One hallmark of the ongoing string of artistic triumphs that is the Romanian New Wave (which, as Corneliu Porumboiu's Police, Adjective recently demonstrated, hardly peaked when Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days took the Palme d'Or at Cannes back in '07) is its modest virtuosity--a very sophisticated and well-considered use of film language that never blatantly calls attention to itself but is, upon reflection, steadily and resoundingly impressive. Though its subject matter is significantly lighter than average when it comes to the stream of wonderful Romanian films that have found their way to our shores over the past few years, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas (which, in a coincidence much droller than anything in the sober, progressively heartrending film itself, will actually be released to DVD on December 27th, the actual Tuesday after Christmas!) belongs in their deservedly esteemed company, as the aesthetic principles it has in common with them are adhered to just as rigorously, and to just as profoundly moving and devastating effect.
The film tells a story that has been told countless times and on every level, from TV soaps to Ibsen and Godard: the dissolution of a marriage in the face of adultery, in this case the husband's banally predictable infidelity with a younger woman. We open on the postcoital bliss featured (rather misleadingly) on the DVD packaging; Paul (Mimi Branescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistasu) banter, joke, and discuss plans happily, various possibilities floated for the upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays. Only gradually through this conversation do we infer that Paul is married to someone else, with whom he has a seven-year-old daughter, and we get just enough of a tossed-off inkling to guess what we later discover: Raluca and Paul have met because she is his daughter's dentist. The scene, wonderfully performed, is only the first example of the film's supple narrative economy and understated expository elegance.
It's an elegance and economy that Muntean maintains throughout, and his bold, risky, yet measured and perfectly calibrated style--with its long takes, absence of score, and real-time, everyday-life temporal tone--yields higher and higher emotional dividends as the stakes are revealed. Paul, a banker, and his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), a lawyer, are comfortably successful members of Romania's newly affluent post-Cold War middle class, and we experience their family unit as stable, loving, and warm as we witness the well-worn routine of Paul and Adriana's marriage and family life. They get their Christmas shopping done, have dinner, decide whether their little girl should get braces (the latter in a fraught scene in which the family interacts professionally with Raluca at her office), go on a double date with another couple of their acquaintance, etc. The accommodating and caring Adriana--though she is Paul's age rather than several years younger, like Raluca, and despite having perhaps a slightly cooler and more no-nonsense tone than the mistress--offers in herself no motivation for Paul to look elsewhere. The couple's sole problem seems to be routine, and Paul's method of addressing that common dissatisfaction by having his affair and falling in love with Raluca will lead to the end of their marriage and family, with no comforting explanation to imply that the situation could have been warded off with better behavior or sharper foresight on the part of anyone involved.
The scene in which Paul abruptly confesses to Adriana and this long-term, loving couple (married for 10 years) shatters apart before our eyes is the film's artistic and dramatic center, and it is a tour de force. In its emotional perceptiveness and range, it recalls Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage; in its unbroken-take stylistic audacity, it brings to mind the half-hour, single-sequence exchange between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli in Godard's Contempt. (A much looser but very intriguing similarity also exists between Tuesday, After Christmas and Eyes Wide Shut in that both suggestively center a family/marriage crisis around the happy holidays, and that the couple on screen--Mimi Branescu and Mirela Oprisor, in this case--are together in real life, too.) Branescu and Oprisor's fine performances as they live out their characters' ebbing and flowing of pain, guilt, shame, rage, retribution, and resignation dovetails with the unblinking camera eye of Muntean and cinematographer Tudor Lucaciu to create one of the most involving, urgent, utterly convincing onscreen exchanges in recent memory. Both the filmmaking and the acting are just phenomenal; if we feel exhausted at the end of this alternatingly brutal and sadly tender scene (which results in a realistic finality and sense of loss as Paul packs his things), what a challenge it must have been to plan it and play it out with such conviction and concentration.
It's not so much the casual, refreshingly nonchalant and unpuritanical approach the film takes to its nudity and sex that makes Tuesday, After Christmas a "mature" movie for grown-ups only; it's more the range of feeling and understanding with which it envelops each one of its characters as they all weather an unforgiving and destructive emotional storm. The achieves a rare kind of purity from its lack of sentimentality and its refusal to conveniently and shallowly assign blame or otherwise manipulate our impressions of its good, flawed, completely recognizable people, all of whose pain we can empathize with. There is no score or emphatic editing whatsoever, no shortcuts taken to elicit our affective response; this film, which possesses some of the highest merits of both the best classical and most rigorous modern cinema, goes about that the hard way, and it succeeds splendidly.
Aside from some noticeable aliasing on the opening credits (which are white on black, a notorious magnet for that particular video flaw), the film's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is awfully good, with no detectable compression artifacts, soft blacks, or flickering whites (especially important when considering the film's bright-wintry, naturalistic interior and exterior lighting). The film's visual experience overall is never impinged upon by any video issues.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is more than adequate to the film's aptly austere and relatively quiet sound design, with all the fullness and depth of the mostly intimate dialogue-and-ambient-noise soundscape perfectly preserved and clear as a bell.
None aside from several trailers for other Kino releases.
Another jewel in the crown of contemporary Romanian cinema, Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas deals with the typical dramatic stuff of infidelity, marriage, divorce, and family turbulence with a degree of gracefulness and insight that evokes not at all the way those problems are too-tidily dealt with in too much entertainment, but rather the messy, tensely emotional urgency they take on when they're happening in your life. It's a clear-eyed, sober, serious, and genuine work that's brimming with sympathy but free of sap or sentimentality. The tremendous craftsmanship, skill, and sensitivity/intuition at every level on the part of those telling this story that makes one "feel good" here, not an everybody's-fine happy ending; the respect bestowed by the filmmakers upon both the characters and us in Tuesday, After Christmas is all too uncommon and most welcome. Highly Recommended.