Thursday, December 29, 2011

Tuesday, After Christmas

A schlubby, married banker is having a blissful affair with his child's dentist. He's weighed down by this deception, and feels increasingly distanced from his wife and daughter, who are oblivious. He's getting anxious; he knows he won't be able to keep this hidden forever, and he has started to become as insistent and controlling with his mistress as his wife (whom he at one point, indirectly perhaps, refers to as "Mom") is with him. The clandestine relationship has been going on for five months, and he still has no idea how to handle it. He seems to expect to continue onwards with the same arrangement into the distant future. But he knows subconsciously it's inevitable that he'll have to tell.

Even though there's not a whole lot to it in terms of narrative, "Tuesday, After Christmas" is a very hard movie to make. If we don't feel close to these characters, their personal business is going to be quite dull indeed. This seems obvious, but in a film with this sort of subject matter, immersion becomes ever the more important in separating it from other films about the same topic. That Radu Muntean has made as much out of this as he has is extremely impressive. He and his fellow screenwriters Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu know their characters (surprisingly, given that they're all men, especially the wife) and the relationships between them well and move from scene to finely tuned scene with incredible ease. He and his cinematographer Tudor Lucaciu have chosen to film with a muted palette and with not-too-showy long takes to give the feel of sustained semi-realism and despair (also: the cigarette smoke looks gorgeous). And he and his actors, Mimi Branescu, Maria Popiastu, and Mirela Oprisor, have worked to convey an almost all-encompassing feeling of naturalism; this may be the single most important element of the film, and the whole works only as much as the actors allow it to (which is to say, pretty darn well).

There are a number of smart choices made with regards to the plot details. Setting it at Christmastime creates a parallel between the illusion of Santa to the daughter and the illusion of the affair. In some ways, revealing the fabrication would be just as heartbreaking in each case. Another particular that Muntean plays close attention to is the occupations of the leads. This is most important in the case of the women. Having the mistress be a family doctor sets up an interesting, awkward, and beautifully executed scene in which the parents come to take their daughter to get her braces put on. This moment gets added resonance later on, but is even at the time a telling and overtly choreographed episode. Coming back to the idea of jobs, having the wife work in the courts (presumably as a lawyer) gives her a sheen of precision and a range of knowledge of how to take people down. This, balanced with her often informal demeanor, makes her (at least to me) a recognizable type and a full character. A stronger character than the mistress, I must say, though not overwhelmingly so.

These characters could fail to work off paper. This is not the case, though, because the performers have the abilities required to make them believable. Branescu (who had a role in the exceptional "Outbound") is able to show Paul the banker's isolation, unhappiness, naive defensiveness, and anxiety quite well, even if at times he looks a little unsure (probably the character). Popiastu, given the weakest role and the least number of scenes to bring things together, does what she can with it anyways with charm and agitation, though it isn't entirely convincing. The best performance here is by Oprisor, who gives us both ends of her emotional spectrum to devastating effect. These three, plus the actress who plays Popiastu's mother (I can't find her name), make the film constricting and absorbing (while the actors playing Branescu's parents provide a comic interest). Brilliantly sequenced, with flaws only due to characterization and the resulting portrayal, "Tuesday, After Christmas" definitely fits securely into the rich, remarkable Romanian New Wave. B+

Is Dragos Bucur's character Cristi a holdover from "Police, Adjective"? An in-joke or cameo of some sort? Just a bit strange to give the character the same name.

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