Radu Muntean, Tuesday, After Christmas
Too often in the movies, affairs are either blithely romanticized in the grand European tradition of middlebrow “passion” films (The French Lieutenant’s Woman comes to mind) or used as a teaching tool to bludgeon audiences into accepting a damning moral perspective on the consequences of extramarital activity. (See Little Children, for instance.) Life has its own current, though, and the nature of relationships sometimes follows a pattern that is chaotic and irrational, messy and perturbing, where the boundaries between love and naked contempt (ah, Godard!) are no longer discernible. Movies from Voyage to Italy all the way down to Maren Ade’s Everyone Else have portrayed intra-relationship dynamics with emotional honesty and astute insight, leaving us with memorable impressions of love in a state of deterioration, or foundering on the shoals of time. In his fourth feature film, Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean (Boogie, The Paper Will Be Blue) again fastens his attention on the question of intimacy and loneliness, crafting a frank, tightly constructed three-character drama that speaks volumes about marriage, desire, and how we negotiate the varieties of attachment we have to other people.
Tuesday, After Christmas, which premiered at Cannes last year, opens on a dreamy scene: sunlight bathes a naked couple, middle-aged Paul (Mimi Branescu) and pretty, elfin Raluca (Maria Popistasu), who laugh and frolic in bed, teasing each other with an ease and gentleness that underscores their closeness. Minutes pass before we understand that Paul is married, and Raluca, a twentysomething dentist, is his lover. At home, Paul is attentive and affectionate toward his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) and playfully paternal with his school-age daughter Mara (Sasa Paul-Szel), who is about to be fitted with braces. The couple make plans for the holidays; everything appears to be fine on the surface, though we know Paul is experiencing inner turmoil about his divided life that he increasingly finds hard to hide. As with so many Romanian filmmakers today, Muntean allows great swaths of his story to move forward in real time (one especially tense scene at Raluca’s office, captured in a single take, is masterfully acted and photographed), leading inexorably to the moment when Paul decides to disclose his affair. Yet there isn’t a hint of melodrama to be found in Tuesday, After Christmas, only the strangely captivating rhythms of everyday life and an ocean of pained silences that somehow manage, once that emotion is released, to bring us to a poignant and deeply convincing point of resolution.
Filmmaker spoke with Muntean about clichés, realism, acting styles, and the prospects for independent Romanian film. Tuesday, After Christmas opens at Film Forum today.
Filmmaker: Do you see a correspondence between your previous film, Boogie, and Tuesday, After Christmas, which both deal with marital relationships and infidelity?
Muntean: I didn’t think of making two films that would speak to each other. It’s just that this area interests me. I’m interested in speaking about relationships and about intimacy.
Filmmaker: What was the guiding concept for your screenplay, which you wrote with Razvan Radulescu and Alexandru Baciu?
Muntean: The starting point was to make a film about a man who’s in love with two different women. My main character loves them both, although in a different way. Normally, you start a new relationship when the old one is over, but it’s not the case here. Yet there’s still something between Paul and Adriana. We were trying to balance things — that was the difficult part, to work on these nuances. We didn’t want to be judgmental with any of these characters. After we decided that this was the story we wanted to tell, we began to develop the dialogue.
Filmmaker: One of the things that really impressed me is that you really give integrity to each of these characters’ emotions. That must have been difficult to pull off.
Muntean: That’s what we wanted to achieve from the start. We wanted to avoid the superficial type of judgment that says a middle-aged man is leaving his wife because she became dull and unattractive, and they have nothing between them anymore. These are clichés. We also didn’t want to make the mistress pushy. Obviously, Paul is not a womanizer, jumping from one bed to another. It’s a film about a man who’s searching for happiness in a very basic way, who has a difficult choice to make. For me one of the most important [turning points] is the dental-office scene. From that moment on, everything changes in Paul. He can’t look at Adriana in the same way after that confrontation, after he somehow visualizes very clearly the guilt, the problem.
Filmmaker: I think that scene opens a lot of questions around your filmmaking style, and how that in some ways is aligned with what we’ve seen from Cristian Mungiu or Cristi Puiu, for instance. You keep us in that office for a long time. We feel time passing and the unspoken tension between Raluca and Paul, which Adriana is unaware of.
Muntean: I wanted the time of the character to become the time of the viewer, to synchronize them. That’s basically the idea, so you can feel the tension they are experiencing. Doing this the whole length of the film, somehow it should accumulate and maybe explode at the end of the film, or maybe after. You don’t achieve climaxes in every scene.
Filmmaker: Such scenes are very demanding on actors. How do you handle that as a director?
Muntean: It’s not a secret. Good old rehearsals! We work a lot — I rehearse the actors one month before shooting. Part of the rehearsal at the table and the other part in the actual location. We worked on every word and action and motivation until they understood and somehow made these characters their own. Of course, when you do too many rehearsals, there’s always the danger of having a better rehearsal than the shooting [laughs], so this is a real threat. You must leave something to the inspiration of the moment, but not too much!
Filmmaker: In that sense, it becomes almost like a theater piece within the film.
Muntean: I think it’s more intense. In theater, you can make small mistakes, you know? Nobody in the audience says “cut!” But in film it’s a bit more demanding. I had the feeling that this particular story was developing very much during the shooting and the process of rehearsing. We discovered a lot of small details that made it more clear what we wanted to say.
Filmmaker: Such as what?
Muntean: For example, the scene where Paul is telling Adriana that he’s “in love.” [Laughs] She smiles the first time because for a second she thinks it’s her [he’s talking about], a nice way of telling her he loves her. That came from rehearsals, and I think it tells a lot about the characters.
Filmmaker: Did you have an overall shooting strategy for the film with your DP, Tudor Lucaciu, or was it improvised scene to scene?
Muntean: We wanted the film to look beautiful. That’s a new thing for me. [Laughs] I’m not always striving to achieve this kind of cinematic beauty. But in this case I felt [it was necessary] to give the viewer the impression that everything is beautiful on the outside, and that the difficult part — the ugly part, if you want — is underneath. The life of Paul is perfect from outside, almost every man can envy him. He has everything he needs and is living a good life. That’s why we wanted to make everything look clean and nice. We also used widescreen because of this, and for a functional reason. Most of the time we have two or three characters in the frame and widescreen lets us frame them well.
Filmmaker: The opening scene draws you into the glow of Paul and Raluca’s passion, and it isn’t a minute or so into the film until that we understand this is his mistress. The way it’s presented visually is romantic but also naturalistic, the way the light plays off their bodies.
Muntean: Thanks. We didn’t want mystery light for the love scene. We wanted to have everything in plain light, and the main objective of that scene was to achieve this kind of intimacy between them. For me it’s not an erotic scene or a love scene, it’s intimate. I wanted to give the feeling that they are so good together.
Filmmaker: Production design contributes quite a bit to how we read the film as viewers. For instance, Raluca’s apartment is drastically contrasted with where Paul lives. There’s red paint, the sheets are rumpled, a college-dorm-grade Matisse print hangs on the wall; it’s the flat of a young professional he’s entered, not an orderly middle-class family home with tasteful décor like the one he’s left.
Muntean: Yeah, you’re right. And more importantly, it looks very girlie! It’s what I intended: to make him uncomfortable. He’s jumping into this new life and is not well prepared for this kind of change.
Filmmaker: Also, 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?
Muntean: [Laughs] It was a friendly nod, if you will. It’s also describes his character because Cristi thinks Raluca is a bit snobbish, the kind of girl who always buys from a very elite bookstore with DVDs.
Filmmaker: A lot of filmmakers in Romania seem to be working toward a style in which we’re plunged into a present moment, a very lived reality, all of which happens within a narrow scope of time. The Paper Will Be Blue took place over a single night, and Boogie did as well. Here, events unfold over a holiday. Why does that receive such an emphasis in the way you think about approaching narrative?
Muntean: I can’t explain it very well. For us, I think the main objective is to make very direct, honest, straightforward films. And for me, it’s a reaction to the old kind of Romanian movies. There’s a lot of poetic cinema and a lot of flashbacks and, I don’t know, white horses running in slow motion. These kinds of things. That’s my theory about the “new wave,” or whatever you want to call it. It’s a reaction toward those old films. I know I was very frustrated a long time about the films Romanians made until, I don’t know, the year 2000. I think that’s the explanation but I can’t be too sure about this.
Filmmaker: You spent a huge amount of time working in advertising, making commercials. I don’t see your films reflecting that world at all. Was there anything you took from this work that helped shape what you do?
Muntean: I don’t make conventional advertising, that’s for sure. I’m not doing beauty commercials. I only make advertising with small stories and characters — we do a lot of these kinds of things in Romania. Not all of them are [good], but whatever. I’m not an “author” in advertising. It is very hard to put yourself in those small thirty-second films, especially when you make three beer commercials in one month. It helped me a lot, though, in that I met and worked with a lot of actors, and I got to shoot once or twice a week.
Filmmaker: I imagine the acting pool is tiny in Romania.
Muntean: Yes, it is, unfortunately. And the film school is not very good either, including for actors. They’re focused on theater only. A lot of times you have to fight with those habits, to make them be natural in films.
Filmmaker: How do you get someone to do that?
Muntean: [Laughs] Well, first of all you have to know what you want, and where you’re heading. If you’re dealing with a scene that wasn’t written by you, you have to understand it very well and communicate this to the actor. I don’t like to treat actors like puppets, you know? They’re human beings and they should understand exactly what the character is doing, what he’s thinking and what his motivations are. From that moment on, he can work on the part.
Filmmaker: Some filmmakers working in a more realist tradition would just cast nonprofessional actors to achieve that kind of naturalism.
Muntean: You cannot do a film like Tuesday, After Christmas with nonprofessionals. You need a disciplined actor to achieve what I wanted with this film — it’s just too much dialogue. You need someone who can focus on every take, say the lines and do the actions and somehow, in this process, achieve the credibility of the character. But slowly, little by little.
Filmmaker: What opportunities for distribution do you and other independent filmmakers have in Romania? Are people seeing these films?
Muntean: Well, yes, but it’s a very small niche. Tuesday, After Christmas was seen in theaters by 15,000 people, and this is very good by Romanian standards. We tried to promote the film as best as we could. We did a lot of interviews and there was a lot of buzz around it. But people prefer to watch American blockbusters over Romanian films, that’s for sure. They don’t want to see their own problems onscreen. People between the ages of 25 to 45, our target audience for the film, have jobs and responsibilities and kids, and they don’t go to the cinema anymore. If they do, they want to see Pirates of the Caribbean. I prefer to have a smaller audience who can understand and have the patience to watch this kind of story, rather than unhappy viewers wanting their money back.