By Mike Dub
Paul, the main character in Radu Muntean’s solemn drama Tuesday, After Christmas, has a problem that a million other characters have had throughout the history of film: he is a married family man who has fallen into an affair with a younger woman. His predicament may not be unique, but under Muntean’s emphatically reserved style and the entire cast’s heavyweight performances, Muntean crafts a thoughtful examination of the dissolution of a relationship amid the complexity of an economic thaw.
As the film begins, Paul and his mistress, Raluca, have already been seeing each other for months. He is a standard businessman, well off but not rich, approaching middle age with a daughter who, rather than coming across as adorably precocious, is actually as annoying (and obligatorily lovable) as a normal nine year-old. The mistress Raluca is the picture of sexy innocence (the entire opening scene is of both lovers completely naked), too young to remember the dark ages under Ceausescu, and therefore uncomplicated by the transition after his ousting. Adriana, Paul’s wife, is a plain, dour image of the past, a drab woman who balks at wearing a colorful shirt, but who has served her family well.
Unfolded with the deliberate pacing of other Romanian New Wave films, and shot with the same stoic, objective visual style, Muntean drags us, albeit with great care, into Paul’s murky emotional state. Whereas Cristian Mungiu in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days used extremely long takes and limited camera movement to build furious tension, Muntean here uses the same techniques to immerse us into Paul’s world of indecision and torment. Although Tuesday, After Christmas is ultimately a moral tale, it is nonetheless a deeply sensitive portrayal of three people in a scenario none of them wished for.
Underlying the drama of the love triangle, Muntean peppers his film with subtle acknowledgements about life after communism. References to McDonalds, buying lavish Christmas presents, a cell phone that runs through a car’s Bluetooth receiver, and Nicorette abound. The film presents us with a country that has exploded in commerce in the decades since communist rule. There are no more lines waiting for toilet paper, no more food shortages, and no more forced shared housing, although the clutter of “stuff” seems to have taken up as much space as other people. In capitalism, choice is everything – a lesson that Paul cannot resist.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the austerity of the visual style, the love triangle builds with the momentum of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, until it reaches a shattering but inevitable conclusion. Under Muntean’s engrossing direction, every scene in the film is long, and the final scene, a family dinner on Christmas Eve that takes place after an intense confessional, becomes a grave study of middle-class pretensions. The guile necessary for survival under tyrannical rule has become reincarnated into a deception practiced to preserve the safety and stability offered by the capitalist ideal. It did not take the Romanian New Wave filmmakers long to figure out that if you want to expose superficiality, hypocrisy, and the failure of the middle class as an ideal unto itself, you might as well start with Christmas.