On the whole the Romanian New Wave and James Bond movies aren’t mentioned in the same conversation. Certainly our recent outings with 007 and the similarly action-packed franchises of Jason Bourne, Indiana Jones or the superheroes that fill our cineplexes every summer hardly seem to qualify as film making even adjacent to “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” or “12:08 East of Bucharest.” Yet while watching “Tuesday, After Christmas,” the newest feature from director Radu Muntean, I couldn’t shake the feeling that these two areas have more than a little in common.
The Romanian New Wave (if it can even be defined as such) and this new film in particular are a form of action cinema. Actually, perhaps it would be more accurate to characterize them as “(in)action cinema.” “Tuesday, After Christmas” has a bare-bones narrative with very little in the way of either explosions or explosive plot twists, but is still essentially an action movie in form. Muntean, like many of his compatriots, creates set pieces out of simple moments and builds them into exhilarating, gripping scenes with often jaw-dropping execution. While the details of the director’s approach may be far cry from a James Cameron or Ridley Scott and the content of the story is certainly more intimate than the pursuit of an evil genius or ring of terrorists, the overall formal and psychological impact of these movies can be profoundly similar.
The plot of “Tuesday, After Christmas” is fundamentally classic and quite simple. Paul (Mimi Brǎnescu) is cheating on his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprişor), with a younger woman and has been doing so for about six months. His mistress is Raluca (Maria Popistaşu), who works at the office of his daughter’s orthodontist. He spends hours at her apartment where the two lounge around in their naked infidelity and fill their time with the sort of intimate moments one expects from an affair. Yet it cannot last, and as his double life becomes progressively more awkward we find ourselves waiting for him to snap. His inevitable confession to Adriana is a deeply painful and engrossing 10-minute-long single take that brings us through a gauntlet of trauma into an understated and blunt denouement typical of Muntean and his colleagues.
That gripping emotional confrontation between husband and wife is but one segment in a chain of set pieces that use a very distinct playbook in order to drum up tension and emotional response. On the surface, these drawn out scenes are anything but evocative of the action-packed blockbuster. The opening of the film, for example, is a long take of Paul and Raluca lying in bed together. Whereas the first chase sequence in, say, “Casino Royale” is an extraordinary display of camera movement and editing that throws the audience directly into the action, Muntean begins his work with almost no camera movement and without a single cut. There’s almost no music in “Tuesday, After Christmas” and there’s certainly not a bit of special effects or CGI extravagance.
Yet while this drawn out opening moment of intimacy may evoke a different set of emotions from the recent Bond film’s pyrotechnics, the intensity of the reaction is comparable. In the place of expensively shot visuals and rapid-fire pacing, the rawness of Paul and Raluca’s entirely honest nudity violently grabs the audience into the movie with the same potency as the kickoff to a good action flick. Moreover, by presenting these expressively (and physically) naked moments in a manner antithetical to a car chase or firefight, Muntean effectively builds the same concentrated power. The sparse austerity of every frame and the quietly raw performances are shaped into a beautifully potent series of increasingly dramatic set pieces that follow the structure of any summer action extravaganza worth its salt.
It’s worth mentioning Muntean’s earlier work “The Paper Will Be Blue.” It follows a young soldier through the tumultuous and violent eve of Romania’s 1989 revolution and is built on the same pattern of sparsely articulated set pieces, despite a story that lends itself so easily to the action sequences of war cinema. The one scene that involves extensive use of firearms consists mostly of a few men shooting out of a building into the darkness outside, with neither success nor casualty. It serves to highlight the confusion and futility of that night in Bucharest, much in the same way as “12:08 East of Bucharest”’s extended TV program. These directors are masters of the understated set piece, sequences which depend upon bare framing and the raw talent of actors to wrench hold of their audience.
Muntean’s work, along with other recent Romanian successes such as “Police, Adjective” or “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” thrive on these austerely articulated lengthy moments of the narrative, though the resulting evocation of action cinema may very well be entirely accidental. The films are structured to bring out the most of their emotional potency, striving but strive for a realism of the mundane far from the escapist world of the Terminator or MI5. Yet it’s an intriguing notion that genres can have such a dialog across great distances, stylistically as well as geographically. If we consider an appreciation of the beauty of “Tuesday, After Christmas” as in practice the same experience as tumbling through the intensity of “Casino Royale,” then the sky is the limit when it comes to talking about these movies. In our increasingly global world of 21st century cinema, perhaps that’s not so bad a way of looking at things.
“Tuesday, After Christmas” opens today in New York City
Recommended If You Like: Romanian New Wave; “Casino Royale”; “The Last Mistress”