989.  The works of a widely lauded cohort of filmmakers — Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, Radu Muntean, Cristian Mungiu — were labeled in points further west (from Cannes to Tribeca to Sundance, from New York City to Washington D.C. to Chicago, from Harvard to Stanford to UCLA) as a movement, and the term “Romanian New Wave” was coined referring to films probing the effects of Ceauşescu’s totalitarianism on people’s behavior, values, and feelings in the face of poverty and corruption lingering in post-communist Romania. 

A culturally specific black humor and tales of melancholy, unconventional romance were hardly departures from the stark location shooting, natural lighting, long takes, and stationary camera positions that dominated the aesthetic. Half a generation younger than the others, Cristian Nemescu added playful storytelling and stylistic experiments in subjective sound, fast panning and tracking of the camera, and rapid montage, foregrounding a sense of atmosphere.  Would his lively, idiosyncratic voice die tragically, as he did (before he could manage post-production for California Dreamin’, thereafter completed by his crew in 2007), or would it carry on in the widescreen visions of someone like Ruxandra Zenide in the path of her Ryna (2005)? 

In 2009 stories of love and marriage added color to the spectrum, even if they highlighted the confusion amidst the quest for capitalism and democracy that often plays out as lust after new opportunities.  In its haunting beauty, Andrei Gruzsniczki’s recent debut feature, The Other Irene, brings a new kind of ambiguity in both theme and narrative form — a lyricism of loss — to the palette of a Romania in transition.

Andi Vasluianu (center) in The Paper Will Be Blue 

Viewing The Other Irene is like the being caught up in a French masterpiece by François Ozon, Under the Sand, a work of singularly piercing effect, in which a middle-aged, professional couple from Paris vacations in the southwest of France. The husband goes to swim in the sea, and while his wife naps on the beach, he disappears entirely.  Did he run away?  Drown by accident?  Commit suicide?  The wife, played by Charlotte Rampling, is left to sort it all out, both logistically and emotionally.  The Other Irene is similarly solemn and luminous, even if Under the Sand is more psychologically surreal and The Other Irene is more attentive to social detail.

From a village near the Carpathian Mountains north of Bucharest, a young couple has moved south to Romania’s capital where the husband, Aurel (Andi Vasluianu), works the graveyard shift as a security guard and the wife, Irina (Simona Popescu), more ambitious and glamour-driven, is intent on attaining “the good life.”  She finds a job in a chemicals export-import business that requires her to travel to Cairo for a work stint.  One foot off the plane on her return trip, she strikes her husband as a new person, with sophisticated clothes, make-up, and curled and highlighted hair.  She’s bubbling over with enterprise and drags him off to shop for their first dishwasher.  They stroll through the mall where he works, past mannequins in shop windows, up and down giant escalators; when she breaks the news that she’ll return to Egypt for more work, he respectfully resists it.  If it’s such a good job, why are they paying her by the day? 

In fact, it’s the last he sees of the bright-eyed bon vivant.  He persistently tries to track her down when she doesn’t return on her scheduled flight.  As Aurel's search for his wife becomes adamant, even defiant, ours becomes more retrospective; we look back on the details of her daily life in Bucharest as we saw her.  Just as he does, we seek the truth — what happened to Irina?  But the more relentless his search becomes, the more our gaze gravitates to Aurel himself.  The Other Irene might build with the tension of a mystery, probing the official networks of two countries whose reports remain disconcertingly opaque and in the end offer no clear answers, but all the while, Andi Vasluianu’s performance as Aurel grows increasingly translucent and begs our own confrontation with the sad beauty of love.

Simona Popescu and Andrei Vasluianu in The Other Irene

Diane Sippl  The Other Irene strikes me as a story about a couple.  Some people call it a thriller because it looks like some kind of crime is involved; we don’t know what, but we try to find out.

Andi Vasluianu  Aurel himself doesn’t know.

DS  So critics look at it as a mystery or a crime drama, either about the couple and the characters with whom they associate or about Romanian and Middle Eastern societies and bureaucracies.  In this light they see it falling directly into the recent Romanian New Wave characterized by gritty realism, overtly political critique of institutions and red tape before and after Ceauşescu, and a minimalist aesthetic.  Is The Other Irene seen this way in Romania?

AV  It’s not about bureaucracy; that’s not the point.  It’s a sad story about a husband and wife and their situation, one that happens sometimes.  Now we have another kind of thinking: women don’t go outside Romania these days to get work — maybe to Spain, as you see on the TV in the opening of the film, but not to Egypt or Arabic countries.  Generally women have stopped going there.

DS  But they did, for awhile — for money or out of necessity.  This film is based on a true story.  When did the real incident happen?

AV  Ten years ago.  And the film is just about this particular story.  Today it’s another thing — everybody works and everyone does their best to reach high standards, but inside Romania, not outside the country.  They try to make it there.

There was a moment, right after the revolution, when people left.  It was a feeling that came over them: when they became free, they tried to go everywhere.

DS  And how long do you think that lasted?

AV  I think the first ten years of the new regime, until about 2000. 

DS  Well at this moment much of the world seems to be in motion for better living and working conditions.  That’s my point: even though this is a very particular story, it’s a really common situation today that couples are separated, everywhere.  So for me this film tells a very universal story about…

AV  Immigration.

DS  Immigration, migration, but not even just that — about knowing your companion.

AV  It’s exactly about that, about a crisis for the couple.

DS  Yes, it takes a crisis of separating for some reason to find out what you miss, or what you thought you had, or what you don’t know…  The position of the spectator, of guessing the real relation of these people, is in itself captivating.

AV  I think the husband and wife don’t have a strong relationship.  He doesn’t wish for what she wishes for.  He wants to remain quiet and peaceful in Romania with everything staying the same, to take it easy.  And he thinks, “Together we can do a lot.”  But she’s another type.

DS  So would you say that once we decide that the film is really about the couple…

 Andrei Vasluianu and Simona Popescu in The Other Irene

AV  I think it’s about love.  When I was asked about the movie, I always said, “This is a perfect love for him, from his point of view.   He’s a great guy, who loves a woman perfectly — both the good and the bad about her.  I have a line in the film when I’m at the cemetery and I say, “She’s my wife.  I love her.”  And nothing else matters.  I love her and she’s my wife and that’s it.

DS  But even more than the line — because any character could say that for whatever reason — I think it’s very, very much in your acting, in your countenance and your mannerisms around her and your shielding of her even in non-verbal language, the way you protect her honor and her space and the way you try to work things out with her, the way you need to be with her if there’s a danger or a question involved.  It’s all in your body language and your facial expression.

AV Yes.  The director and I talked a lot about how to create this character.  Everything started from the moment they told me on the phone that she died.  I didn’t believe it — for example, when I was shaving.  I remember, because for that scene we tried to shoot two options.  One of them was for me to cry when I found out this news, and the other was for me not to cry.  We chose the second one, and we decided we needed to go in this direction because it was much more mysterious and because sometimes it’s true.  It happens in life, when you hear that somebody close to you has died; the first feeling is fear, and then disbelief.  It’s about that: this man who doesn’t believe it and who loves her very much.  It’s just this.  He’s a very, very sensitive guy, with a special sensibility.

DS  I really felt that special sensibility — I asked myself, “where is that man?!”

AV  I’m not like him.  I know him.  I met him.  But I’m not at all like him. 

DS  I don’t know who is.  But I thank you for giving us an ideal.

AV  Maybe in my real life I have a lot of compassion for this type of person, and I think this is the reason I saw the character very deeply. 

DS  I think that’s the best part of the whole film, myself.  To see this character, fully embodied in one person, was so unique for me, just a complete surprise.

AV  Thank you.  I can’t wait to tell the director that.

DS  I went there with just the title, The Other Irene, and for me that laid the ground.  I was interested in the female character — in both “Irenes” — and she played her role just right vis-à-vis yours.  She was aloof.  Not mean, just removed. 

AV  I very much like that kind of feeling in this film, because everybody sees her detachment from me, but my character doesn’t.  He looks at her as his wife.  The viewer asks, “Why doesn’t he pay attention? It’s clear.”  But sometimes this happens, because when you’re in love — or you’re all there, with all your feelings and wishes — you can’t see.

DS  But there’s more to it than that, because even if he did see…

AV  He doesn’t want to believe it.

DS  But what else can he do?  What can he do differently?  What should he do?  There’s no option for him.  If you love somebody one hundred percent, and you’re doing your very best, it’s a good reason not to believe it.  Yes, it’s very logical — human reason — and you hardly get to see this in films. You rarely even find it in the theatre, but you get a better chance there; some classic tragic heroes are like this.  They’re blind.  And there’s a reason that those are classics, because we get full-dimensioned human beings.  They can’t see, and we can find eighteen reasons why and talk about them all, but they can’t because they’re pure people, and they shouldn’t have to be suspicious all the time.  None of us should.

AV  Yes, very nice observation.

Andrei Gruzsniczki, Director and Co-Writer of The Other Irene 

DS  Did the director give you any special instructions as to how you were to relate to the shopping mall, because it’s an important mise en scène in the film, these empty corridors at night, inhabited only by the echoes of your own footsteps.

AV  Yes, because we work there in the night, we spend the whole night there.  This is my job.  After it closes, I am the security guard.  And I like that because for the character, it’s very special — it’s like him, quiet, nothing happening.

DS  It’s a little dreamy, almost like life in a tomb or some kind of perversely protective cocoon.  When he crawls into the display car parked in the middle of the mall, I’m reminded of the husband in Laurent Cantet’s Time Out, who cruises the roads of the countryside in denial of his daily reality.  Aurel’s quiet self-containment belies his subconscious alienation.

AV  It’s a kind of special scene when Aurel sleeps in the car he’s supposed to be guarding and the boss comes up to him, “Hey! What are you doing?”  Aurel’s like that — he’s a mountain-type.  He would spend his time climbing and hiking, because for him, Bucharest is not his town. 

DS  There’s a moment when you get a tragic report about your wife.  You’re sitting in an office at the desk of a woman making a telephone inquiry on your behalf.  She tells you the news quietly — she’s upset, and she leaves the room.

AV  She runs away.  It’s a normal reaction, maybe.

DS  And the camera — is it a jump cut?  Or does it move 180 degrees?  In Under the Sand, when the wife first gets wind of her husband’s disappearance, the camera circles around her suddenly from one point of view of her looking out to sea to the opposite angle on her face.  Maybe you have the Charlotte Rampling role in The Other Irene.

AV  Yes.  In our film it’s a jump-cut.  It’s a moment of change.

DS  It was very effective for me, because it’s the turning point in the whole film, and it’s so subtle. 


Andi Vasluianu (right) in The Other Irene

There’s another scene when you’re driving in your car and the camera angle is through the windshield, or should I say at it — or really, at something else, something more imaginary in the hearts of both driver and passenger. 

AV  It’s when I pick up the hitchhiker.  Ironically, he tells me a story about the loss of his brother.

DS  The whole scene is so impressionistic.  It’s also typical of the beauty of this film, very reflexive of the cinematic medium, holding the camera for a long time in one position to dwell on the elusive feelings continuously “rolling” over the glass of the window, our own “screen” for projecting the emotions at hand.

You see all the trees of the forest reflecting on the glass, as if all the memories and perceptions of your marriage pass before us.

AV  I think this is a key scene.  The hitchhiker’s brother died of cancer but no one in the family knew it was happening.

DS  Because the brother never let on, so there was a secret life, a secret pain.

AV  Yes, the passenger tells that story, which is very close to my story, as I hold onto my denial.

DS  So with these scenes, for example, I would call this poetic cinema, and I have not seen this poetic cinema in Romania for a long time.

AV  Yes, this is the recognition the director deserves.

DS  And I would really like to salute him for that.  I think he worked as an assistant under Lucian Pintilie, who made The Oak and Reconstruction.  The Oak left me overwhelmed. 

 Andi Vasluianu (left) in California Dreamin'

I’m wondering how much of Aurel’s character is drawn from the source, the man Andrei Gruzsniczki  knew in real life.  The director co-wrote the film with two screenwriters.   Was one of them this same friend, the origin of your character?

AV  No, but Andrei discussed the character in depth with the real-life counterpart; he asked him a lot.

DS  Where did the director find the model for Aurel’s purity of heart?  Did he create it?

AV  We created it, and I think this is because of me, because I wanted it.  I believe in this kind of person.  I think they exist; they are very present in our lives.  And sometimes we live these moments.  This was my choice, and the director understood it very quickly and he let me develop it this way. 

DS  Very interesting.  The reason I don’t usually interview actors is because, especially when the director is writing the film and producing it, it’s really his film, or hers, and not the actor’s.

AV  No, in Romania it’s another thing.  We collaborate, actors and directors.  And sometimes we change the script to help make the point.  When I met the real guy, he was very frustrated, agitated, but our story wasn’t about that.

DS  How long was it after the incident happened that you met him? 

AV  Seven or eight years.

DS  In which ways was the film exactly as it happened in life and in which ways did the writers and the director take license from the real story?

AV  It’s ninety percent the same.  The director wanted to tell it from his friend’s point of view.  This was the choice, because it was his friend’s story, and Andrei (the director) knew his friend at the moment that he experienced these events.  They are very old and very close friends, and Andrei wanted to get the story right.  And the pictures, too — the photos are his friend’s real photos of his wife; only the face has been changed, with the actress’ face inserted, but the platinum blond hair, the clothes, these were those of his real wife. 

However in real life the parents loved the husband.  It was the director’s choice to introduce a little more tension in the film.  Also, the real wife wasn’t pregnant; this was a new factor for the film.  But the country she visited stayed the same, and also her job.

DS  Was this a big story in the press when it happened?

AV  No, it was a very particular story.  No one knew of it until the film came out; they didn’t make a big fuss.

DS  Did your theatre work prepare you for this role?  Do theatre acting and cinema acting overlap?

 Andi Vasluianu in Marilena from P7

AV  I’ve acted in theatre for over twelve years.  When you go to act in cinema, you play less than in theatre.  This is a very classic explanation.  I think I can’t be just a cinema actor; both kinds of acting go together somehow for me.  I’ll always do both, because I think in theater you feel something different, and in cinema you also feel something different, but with the two together you start to be bigger and deeper than just an actor who plays a role.

I love the combination.  A teacher of mine, when I asked him, ‘Do you like movies or theatre?’ said, ‘You’re asking me if I walk with the left leg or with the right leg.’  I walk with both legs.

DS  I wonder sometimes if cinema acting ever enriches theatre acting.

AV  Yes, I think so — it’s a bigger tension in cinema.  And I think if you’re convincing the viewers in theatre, it’s easier for you to be good in cinema.

DS  Well that’s the direction that seems logical to me — that theatre’s the better training, and the more challenging, and then you can bring that to cinema, with some holding back.

But I've never asked anybody if cinema acting improved their theatre acting. 

AV  I think when you play cinema and go to the theatre, you have much more discipline, and you’re much more rigorous.

DS  From your cinema experience?

AV  Yes, because you learn to be very precise and very insinuating.  But in theatre you have a larger expression, and nobody tells you, “Stop here… Look there… Don’t make big moves.”  When you go to the theatre from cinema, you’re more exact, and it helps.  I think they’re not very different; they’re very close.  But the resources you use, and the ways you use them, differ from one medium to the next. 

In two, three or four hours on the stage, you must be focused; you are there; you must be present.  And in the movie, you’re there for just two minutes, three minutes — maybe five minutes — and you are also very focused. But what I like in movies is that you might be relaxed on the set and the director jumps into a scene; you must cry, or be angry, or whatever, and you must put it there quickly.  I like that kind of experience, and of putting it there in theatre in the same way.  In two hours I grow; I grow the whole time.  But if I have a really hard situation I have to enter, I can get into it — it’s okay; I can do it because of the movie acting.  I learned it there. 

I think theatre helps me in the process of creating.  It’s a very good process — to create slowly.  You work one or two months to stage a play, and in a movie the rehearsal time is one two weeks.  But in these two weeks I work as in theatre.  I work with this process. I develop everything slowly.  I like the process itself.

 Andi Vasluianu in California Dreamin'

DS  It definitely shows.  Now what about your other films?  Can you tell me about California Dreamin’?


AV  It’s by the same director who made Marilena from P7.  I was a soldier who translates between the Romanians and the American soldiers.  It was a supporting role, part of the ensemble.  The lead roles were by Armand Assante and Răzvan Vasilescu — very good actors. 


Marilena from P7 is the story of a prostitute, and I play her pimp.  There’s a kid who falls in love with her, and also another guy, someone she believes is her true love.


DS  It’s a very tender and a very soft story.


AV  Yes, and very sad. 


DS  What was it like playing that pimp?  Was there some dimension in it for you?


AV  It was harder.  It’s funny, because every time somebody asks me about dimension in a role, I say, “I’m an actor," because I feel this.  And if you have a very good director, he helps you go there.


DS  Where was the “there” with the pimp?  Where did you go?


AV  What was very important for that character was that he loves Marilena very much, and earlier it doesn’t look like it: he’s just a pimp.  I love her, but I don’t show it.  I don’t look like I’m in love with her.  It’s inside.  It comes out only in the end, when she dies. 


DS  And Youth without Youth?


AV  That was Coppola’s film.  I had a small part.  I was a doctor.


DS  Are there any unique experiences you had in cinema acting that surprised you?


AV  There is a movie — I think nobody saw it here, or in Romania either — a medium-length movie called In the Morning.  It’s by Radu Jude who made The Happiest Girl in the World and also The Tube with a Hat. 


DS  You mean about the TV set?  I saw that — I loved The Tube with a Hat.  Oh, I know — Dimineaţa?


AV  Yes.  It’s another medium-length film.  I think my role in In the Morning is my best part.  When you start to create something, you either know or don’t know how it will be, and with this role, though the character was not like me, it came very fast.  I looked at the script like this, and I said, “Okay, let’s do it.”  And at rehearsal, I knew the whole script.  I knew it immediately by heart.  It was the first time in my life that this happened.

Andi Vasluianu (left) in California Dreamin' 

DS  Is film exhibition in Romania today very different from what you see in the U.S.?

CS  In Romania, each venue adapts a general policy according to its own needs.  Whereas in the U.S., a Hollywood movie that plays for a month in Los Angeles would immediately be replaced by others as it then fans out to maybe 3,000 venues throughout the country, this doesn’t exist in Romania.  If a film has a premiere in Bucharest and people want to see it, they go there. 

A Romanian film might stay one month in the theater, but in this month, maybe only 5,000 people come to see it, and there are some 23 million people in Romania today.  But there are very few theaters; there is no longer a system of cinema.  They’ve started to build big cineplexes, but the old theaters are going down.

DS  You mean that, as in many countries in the world, the grand old theaters are not restored but abandoned? 

CS  In the whole of the country, we used to have hundreds of theaters, but we don’t even have a tenth today of what used to be.  And then we have fewer and fewer cinemas showing Romanian films in Bucharest — maybe ten in the whole city, and the population of Bucharest is 2-3 million people; it’s the sixth largest city within the European Union.  We have five or six cineplexes, and they show Hollywood movies with just a few from Europe, mostly French.

DS  Andi, what is your latest project?

AV  One is Bibliotheque Pascal, directed by Szabolcs Hajdu, a very good movie.  The premiere was in February of 2010.  It was at the Berlinale.  If I try to tell you about it, you’ll understand nothing, because it’s surreal.  You have to see it. 

DS  I’d like to let our readers know that Bibliotheque Pascal is on the slate for the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival so they can see it there.  Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AV  The Other Irene was the first feature directed by Andrei Gruzsniczki, and the first feature for Simona Popescu, the lead actress, and my first leading role in a feature film.

DS  Congratulations to all of you, and I look forward to seeing your performance in Bibliotheque Pascal this June at the Los Angeles Film Festival!


The Other Irene

Director: Andrei Gruzsniczki; Producer: Vivi Drăgan Vasile; Screenplay: Ileana Muntean, Mircea Stăiculescu, Andrei Gruzsniczki; Cinematographer: Vivi Drăgan Vasile, R.S.C.; Editor: Dana Bunescu; Sound:  Dana Bunescu, Constantin Titi Fleancu; Production Designer: Mihaela Poenaru; Costumes: Svetlana Mihăilescu.

Cast: Andi Vasluianu, Simona Popescu, Dan Aştilean, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Carmen Lopăzan, Gabriel Călinescu, Vlad Ivanov, Gabriel Spahiu, Oana Ioachim, Mihai Dinvale, Dragos Bucur, Doru Nitescu.

Color, 35mm, 90 minutes.  In Romanian with English subtitles. 

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