Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, dupa craciun)

Romania (2010) Dir. Radu Muntean

Love triangles are arguably one of the most popular – or hackneyed – “go to” story ideas for writers and filmmakers alike. It really doesn’t matter what the setting is, the circumstances, the location or in what era it takes place, the central premise is ripe for heavy drama, tears and even violent repercussions if the writer is so inclined.

But can it work in a minimalist arthouse environment? Romanian writer-director Radu Muntean seemed to think so which leads us to this, his fourth film which broke him on an international level. The philanderer in this instance is Paul Hanganu (Mimi Branescu) a well to do banker married to lawyer Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) and together they have a young daughter Mara (Sasa Paul-Szel). The other woman is Raluca (Maria Popistaşu), a dentist a few years younger than Paul and Adriana. She is as besotted with Paul as he is with her yet he remains loyal to Adrian and Mara. With Christmas coming up the buying of the right present for Mara becomes the unlikely catalyst for Paul to make the decision as to which woman he wants to stay with.

No surprises in the basic plot so what can Muntean do make his film stand out from the rest? The somewhat paradoxical answer is “not a lot” which is the film’s greatest strength. Yes it is a drama but a slow burning one in which the tale unfolds in a relaxed pace and plays out in a gentle manner in which the quotidian and mundanity of daily life is the focus. But before you dismiss this is sounding like a yawn fest hold that thought, because it is the nervous energy and palpable tension of watching Paul go about his happy life at home knowing he is trying to tell one of the two loves of his life that it is over which drives the story along.

As ever in this low key style of filmmaking, which has defined the so-called Romanian New Wave, it is the minutiae that matters and I’ll tell you know this film won’t be for everyone. It opens with Paul and Raluca in bed, naked and very much in love leading us to initially suspect this is the marriage which will be broken up before the truth is revealed when we cut to the next scene in which Paul and Adriana are shopping for Mara’s Christmas present. Nothing seems out of the ordinary here, both laugh and joke together, cuddle up to one another, no signs of an impending bombshell being dropped.

For the viewer the next major scene is the one in which we appreciate Muntean’s understated approach to this debatably clichéd set up. Mara needs dental treatment so Paul takes her to a dentist he can trust – that’s right: Raluca! Adriana doesn’t know the significance of this and Mara obviously doesn’t but Raluca does, although she is superb at hiding this fact from everyone in the room. Paul is somewhat less discreet but is not caught out.

Filmed in one long take with mostly static shots (as is the whole film) this scene is a masterclass in creating a sense of simmering, awkward tension without overplaying it, eschewing the usual addenda of music, quick cuts, nervous close-ups and contrived reasons for the clandestine lovers to interact and potentially expose themselves. Instead everything happens naturally, largely in silence aside from Raluca’s caring and professional dialogue with Mara with Paul and Adrian patiently watching from either side of the surgery room.

This isn’t the last awkward moment for Paul; Raluca is away over Christmas staying with her mother, returning the Tuesday after Christmas. Paul decides to use this time to confess all to Adriana. In the second powerful single take scene the proverbial brown stuff hits the fan, but again in a controlled and exponentially explosive manner. Once more Muntean delights in teasing us with the inevitable outburst of rage and vitriol from the aggrieved Adriana and he delivers but after a slow boil in which Adrian recalls his direct but calm court room manner to question her husband about her apparent competition.

Another riveting and powerfully emotional scene and great showcase for the skills and worth of two of the three principals, it is here that I should point out that Mimi Branescu and Mirela Oprisor are a real life husband and wife – so while the emotions were probably easy for Oprisor to draw upon, let’s hope this wasn’t a prescient omen for their real life relationship!

Setting the story at Christmas adds to the poignancy of Paul’s selfishness and the timing of his announcement, at the most family orientated period of the year, puts young Mara in the position of victim as much as it does Adriana. While the story doesn’t overtly dwell on this and make a didactic point of this, the final act set at Adriana’s parent’s home on Christmas Eve quietly twists the knife in Paul’s conscience, already regretting his actions yet not as remorseful as he should be.

The open ending infuriatingly leaves us in the dark but would knowing what happens next really complete the story? Muntean has adroitly held our attention and ensnared our emotions, arguably to ransom with this ending, for the duration and painted enough of a vivid picture of the situation for our imaginations to create a suitable and valid outcome of our own. Some will not appreciate being made to do so much work but then again this film wouldn’t be for them in the first place.

Perhaps this could be a little tighter – it is an hour into its 96 minutes before Paul confesses all – but Tuesday, After Christmas is a nuanced and pretence free look at a familiar situation in an unglamorously plausible setting to illustrate just how real this scenario could be. Maybe too subtle and placid for casual audiences but its authenticity warrants hearty kudos.