The following is a reprint of our review from the New York Film Festival in 2010.
For those wondering when the absurdly consistent Romanians would falter, well, consider their first middling effort to be Radu Muntean’s “Tuesday, After Christmas.”
Paul (Mimi Branescu) is having a joyful affair with his daughter’s orthodontist, Raluca (Maria Popistasu), whom he plans to leave his wife for. Before she departs the city of Bucharest for the holidays, she tells him the next time they see each other will be — you guessed it — the Tuesday after Christmas. Now, without an escape from real life’s demands, Paul must deal with his staggeringly dull wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor, who also briefly appeared in Coppola‘s artistic rebirth “Youth Without Youth“) and his prissy daughter. He floats through the day-in-day-out routines of family dinner, Christmas shopping, and overly formal double dates passively, going with the flow until he drops the bombshell on his wife a few days before the holiday. Now, he has no choice but to deal with the consequences of his actions as the family spends their last holiday together as a unit.
While Romanian films tend to be simple in plot, this is probably the simplest yet, dealing with a more conventional subject than its brethren. What keeps it from being completely throwaway are the subtle nuances in acting and direction. The protagonist is perfectly cast and is probably the best embodiment of an “everyman,” (truth be told, from certain angles he looks like a chubby Kevin Costner). The opening scene includes Paul and Raluca together in bed, playfully teasing one another and being very passionate. After that, he’s almost a different character: when with his wife, he looks bored and drained, and future scenes with Raluca are tinged with the stress of leaving his family, apparent in his delivery and the composition.
If it sounds overstated, it’s not, the direction of the acting is ever-so-delicate, which is not something usually found in most films dealing with adultery. The other two main characters also have dual personas, Raluca’s we see while Adriana’s we don’t; Raluca is lovable as a girlfriend to Paul, but deceptively cold when treating the daughter with Paul and his wife present. In this way the director is successful in connecting us to the clueless Adriana; his realistic treatment of the situation is chilling. In Adriana’s case, it is through dialogue that her past is uncovered, a character mentions that she used to dye her hair a new color every week. Considering the present woman is conservative and dry, a reason is given for what her husband might have been interested in in the first place, and it rounds what could’ve been a very one-note character.
Admittedly, while this writer is wild about nearly every film coming out of this little niche, they can be fairly repetitive: almost always dark, almost always depressing (and maybe it’s okay that we only get 2-3 a year). And this film isn’t the feel-good hit of the year, but its decision to tackle a rather common plot with smarts is refreshing, and the cinematography’s white/gray tint is a nice vacation from the consistently bleak and dreary colors of, say, “Aurora” or “Police, Adjective.” Those that are drawn to these traumatic relationship stories (if you’re out there) will be pleasantly surprised.
That said, no matter how you handle it, there’s no avoiding the conventions of this plot. The filmmaker does wonders rounding out these characters and connecting the audience to them, but really, there’s nothing insightful said about the situation or the people in it. The topic is more accessible and less likely to alienate than the usual Romanian fare, but that may be just the problem. The presented moral issues are too weak and the ideas have already been used many times, thus they feel shallow and empty. Those hoping for substance to mull over best look elsewhere.
Immediately after coming clean, Paul and a very bitter Adriana discuss when they will tell their family and friends about the split, and it’s from here on that every scene becomes completely predictable. Despite Muntean’s knack for orchestrating subtle performances, there’s nearly no element of surprise in any scene. The wife hears of her husband’s fallacy, gets upset, wants custody of the child, he moves out, etc., etc. Points for not staging an Oscar-baity shouting match, but still, he makes no attempt to diverge from these generic actions, and all it does is create a yearning for characters to do something completely nonsensical, just to spice things up a bit. His attempt at audience connection works, but it completely backfires — it’s always nice to find relatable elements in a film, but here, these moments feel stock. What the director seems to overlook is the fact that people aren’t perfect, we’re just as illogical as we are logical. Yes, centering a picture around an adulterous husband does acknowledge the fact that people aren’t perfect, but that fallacy aside, there’s not a shred of impulsive behavior, everything feels very calculated. The acting is subtle, but the writing doesn’t go deep enough to show what makes these characters really tick. Everyone acts exactly how you would expect, and it leaves a rather insipid aftertaste.
“Tuesday, After Christmas” nails its performances, but everything else sticks too close to genre contrivance, and chances are there isn’t a huge audience for sad divorce tales anyway. There are hints of talent here, but it doesn’t impress, as the script is too plain and the direction doesn’t dig deep enough to unearth anything worth making a film about. Opting to tell a more general tale of adultery and routine married life rather than casting a harsh eye on aspects of Romanian society, “Tuesday, After Christmas” is one of the few films of its pack that you would be best to pass on. [C-]