Saturday, October 02, 2010

The 48th New York Film Festival: Tuesday, After Christmas

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, dupa craciun), from an Alex Baciu, Muntean and Razvan Radulescu screenplay, opens on a tight, two-shot framing of the graying, newly middle-aged Paul (Mimi Branescu) and the lithe, twenty-something, blond Raluca (Maria Popistasu) as they lie in each others' arms, nude, post-coitus.  Muntean's camera trains on her milky, mole-spotted flesh and her light-colored nipples, as well as his furry upper body and swelling stomach as they exchange pillow-talk for an extended duration.  As the couple begins to shift uncovered across the bed, Muntean re-frames his pair without cutting away, refusing any editing for what proves the film's opening sequence-shot.  In this way, Muntean  introduces a maximal degree of visibility and carnal, bodily presence from his narrative's outset, while also registering the long-take technique that has become the principle marker of the Romanian New Wave's group style, emergent in the half-decade since Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005).  With a title to correspond, Tuesday, After Christmas's incipient segment suggests the same temporal obsession as is evinced within Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest - Muntean subsequently refers to the 2006 feature by name - Porumboiu's assured follow-up Police, Adjective (2009), and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007).

However, though Muntean continues to favor takes of an often exceedingly long duration, it is less time that remains Tuesday, After Christmas's principle formal interest, than it is space, and in particular off-camera space, as the director's narrative of marital infidelity unfolds with one or two members of the triangle excluded in most of the film's minimally cut scenes.  As such, the film's opening proves the negative image of the narrative to follow, a moment of abundant presence - where relationships and thus exclusions have not yet been identified - in a film that consequently, overtly signifies absence; indeed, as Muntean's film proceeds, the viewer becomes increasing aware of those excluded from any given set-up, whether it is Raluca, Paul's wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) or even the male lead himself.  The director emphasizes said absence not only by centering most scenes around two of the triangle's three parties, with the third at times referenced (or in one definitive moment, rung on the phone), but also in visually excluding figures within scenes in which they make an appearance.  Among the notable examples are Raluca's delayed appearance when Paul visits her at her mother's - Paul is left seated beside the hostile older woman, catercorner at a small square table, within a constricted two framing - and even more, a multiple-shot set-piece in which the trio, along with Paul and Adriana's charismatic, sharp-tongued tween daughter, appear at Raluca's dental office for the young girl's orthodontal consultation.  Here, Muntean's choreography expertly balances on-screen with off, removing from view and then fixing on the various members as they and the camera move about the interior.

Likewise, the faces of the performers prove pivotal throughout this passage, with the viewer searching for signs of recognition in Oprisor's expressions, and intimations of thought processes in Branescu's and Popistasu's.  Ultimately, the film's revelation of marital infidelity does not occur here, but rather in a later, off-handed exchange featuring Paul and Adriana at home alone.  With Paul confessing that he has met someone else, Muntean orchestrates the scene in a characteristic set of two-shots, with his couple alternately turned away from the camera and facing the apparatus in three-quarters view.  While Adriana accordingly confronts her husband, insisting on the ugliness of his actions, Oprisor's performance does not succumb to histrionics, but instead settles into an under-played, if nonetheless forceful, wounded defiance that perfectly suits her reasonable, characteristically good-humored wife and mother.  Though it is undoubtedly the most impacting of the film's performances, therefore, Oprisor's is by no means the only one of note in the uniformly well-played Tuesday, After Christmas.  Of course, much of the credit here belongs to Muntean, who has not only guided the aforesaid set of strong performances, but has further sketched, along with his fellow screenwriters, a singularly witty retinue of bourgeois characters.  Tuesday, After Christmas thusly offers further evidence of French New Waver Eric Rohmer's creditable influence over Romania's new cinema.

Under the same inspiration, Tuesday, After Christmas likewise proves a deeply moral work, not only in its assent to Adriana's charges against Paul, but in Muntean's narrative construction following the revelation.  In the film's concluding segments it is Raluca who is conspicuously absent, with Tuesday, After Christmas's emphasis becoming Paul as he moves into his lover's small flat, and his extended family (Adriana included) for one final holiday celebration.  In this concluding scene, as Paul and Raluca discuss their plans for disclosing their separation in the foreground of the frame, we hear their unaware daughter and his parents as they enjoy their Christmas off-camera - the last that they will enjoy as an intact unit.  As the film moves to its open ending, its stopping point, Adriana stands beside her father-in-law as they both look off-screen left toward a group of unseen carolers performing for the off-camera little girl and her grandmother (even as Paul clandestinely places his daughter's gifts from Santa under the tree in an adjacent room).  At this juncture, the film's off-screen becomes not only the unseen visually field and characters, or even the still absent Raluca, but a future moreover - referred to further by the date of the film's yet-to-come title - that will foreclose against moments of unambiguous happiness for the picture's pre-adolescent female, Paul's parents and Adriana herself.  Tuesday, After Christmas ultimately insists not on what Paul will gain in trading up for the attractive younger woman, but on whom his choice will impact - the sole focus beyond Paul as the film progresses toward its end. 

In closing, it remains to be said simply that Tuesday, After Christmas represents an unusually high level of filmmaking in its thematically inspired emphasis on off-screen space (to translate the moral implications of its adulterous subject); Muntean's film no doubt will prove - if it hasn't already - to be one of 2010's unqualified festival-circuit highlights, which is to say one of its better films.


Sam C. Mac said...

And now to see where you stand on "Aurora," which is kind of like "Police, Adjective" on steroids. Don't forget the coffee though.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Yes, I saw Aurora (Puiu, 2010) last night, and since I will be committing today's analysis to another film that I likewise viewed at the NYFF, I'll oblige: first, Aurora is a substantial piece of cinema, another example of that higher level of artistic ambition to which I think Tuesday, After Christmas also belongs. For those that have not seen it, Puiu's 181-minute film almost entirely elides markers of narrative clarity - exposition, redundancy - in favor of presenting scenes without explanation, but which, spoiler the viewer learns something of at film's end. This seems to me a more 'realistic' presentation of the world as it might be than it typically is in signpost dependent classical narrative form. (Another virtue is its mapping of the over-population of Romanian apartments, which Puiu nonetheless visually restricts to again occlude information on this second level.) In so doing, it seems that Puiu does take the Romanian New Wave's signature realism into new, often extremely frustrating, though theoretically prescient territory. This is major work, not that it is entirely satisfying on the level of moment-to-moment viewing. An anti-classical/cinema of a very interesting sort.

Also, your comparison to Police, Adj. is very apt, Sam. I look forward to hearing further thoughts on it, or on the Muntean if you managed to see the latter.

Sam C. Mac said...

Glad you liked it as well. It's indeed a frustrating film in many regards (especially that first hour, where I was really struggling with the idea that this is how banal it's going to be for the next two), but eventually you get absorbed in it, not just because Puiu is such an excellent craftsman, but also because his interactions are detailed enough, and so rooted in this very Romanian New Wave realism, that you become (or at least I did) genuinely intrigued about where it's all going.

In addition to delving deeper and deeper into this un-sensationalized realism--devoid of most traditional narrative signposts, as you say--films like this one and "Police, Adjective" also seem valuable for their interest in how people living in undesirable social conditions can be pushed to their moral breaking point (or in the case of 'Police,' have it tested). I like how instead of something like "My Joy" (also at NYFF), where meanness and uncaring is utterly pervasive, here the cause (a relationship that disolved sometime before the film started) is only seen in echoes of the people surrounding Puiu's character--an endless frustration for him, but not a vilification of the entire culture.

This is also another film of this movement, (as you pointed out) like "Tuesday, After Christmas," that emphasizes time as a means of digging deep into the psychology of its character. I think "Tuesday, After Christmas" is indeed a major work for virtually every reason you cited in your fantastic review (and, in addition, an emphasis on how the gift-giving of the titular season can come to amplify all the emotional frustrations in a person's life, as in the scene where the mistress wants to give her lover's daughter a gift but cannot, and it reminds her of the immoral nature of her actions). In "Aurora" as well, all the film's action takes place over a short period of time (36 hours in this case), which likewise adds to both the intensity (more cumulative than moment-to-moment, as you say), and to the depth of its psychological study.

Anyway, I'm rambling, but I'm glad someone else saw "Aurora" as a valuable, strong and not just negligible work of this incredible movement. We must have been at the same screening; did you stay for the Q&A? I didn't find all of it to be illuminating, but the one point where he equated the banalities of the detectives questions in the last scene of the film as comparable to the isolated moments of banality in the character's life that the movie strives to capture, I thought was a particularly interesting concept.

Michael J. Anderson said...

Excellent observations, Sam.

I skipped out on the Q&A, for which I anticipated there being endless questions about opaque plot points - and antagonistic why's. I appreciate the comment, from what seemed to otherwise live down to my fears.

Also, not so said I missed "My Joy."