Tuesday, After Christmas (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Monica Filimon
Produced by Dragos Vîlcu; directed by Radu Muntean; written by Alexandru Baciu, Radu Muntean, and Răzvan Rădulescu; cinematography by Tudor Lucaciu; edited by Alexandru Radu; set design by Sorin Dima; starring Mimi Brănescu, Mirela Oprişor, Maria Popistasu. DVD, color, 99 min., 2010. A Kino Lorber Release.
Although he is the most productive filmmaker of the New Romanian Cinema, Radu Muntean was virtually unknown to American audiences until the release of Tuesday, After Christmas at the 2010 New York Film Festival. This is, in fact, the fourth feature—following The Rage (2002), The Paper Will Be Blue (2006), and Summer Holiday (2008)—for a director who has also won numerous prizes for his work in commercial advertising. In 2011, moreover, Muntean released Visiting Room, a documentary on love and marriage between inmates that he codirected with Alexandru Baciu, one of his regular collaborators. His success with domestic rather than foreign audiences is unusual for a new wave director, as most such films make their profits abroad. The reasons may be that Muntean’s cinema relies on specifically Romanian situations and character types, as well as on the vivid language that gets lost in translation.
Tuesday, After Christmas, newly released on DVD by Kino Lorber, is an exception: it has attracted Romanian and international audiences alike, bridging the two markets. Unfolding in a Westernized, middle-class Bucharest, away from the pecuniary worries of most Romanians, the film revolves around the universal dilemma of a love triangle and refuses to pass any moral judgment. It is familiar and challenging at the same time.
The crux of the plot is the inner conflict of a middle-aged man caught between his wife and younger lover. In the opening scene of the film, Paul Hanganu (Mimi Brănescu), whose hair is slightly graying, but whose body has retained its youthful vigor, follows, with some amusement, the playful ruminations of his slim, blonde lover, Raluca (Maria Popistasu). Their friendly bantering gradually dims with the mention of Christmas plans: she is going to visit her mother in another city, while he will spend the holidays with his wife and daughter. The strong white light enveloping their naked bodies suddenly grows colder. In the next scene, viewers meet Adriana (Mirela Opriï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½or), the brunette, bespectacled, yet quietly attractive wife, when she and Paul are shopping for presents. Surprisingly, their relationship is equally cordial and intimate. (Incidentally, the two actors are married in real life). The man’s double life and its sustainability thus become central to the plot and to viewers’ interest from the beginning.
Paul Hanganu is an inscrutable hero, who feels passionately about Raluca, whom he calls incessantly when they are apart or follows to her home city. At home, he bemusedly plans Christmas surprises with his wife, rubs her feet at the end of the day, and makes sure their last-minute food shopping gets done on time. Paul, however, is rarely in the same place in mind and body. He becomes distracted by the computer at Raluca’s or calls Adriana for a chat while driving to see his lover. He puts on clothes, watches TV, and even talks with his wife while lost in thoughts about his other woman. Smoking and constant cell-phone conversations amplify his restlessness, divulging nothing of the deeper inner motives for his behavior. Paul is the anonymous urban dweller, alert to everything and busy at all times.
An unexpected event triggers the imbalance of forces that leads to the protagonist’s final decision. Adriana suddenly decides to join her husband at their daughter’s dentist appointment only to meet, unknowingly and to her later dismay, Raluca, the doctor in charge of the child’s dental braces. This “encounter of the third kind,” as the young woman refers to it afterward, dramatizes Paul’s intimate reality and possibly triggers his desire to clarify his situation. Vulnerable in the presence of her lover’s wife, Raluca adopts the mask of the professional, detailing the type of braces to be used, their long-term beneficial effects on the little girl’s teeth, and the procedure to be used. The wife is not convinced. Paul watches their interaction in silence, his face immobilized in a cautious grin for the duration of the episode; viewers can barely notice the actor’s facial expressions because he remains mostly in profile. In the clinical whiteness of the office, this perfectly choreographed conversation reveals an impassive husband who has to face a nervous yet assertive lover and an inquisitive but indulgent wife. The tension that accumulates is briefly discharged in his hasty rebuke of his daughter in the next scene.
Raluca also pressures Paul for a reaction, but does not do it out of malice or for a calculated purpose. She is twenty-six, practices her profession in a private office, and seems to be financially comfortable, which is not typical for the ordinary Romanian graduate. She is the new woman, self-confident and not at all the stereotype of the clinging, dependent lover. Raluca loves Paul sincerely, but, slowly, takes charge of their relationship because she is able to express her emotions openly about delicate situations. She is very determined in her actions, appearing manipulative at times. Raluca buys ski gloves for Paul’s daughter, an awkward gesture eventually intended to move him, as he is the only one who would ever know about it. She declares her love and laments the powerlessness of her position as the “other woman,” but confronts him about the excuses he makes up for his wife when he comes to see her: “Where are you, really, right now?” Raluca asks, an apt question on a much wider scale than she implies, given Paul’s inner unrest. When he moves in, she does not change her plans: she will not return to Bucharest earlier than “Tuesday, after Christmas,” the date she had initially proposed. Paul is important to her, but so are her individual freedom and the respect she commands from him.
Adriana is not a pushover, either. She works for a law court, probably in a position with serious responsibilities, but she is also a caring mother and an affectionate wife. The intimacy she shares with Paul has not devolved into long-time friendship, but has kept its sensual, erotic dimension. Adriana knows and confronts her husband’s moods, which she perceives with great acuity, but she is also naïve, without any trace of suspicion. She remains a background character for most of the film, rising to the forefront only with Paul’s revelation. The unexpected scene of disclosure takes place on a peaceful Sunday morning, when the couple is home alone. Nothing announces the husband’s confession; quite the contrary: while making coffee, he eavesdrops on his wife’s phone conversation and even jokes about it. When his wife notices his tenseness, Paul’s thoughts simply burst out, without any premeditation. The conversation, which lasts for about twenty minutes, records Adriana’s subtle transition from surprise at Paul’s apparent love declaration (“I’m very much in love”), to shock at his disclosure (“I have met someone”), and hurt affection (“You never loved me”). Her incisive analysis cuts right to the core of their dilemma—how to tell their daughter. Paul’s urge to confess to his wife suddenly triggers further moral distress for him. In the clinically bright light of the morning, marriage ends in painful bewilderment for her and discomfort for him.
In spite of his bold move, Paul does not find the inner balance he seeks. He moves into Raluca’s crammed studio, where his new piece of IKEA furniture—easily disposable and replaceable in case he needs to move out—may not “fit” in quite well. His only companion is his friend Cristi (Dragoş Bucur), who has himself gone from woman to woman, unable to make up his mind. Paul eventually spends Christmas Eve with his wife, daughter, and parents, negotiating his time between final settlements with his wife and putting on a mask of good cheer for everybody else. He ends up a passive man, accepting Raluca’s plans and Adriana’s decisions without protest. The protagonist has moved from one emotional imbalance to another, equally disturbing. His reasons for the change remain unclear to viewers, but his explanation that things have just happened without his intervention rings true. He represents the up and coming middle class, always in a rush, old enough to remember the shortages of childhood, but attuned to all the enticements of the modern world and ready to trade one type of desire for another. Muntean’s protagonists, all male, share the same quality: a teenager’s enthusiasm pushes them to take actions that have regrettable outcomes, yet do not appease their initial anxieties. Paul is no exception. The final shot of the family listening to carolers is a deceptive image of a conflict resolved since subdued tension is only likely to swell. Paul moves from one woman to another, but arrives at the same point, inwardly immobile.
This inner stasis finds expression in the camerawork that is almost immobile throughout the film. Fixed frames and long takes are Muntean’s dominant techniques. For the first eight minutes, the camera remains fixed on the bed shared by Paul and Raluca, fragmenting their bodies and producing a sensation of claustrophobia that becomes more palpable when the protagonist eventually moves in with his lover. The twenty-minute confrontation between Paul and Adriana is shot in only two takes, with the camera positioned at medium distance from the characters, allowing viewers to observe every change in Oprișor's gestures and vocal inflections. This theatrical construction of scenes, reinforced throughout by high-key lighting, expands and makes visible the characters’ internal time, inviting viewers to ponder their intricate emotional trajectories. Like Cristi Puiu’s Aurora (2010), Tuesday, After Christmas marks a turn toward inner life, without revealing, however, the psychological mechanism that justifies the protagonists’ actions. Characters remain opaque and their decisions seem determined by force of circumstance.
Muntean’s film benefits from the subtle acting of the new generation of actors who, along with the directors, have made the New Romanian Cinema possible. Brănescu, who appears mostly in cryptic profile, has been featured in three of Muntean’s films. His career was launched with Cristi Puiu’s short Cigarettes and Coffee (2004), the Golden Bear winner, in which he plays the patronizing son of a modest old man (Victor Rebengiuc); in a friendly allusion, Muntean keeps the same father-son pair in Tuesday, After Christmas. Bucur, here in a secondary role as Cristi, is one of the most versatile Romanian actors and has played in all of Muntean’s previous films, but became well-known abroad for his part as… Cristi, the protagonist of Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009). (The director also inserts a tongue-in-cheek humorous line when Cristi comments on a DVD copy of Porumboiu’s 12:08: East of Bucharest). It is the two actresses, Popistașu and Oprișor, however, who carry the film. Popistașu mixes a child’s fragility and rashness with an adult’s self-discipline and prudence in limited situations, an ability fully exploited inLove Sick (2006, dir. Tudor Giurgiu), in which her character staggers between incest with her brother and lesbian relationships with a friend. Oprișor, the least known of the cast, simply shines as the betrayed wife; her character is lighthearted and warm at first, but sharp, lucid, and in control when the need arises. Although initially in the background of the narrative, the women take center stage when their characters are better fleshed out and their dramas become more persuasive. In spite of less inspired lines (Adriana’s “God bless you” to Paul for the foot massage he gives her; Raluca’s “You’ve turned me into a weakling” to Paul after the dentist-office incident), the actors inhabit the characters and lend credibility to the story.
Though set in Bucharest, Tuesday, After Christmas is not necessarily about Romanians and their coming of age in capitalism, as many of the other films of the New Romanian Cinema are. Muntean’s is a study of the anxiety, increasing isolation, and inevitable betrayals of the modern city-dwelling individual, a fate well familiar to international and Romanian audiences alike. The Kino Lorber release, part of their series of critically acclaimed independent films, is also to be commended for its crisp-quality image and sound. It is regrettable that they did not include the “Making of” bonus, which was part of the earlier Romanian release by Multimedia East and Voodoo Films. It would have given viewers an interesting insight into the director’s interaction and work with the actors who do so much to make this film come alive.
Monica Filimon is Assistant Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY.
To purchase Tuesday, After Christmas, click here.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2