CIFF 2010: Tuesday, After Christmas (Marţi, după Crăciun, 2010)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It has been more than 20 years since the Romanian people overthrew Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and then began jettisoning the privations, both physical and psychological, of repression. Romania’s economy expanded rapidly in the 2000s, and it joined the European Union in 2007. During this time, a burgeoning group of filmmakers called the Romanian New Wave started wowing audiences around the world, with Cristian Mungiu’s searing drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days walking off with the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival.

The first wave of Romanian New Wave films were preoccupied with life under Ceauşescu, but as filtered through the personal. Even The Paper Will Be Blue, a 2006 film by Radu Muntean, the director of Tuesday, After Christmas, that bases its story around a militia unit, shows the familial and friendly ties that bind the unit together. Now Muntean has returned with a full-on domestic drama that has left behind communism and moved on to life under capitalism, examining what happens to people who no longer have to struggle to meet their needs and now have the luxury of pursuing their wants.

The film opens with a scene of bourgeois decadence that would have turned Ceauşescu’s hair blue. Paul Hanganu (Mimi Brănescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistaşu) are lolling naked in bed, engaging in pillow talk and random fondling. Only a small bit of dialogue indicates that the pair may not be married; in response to a question Raluca asks about his daughter Mara (Saşa Paul-Szel), Paul says “we haven’t decided yet.”

Indeed, Paul, a bank loan officer in his 40s, is married to Adriana (Mirela Oprişor), an attorney, and Mara is 9 years old and in her “pink” phase. They are a very ordinary family living in a style that befits their professional class. They have everyday conversations and make everyday plans for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Shopping for a snowboard for Mara, they insist on getting one that is too big for her because the right-size one has a skeleton painted on it; they wouldn’t consider not getting her the present she asked for.

Paul’s affair is well hidden from Adriana, even though he thinks about little else and complains about time Raluca has set aside in the coming weeks to spend with her mother. All that changes when despite Paul’s attempts to dissuade her, Adriana insists on meeting him at the dentist’s, where Mara is being fitted for temporary braces. Naturally, Raluca is the dentist. Perhaps the lovers met over Mara’s teeth, or perhaps he’s just throwing business her way as an act of love and trust. He’ll come to regret his largesse, as Adriana questions the necessity for the appliance and then scrutinizes Raluca as she works to get an impression of Mara’s teeth. Raluca beats a hasty retreat to her mother’s, determined, she tells Paul when he follows her there, to end their affair. Instead, Paul comes clean to Adriana and says he wants to be with Raluca. They spend one last, tense Christmas together at Paul’s parents’ home, decide when they’ll tell Mara and their families about their split, and close the film listening to some offscreen carolers in the foyer after Paul has placed the Christmas presents hidden from Mara under the tree.

Films of family collapse are frequently set during the holidays, for when else is harmony more demanded, and when more do we feel we deserve to give ourselves a present. This particular collapse revolves around Paul’s wants. Unwilling to be separated from Raluca, he simply follows her, forces her disapproving mother (Carmen Lopăzan) to ask him into her home when he can’t reach Raluca on her cellphone, returns home after feeling confident that Raluca wants to be with him to tell Adriana he’s in love and wants out, and then moves directly into Raluca’s small apartment. Adriana’s meltdown includes telling him that he’ll never see Mara again and to “get her to make you another one,” only to hear him say “I don’t know if I want that.” Raluca is 26 and may want children, but that doesn’t seem to figure into Paul’s thinking. And when I saw him move through her apartment, frowning at and straightening her unmade bed and throwing her scattered clothes to the side to make room for a wardrobe his cohort in midlife crisis Cristi (Dragoş Bucur) comes over to assemble, I saw a bad end to the relationship. Although Raluca seems to be with Paul as part of a daddy fixation—her father is absent from the picture—she’ll soon outgrow her need to be bossed around.

The very cliché of this story and the unlikeability of all of the main characters seem to me to be a critique of how Romania is squandering its potential following liberation. In Catalin Mitulescu’s The Way I Spent the End of the World, the bravery of the Romanian people on the cusp of freedom is highlighted, with optimism for a better future clearly signaled in its final flash-forward. However, Muntean seems more in tune with Romania’s hidden antagonisms and betrayals, amusingly signaled when Cristi finds a DVD of Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest in Raluca’s apartment, a film in which disreputable characters seek to define courage exactly and one that shows great skepticism about those who are making money and getting ahead.

Still, please don’t get the idea that this film only works on a macro level. Muntean’s extreme facility with a camera creates a hothouse atmosphere in which nearly every frame is filled from edge to edge with people, frequently in pairs or trios. We are always on top of these characters, enveloped in their drama, aware of their every discomfort. The actors are, without exception, very skilled—every interaction feels very, uncomfortably real. The confrontation between Adriana and Paul swirls believably through shock and anger, with Adriana imagining lurid sexual details to distance herself from someone telling her he doesn’t want her anymore. The disposability of human relationships—divorce increases in prosperous times—is a concept Romanians are encountering with more frequency; it’s one Americans know about all too well. (Still it’s better than poisoning one’s unwanted spouse.) Freedom is a great thing, but Tuesday, After Christmas cautions that it has its own pitfalls. I look forward to seeing the new Romania continue to develop through the films of its great cinematic artists.

Tuesday, After Christmas has no more screenings, but may be shown during Best of the Fest. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

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The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Ciprian David spoke:
    27th/12/2010 to 3:17 pm

    Im myopinion it is quite a leap to relate this film that much to the communist era.I don’t think Muntean is exploring the burdens and pitfalls of freedom, but the inner life of a man between two women,that’s it.
    While Boogie still had a direct connection to the Romanian revolution, as it centered around the generation that were starting their adult lives at that very moment, one could argue that the characters in Tuesday after christmas are apropriately aged to follow that line of thought. Butwhat Muntean is showing is a world where the past is left behind an only emerges in the person of the wife.
    Following the Line between The Paper will be Blue, Boogie and Tuesday after Christmas, one surelyrecognizes the focus shifting ofthe director from political toward personal matters.

    On a side note, “Racula” (probably inspired in this text by the ominous association between Romania and Dracula) is wrongly perceived, the name is actually Raluca.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/12/2010 to 3:36 pm

    David – You certainly are entitled to your opinion. I happen to think Muntean is an exceedingly smart director who can comment at more than one level.

    And thanks for the correction. I don’t think I associated Racula and Dracula; that’s what my ear thought it heard.

  • Michael Brooke spoke:
    23rd/04/2012 to 3:57 pm

    I’m with David – I think it’s a real stretch to interpret this film as any kind of essay on post-Communist freedom, for the simple reason that you could realistically transplant its situation, with dialogue completely unaltered besides translation, to practically any other country with a consumerist middle class. Which is much less true of Muntean’s earlier films, all of which draw to some degree on recent Romanian history (even the not dissimilar ‘Boogie’).

    As for the reference to ’12:08 East of Bucharest’, Muntean has himself explained that it has two functions: to illustrate Raluca’s highbrow taste in films (because Romanian New Wave films are far more popular outside Romania) and as an in-joke shout-out to his friend Corneliu Porumboiu, who directed it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/04/2012 to 4:15 pm

    Michael – I don’t really understand why it’s important for Raluca to have high-brow tastes. Did Muntean explain that? As for transplanting the story to any other country, well, sure, but that in itself is a commentary on how the spirit of the revolution has been subsumed in capitalism. I feel that makes my point to some degree.

  • Michael Brooke spoke:
    23rd/04/2012 to 4:43 pm

    From a recent interview with Damon Smith, reproduced in the booklet of the British DVD:

    ————–
    Q: Paul’s friend Cristi finds a copy of ’12:08 East of Bucharest’ in Raluca’s bedroom. Was that an homage to your friend, Corneliu Porumboiu, or was there more to it than that?

    A: (laughs) It was a friendly nod, if you will. It also describes his character because Cristi thinks Raluca is a bit snobbish, the kind of girl who always buys from a very elite bookstore.
    ———————

    As for the more general point, I still think it’s a stretch. The film is not about “the spirit of the revolution”, it’s about the emotional travails of three ordinary middle-class professionals who just happen to be Romanian. If I remember rightly, ‘Boogie’ makes quite a few explicit references to the Communist era and the 1990s, but ‘Tuesday After Christmas’ has none at all that I can recall.

    That’s a pretty marked departure from Muntean’s earlier films, and I doubt it’s an accident given the precision on display everywhere else.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/04/2012 to 5:26 pm

    Michael – Thanks. That answers the question very nicely.

    You may think it is a stretch, but just because the film doesn’t deal explicitly with political matters does not mean it isn’t political. I feel very much that prosperity brings with it a lot of self-aggrandizing attitudes that are socially destructive (just look at the world economy!), and the dissolution of this marriage is symptomatic of the selfishness the main characters can now afford to wallow in.

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