May 28, 2011

Tuesday, After Christmas

Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas, is the story of a married man who has an affair with a younger woman. Movies about romantic triangles are a dime a dozen, but this one is amazing. It brings the viewer into the rooms where love blooms and families live and fights happen with total emotional realism. No one is a villain, or a bitch or a saint. There are no judgments, there is only the painful fallout of human behavior. There is humor and there is drama, but as in real life, it is devastating, messy, but not quite histrionic: everyone somehow survives.
Muntean tells the story mostly through medium shots and very long single takes. There is no coverage (no cutting from the wide shot to the medium shot to the close up, no shooting the scene from the pov of one character and then another). We are there, with as many characters as are in the frame at a given scene. If something happens outside the edges of the frame, the camera doesn't necessarily follow it. The fact that we can't see it doesn't make it any less present. The camera is there to record as intimately as possible the feelings and actions of the characters, without the use of close ups. This is achieved to perfection. To his enormous credit, to the credit of the actors and the writers and the excellent cinematography, the scenes never feel long. The first one does, simply because we are put without warning right into the messy bliss of a post-coital bed. We are too close to the characters, we probably feel more naked than them and we are conditioned to think a cut is coming soon. But this allows us to connect intimately with the characters and it deepens the emotional reality of the film. The characters go through their emotions without formal interruptions. The length of the scenes is the time it takes lovers to cuddle and banter after sex, the time it takes to take a little girl to a dentist appointment, the time it takes for a married couple to have an argument (one of the best marital arguments ever filmed).
The writing is as natural as breathing and so are the actors. Actually, the actors are nothing short of miraculous. It must have been extremely challenging for them to nail the scenes while being totally unprotected by the saving device of coverage. They had to get everything right: rhythm, blocking, lines, emotions, and interact with each other believably, which they did with flying colors (Muntean rehearsed them for a month). On the other hand, not being chopped off on every beat must have helped them to liberate their feelings, and to find the natural arc and the rhythms of both comedy and drama. It feels like improvisation, but it isn't. Formality is used to deliver the richest, most true to life spontaneity. 
The camera stays mostly front and center as we are allowed to be in the room with these people. Sometimes I marvelled at what was not said. Watch the young lover as she sees him unexpectedly arrive with his wife. There are no camera tricks to signal that we should be focussing on her, but her silent reaction is one of the most complex and precise depictions of rage mixed with nerves and sheer what the fuck, I've ever seen. Watch him come to see her at home and her mother opens the door. The way this woman looks at him, there is no need for her to say one word. She offers him cake, and he feels so unwelcome, it sticks in his throat. The married couple are actually married in real life and they have an uncanny rapport that feels like they have been married forever. The young woman is brilliant in a role that is usually thankless, if not embarrassing. There is not one cliché in the portrayal of the characters. Now, all of this may sound like penitential artsy fartsy Romanian film homework to you, but this movie happens to be very witty, warmly funny and extremely entertaining. The intimacy it achieves between the viewer and the characters will keep you glued to your seat, to borrow a trope that may excite you into seeing it. You know from the beginning it's gonna end in tears, but the journey is so rich and truthful, you don't really want it to end.

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