Asia Argento in Transylvania

Transylvania Blog Image

Saffron Hill films, a Peccadillo Pictures company is excited to reveal that on February 11th we have an exciting re-release of Tony Gatlif’s seminal, Transylvania, starring the princess of cult cinema, Asia Argento.

When impulsive dervish Zingarina (Asia Argento) arrives in the mysterious backwaters of Transylvania, she has but one thing on her mind: to find her long-lost lover and travelling musician, Milan (Marco Castoldi).

After trawling the various clubs and bars with her friend Marie (Amira Casar), she eventually finds him, only to be rejected. Totally distraught, Zingarina cuts herself loose from Marie, her belongings and everything she holds dear before stumbling into a series of events and encounters that threaten to send her spiralling over the edge of sanity. Plunged into the confetti, drunken revelry and thrumming festivities of a Romany carnival, she emerges in a daze only to be lured ever deeper into the rolling hills of the Romanian countryside.

It is here that she meets the enigmatic Tchangalo (Birol Unel), a travelling trader who takes Zingarina under his wing. Together they embark on a chaotic road trip upon which they indulge in wild bouts of gypsy folk dance, cutthroat roadside bartering and long nights of heady passion.

Below is an interview that was done with Tony Gatlif in 2006 when the film was originally released.

Transylvania begins where most love stories end…


You’re right.  What interested me was what would become of Zingarina after the breakup and if she would ever recover.   I’d been thinking for a while about making a film about a woman who went off to the end of the earth, looking for the man she loved.  What happens in Transylvania is that she finds him again and he rejects her.  All the same, I didn’t want a woman who was going to crumble apart in a deep depression, but a combative protagonist.  She had to surprise us and drag us along with her, towards light and hope.  My meeting with Asia Argento was decisive with regard to that.  I immediately saw her as a passionate fighter, with that same mixture of Zingarina’s insurance and fragility.  I always choose actors, known or unknown, who imbue their characters with their own experiences, their personality.


We get a sense of this authenticity in Transylvania.


In my films, I don’t like seeing the directorial and framing mechanism.  So I try to give a maximum of freedom to my actors, all the while being very precise with regard to my instructions.   I manage to have my actors fit into the skin of their characters.  I’ve even had times when the boundaries blur between the performers and their characters, between reality and fiction.  We wind up unaware of the lighting, the set, costumes…


Tell us something about Transylvania, land of superstition and pagan ritual.


Transylvania, officially in Romania, fascinated me in that it was a land where Russia, Hungary and Romania all flowed together, where a number of different communities cohabited.  So you meet Gypsies, Hungarians, Romanians and Germans who speak several languages.  I was very attached to the idea that the film took place in a mixed atmosphere, where the communities shared the territory peacefully and spoke a language that was their own.  I grew up in Algiers, where the people expressed themselves, through a cocktail of languages – Arab, Spanish, Italian, French, Maltese – and came up with a fabulous new way of communicating..


You also show a Transylvania of barren industrial wasteland.


Romania is a country that was communist until only recently. It’s a land massacred by totalitarianism, where the roads cross hallucinating landscapes of power centers, empty factories and concrete buildings still under construction after the fall of Ceausescu.  This creates a ghostly atmosphere which adds to the country’s own mystery. It is no longer the castles perched on cliff tops, haunted by Dracula that scare you, but these Stalinist urban landscapes which spring up along the road,  that’s where the real sorcery is today.  I’ve got an enormous affection for Romania and the Romanians, a friendly people, like the Andalusians in terms of their joy for celebrating. There’s a new generation of Romanian filmmakers coming to life, and the rest of the world is going to know about them very soon over the next few years.


This snow-covered land seems to also have influenced you…

It’s countryside is absolutely fascinating along the Moldavian border!   There, you find nothing but ice, frost, mist and snow.  It’s a mysterious place where, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, can come surging towards you a sled, a dog  or a car without you having any idea where it’s come from.


…and which adds an air of fantasy to the film.


That’s what life is there, a fantasy!


The film is sprinkled with signs going in that direction…


Signs are only just visible, responding to and announcing that something is going to happen,   like the eye on Zingarina’s hand, for example:  she can’t stand being looked at by other people so she draws an eye in the palm of her hand to cast off the glance of anyone who stares at her.  When she closes her hand, a railroad crossing barrier comes down, blocking the road.  This sign will change her life… Zingarina—like Asia Argento, for that matter—is fascinated by signs.


This is the first time that a woman’s had the lead role in one of your films.


I used to more or less write stories about men because I’d automatically be projecting myself.  With Transylvaniafor the first time, I felt like I was shooting a woman’s soul, through Asia Argento.  I filmed it like a man in love, who starts with the soul and eventually winds up unveiling the beauty of the face.  Zingarina has a changing soul, and Asia’s face metamorphoses during the course of the film.  In the beginning, it’s somber and preoccupied, then, becomes more and more luminous toward the end.


What sort of actress is Asia Argento?


In Transylvania Asia doesn’t protect herself during the shoot; neither physically nor psychologically.  She gives everything, exposing herself to extreme cold or wind without ever worrying about her face.  She abandons herself totally without holding anything back. I appreciated her participation in the film like some wonderful gift.   As a result, I felt an incredible responsibility toward her. Asia possesses a rare force that I’ve only encountered among Gypsies.


How do you direct actors?


I don’t give them the script to read.  I just inform the evening before that we’re going to shoot this or that scene.  For example, when I told Asia that we were getting ready to shoot the exorcism sequence, I gave her the minimum of information so that she wouldn’t “prepare” herself for the scene.  On the day of the shoot, when Asia found herself surrounded by the villagers, in front of the priest with a bottle of oil in one hand and a candle in the other, she wasn’t acting anymore.  All of a sudden, in the middle of the singing of the villagers and the priest’s chanting, milk gets poured over her head—without her ever having rehearsed this before!   We were very afraid of the reaction from the villagers because the milk exposed her body in the church.  But out of prudence, I’d asked the extras to lower their heads and to keep them down!


What were your musical choices?


I traveled throughout Transylvania long before writing the script, to do my “musical scouting”.   I discovered extraordinary sonorities which absolutely possessed me.  But, at the same time, above all, I didn’t want “folk” music for the film.  So, with Delphine Mantoulet, who I also worked with on Exiles, we first composed an original score and then hired eighty musicians who I’d met there to do the recording.  As a result, during the shooting, I already had the music.  It’s the first time I’ve functioned like that, and I think it allowed me to concentrate more with the actors and the technicians.


Music flows through and brings life to the whole film.  But you show how it can be suffocating as well.


Music can be demonic and can suck the life out of you like a vampire; like a drug.  It becomes painful then because it can obsess and inhabit beings.  You know, in the majority of ceremonies, Transylvanian Gypsy musicians reach a trance.


The film is marked by dance and trance, already seen in Exiles.


That’s the case with a lot of my films.  In Transylvania dance envelopes the whole of the first part, and then in the second part, trance takes over.  But what differentiates trance from dance is that trance goes all the way.  Exorcism comes out of the same phenomenon:  you have to go to the very depth of one’s self to dare bring out all that’s at the bottom of one’s being.   Zingarina goes through the experience to exorcise her malaise.  After this experience, for a while she remains totally disconnected from reality until life grabs her and she sets out on her way again.


How did you handle framing and lighting?


This is the third film I’ve made with the DP Céline Bozon.  She’s not afraid of anything!  She doesn’t think twice about climbing up a ladder, carrying a seventy-five-pound Scope camera to shoot a scene or to leap onto some gigantic guy’s shoulders to get up above a crowd.


Regarding lighting, we wanted mysterious tones, in rusts and ochres.  I promised Céline that we’d shoot the bulk of the film at nightfall, at dusk.  It’s very difficult, because it just lasts about twenty minutes. Those rare moments when the sky is blue and the land is dark are, for me, filled with a mysterious light that’s somewhere between that of day and night.


How did you define the character of Marie, played by Amira Casar?


At first I wanted Marie, out of her love for Zingarina, to behave so vampirishly that she tries to resemble her in everyway.  She so admires this woman who’s willing to go to the end of the earth to find the man she loves, that Marie wants to protect her despite herself.  The way Amira took over Marie bodily was very impressive.  There are some photos from the film in which it’s difficult to distinguish Asia from Amira.  They were like two sisters…  But when Chantal arrives, it seemed to me that it was necessary for Marie to disappear so that Zingarina could divest herself of all that had happened before. Marie was encumbering Zingarina from moving toward a new life.


Why did you choose Amira Casar for the role of Marie?


I like her vitality and her optimism.  It’s very important to me. She’s an actress with whom I feel well.  Amira is a generous actress who trusted me.  She went to the limits of Marie’s character.   I was sad the day she left the film (script demanding).  I really wanted to continue right to the end with her.


How did you choose Birol Ünel, the lead actor from Head On?


I thought he was terrific in Head On, but I didn’t want him to play in the same way.  He had to be not violent, but vulnerable.  He reminded me of the character of Izidor Servan in Gadjo Dilo or of that of Gérard Darmon in Les Princes.  Birol is like an unpredictable wild horse.  He, too, left himself unprotected in the film.  He’s a man who doesn’t lie, an honest actor:  he’s free.


What’s your vision of Tchangalo?


For me, he embodies the man chased off from his tribe, without borders, without ties.  Banished from his community, he doesn’t need others but knows deep down that he can’t go on indefinitely living alone.  His unexpected meeting with Zingarina forces him to take account of matters and it’s a painful awakening.  When he falls in love with her, he flagellates himself because he can’t accept the idea that he’s like everyone else.  I think he’s the character that most resembles me.

Transylvania is out on DVD from 11th February, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon. If you cannot wait till then check out the trailer below and come back next week where you will be able to rent from our Peccadillo Player.