October 13, 2011

Radu Muntean Advances Romanian Minimalism

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As Christmas approaches, a couple shops for their daughter. A man sleeps with his lover. A child learns she needs braces. These everyday events — scenes from Radu Muntean’s latest masterpiece—seem insignificant and mundane. However, under the Romanian’s meticulous direction, they unite to tell the poignant story of Paul Hanganu, a man in love with two women. A beautifully-executed exercise in minimalism, Tuesday, After Christmas is a superb portrait of a man in conflict.

A soft-bellied, soft-spoken banker, the 40-something protagonist of Tuesday, After Christmas is not your traditional lothario. Despite his decade-long marriage to Adriana, Paul is having an affair with Raluca, the dentist of his nine-year-old daughter. As Christmas approaches, he realizes he must choose. This situation has all the potential for drama, and yet Paul’s sheer passivity removes both the intensity and the stigma associated with adultery. Not once does Muntean make a moral judgment, despite the pain his character causes those around him. However, the film does not turn the situation into a comedy; instead, it removes any hint of idealized romance or false feeling.

Paul himself is decidedly ordinary—in appearance, profession, demeanor, and way of life. With a soft belly and mellow sense of humor, Mimi Branescu’s Paul is the most average of men. He stays away from the grand and romantic, focusing instead on the details of everyday life. When he finds himself torn between Adriana and Raluca, he reacts not with anguish or guilt, but with bemused apathy. As he admits to his affair with Raluca, his matter-of-fact confession points to this detachment. “I met someone,” he tells his wife. “I’m sorry.”

For reasons perhaps only Brecht can explain, the audience still finds itself empathizing with Paul. Despite his passivity and occasional cruelty, the viewer recognizes in him a familiar humanity. This is partially due to the camera’s unwavering focus on Paul. He is rarely absent from the frame and, as the film progresses in what seems to be real time, it is impossible not to feel an affinity for the man that guides the film.

Tuesday, After Christmas relies heavily on tropes of minimalist cinema, using long, static camera shots, simple, realistic dialogue, and a plain setting to illustrate the actions of a man both conflicted and blasé. While he is unwilling to give up the life he and Adriana crafted, the exciting uncertainty of his affair with Raluca presents an irresistible temptation. Muntean, however, avoids moments of emotional weight, instead emphasizing the utterly mundane.

Over and over, the viewer watches the characters discuss the most inconsequential of topics: braces, snowboards, telescopes, Christmas. Yet hovering just beneath these simple words is a tangle of passion and agony just ready to burst. Strangely, though, it never does. The scene in which Paul reveals his infidelity to Adriana is deadpan and detached, again relieving Paul of any moral condemnation. Instead, the discussions of the insignificant are the far more poignant scenes. At times, the viewer feels almost unwelcome, as though intruding on the most private of conversations. At one point, Raluca hovers over Mara, Paul’s daughter, explaining her overbite to her concerned parents. Paul’s obvious discomfort and the long pauses in conversation strike the audience as far more intimate than any post-coital bedroom banter. The viewer cannot accept that this is simply an awkward interaction; more than that, this is the scene where Paul’s carefully arranged world is in full view. Both he and the audience know that collapse is near.

However, this flawless display of minimalist technique would be nothing without the work of three superb actors. Branescu as Paul expertly embodies the fragile balance of apathy and love that motivate his every action. Branescu is present in nearly every shot and even with such little room for error, he flourishes beautifully. Mirela Oprisor as Adriana is hardly the tedious spouse often depicted in stories of adultery. Instead, she is dynamic, funny, and appealing, furthering her husband’s conflict and certainly eliciting sympathy from the audience. Maria Popistasu‘s Raluca perfectly balances her sex appeal with humor and believable humanism.

For some time, Romanian cinema has been stuck in the social and political struggles of the past. Tuesday, After Christmas represents a step forward. Some American audiences may be bored by the subtle tension and understated drama, Radu Muntean’s film is a touching work that draws the audience in and solidifies his place at the forefront of Romanian New Wave.

Original Author: Gina Cargas