For most films, the centerpiece scene comes somewhere near the end of the film, or at least past the midpoint. The Lufthansa heist and subsequent murder spree in Goodfellas, for instance, or finally meeting Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But in the Romanian drama Tuesday, After Christmas, we get it right off the bat.
The opening scene finds Paul (Mimi Branescu) and Raluca (Maria Popistasu) in bed together in a comfortable, if somewhat small, apartment somewhere in Bucharest. They are naked and content, not worried about bills or work or the shape of their bodies. They are happy travelers as far as we can tell, teasing each other the size of their toes and whether or not Santa will be visiting this year — as lovers do in this state. It’s only slowly, and very skillfully, that we find out that Paul isn’t actually married to Raluca, he’s married to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), mother of his daughter, Mara (Sașa Paul-Sze).
Taken as a simple synopsis, this, of course, sounds like the set up to every one of those melodramatic “why don’t you leave your wife for me?” films. And while it does end up in that station, the path followed is a slightly different, less guilt ridden one than normal.
Things begin to go wrong (or right, as you will) for Paul one afternoon as he is taking Mara to the dental clinic. He receives a call from Adriana that her schedule has changed, allowing her to join them at the clinic. Mara’s dentist, of course, is Raluca, who is more than surprised at the unexpected appearance of her lover’s wife.
They play it cool, but Raluca’s body language betrays her physical distress. Or, it would if the transformation from the warm, playful girl we’ve already met wasn’t into, well, as cold and focused as a dentist should actually be.
Adriana leaves unaware, but not for long. Oprisor and Branescu play the eventual break up scene spot on, leaving the impression for the viewer of not only being a fly on the wall, but of being a fly on the wall that is scared to the point of shaking at the emotional tornado shattering the fabric of what was once a happy little domestic life.
Director Radu Muntean has said this is not a film about guilt, but a voyeuristic take on the choices people are forced to make when they come to a crossroad in their life. But the crossroad Paul comes to is not a natural feature of the landscape of his life that just happens to be there. Whether you consider the crossroad the beginning of the affair or telling his wife about it — or both — it’s a crossroad that Paul seems to have designed into the map of his life. It’s true that there appears to be little chemistry left in his marriage beyond the fact that he and Adriana share a daughter in Mara, but it all does come off a bit selfish of Paul in the end, maybe because of that solitary fact. That he isn’t trying to hurt anyone doesn’t excuse the fact that he does, and deeply at that.
Tuesday, After Christmas is one of those films that lives a better life in your head in the aftermath of seeing it than it does seeing it for the first time, but only aesthetically so. Outside of the three mentioned scenes, there is little flow or excitement, and the film works almost as an exercise in disengagement with the audience, almost as if Paul is saying, “I’ve endured this for 15 years, give it a try.” But a film needs to work as an active experience, a sum of its parts, and that it doesn’t is a fatal flaw in the end.