A very strong addition to the current Romanian New Wave, Tuesday, After Christmas is, like many of the others (at least those that are making it to the US) coming from Romania, full of long takes, non-showy camera and mise-en-scene, and interested in the small-workings of middle-class life.
Paul (Mimi Branescu) is married to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor). He’s having an affair with their daughter’s dentist, Raluca (Maria Popistasu). Christmas is rapidly approaching, and it seems more and more that Paul will make a decision between the two women by that date.
Unlike the overwhelming number of infidelity films out there, Tuesday, After Christmas isn’t really a thriller, though it is thrilling. Much of the narrative concentrates on the mundane, indeed the long takes highlight the effect of real time, in an effort to bring out the elongated (read, at least in part: psychological) effects of the decision process. But the long takes are worth more than just simple – ‘watch this happen in real time,’ and I’ll talk about that a bit more below.
The opening of the film is memorable for a variety of reasons. Jumping directly into the affair, and with little direct exposition, the first image is of Paul and Raluca naked in bed together. Their dialogue here is great. It’s playful, teasing and sexual and has the feel of a young carefree couple in love. The focus isn’t on information (‘who’s who,’ etc), but rather on establishing one of two distinct, but still inseparable rhythms that Paul has with each woman. Distinct in that one (the affair) has the feeling of newness and lust, while the other (the marriage) is comfortable and stable. But director Muntean is careful to also compare the two relationships – his goal isn’t to say that one is superior, that one is more exciting, or that one will easily “beat” the other, but rather to look at love in its reverse stages. We come to understand that Paul’s time with Raluca is probably the equivalent of the early time he spent with Adriana.
The image below is the first we see after the title:
It’s not only the dialogue that’s striking here, but also the completely carefree nudity. As their blocking gradually takes them off of the bed and, in a mostly static frame, eventually into a standing position, the complete lack of embarrassment (of the camera, in fact) is noteworthy. It’s nothing new to see genitalia on film, but here it feels secondary and correct – as though anything otherwise – a well placed bedsheet or bra – would be cheating the cheerily lascivious mood.
As in the above image, most of Tuesday, After Christmas is shot in high-key, daytime lighting. The locations are generally suburban, unremarkable settings. The camera never dollies or cranes, and pans or tilts only when necessary. All scenes are made up of one long shot except for the final scene, which doesn’t feature coverage (meaning close-ups, medium-shots, etc), but rather separates a very long scene out into three or four very long shots.
These remarks on the aesthetics bring me back to the earlier thought on long takes. Why use the long takes here? Again, the easy, and not incorrect answer, is that they point to a type of realism: this isn’t fictional, this is real life. This isn’t dramatized for the sake of rising action (and much of it isn’t), but is an unfolding of events. Fair enough.
But I think it’s worth looking at the long takes – or maybe more accurately at the lack of coverage – in further detail. Take for example a scene where Paul and Raluca chat at her apartment before she leaves for Christmas and he isn’t to see her for awhile. The stills below illustrate their general movement from sitting together, to his moving to the door, where she joins him and they hug before he departs.
As we can see the camera simply pans right to left with Paul, allows Raluca to walk into frame, and then allows both of them to move closer and further to/from camera.
There’s room for coverage here – there are more than a few obvious points for cuts. For example, the first frame above would likely also include mediums or close-ups on each of them. We might cut to a new angle for Paul’s movement, give Raluca her own shot entering, get more coverage as they talk, etc.
So what’s noteworthy then, is the effect of not doing this. Muntean still achieves different frame sizes here. The difference between the last two images above, for example, is basically the difference between medium-shots and full-shots. It’s therefore the psychological impact of eliminating the edit that’s most interesting to me.
A cut to a medium-shot is a much different thing than, say, a dolly to a medium-shot or, as in this film and example, the actors walking into a medium shot. The cut, though usually imperceptible implies some kind of temporal, or impossible change. It eliminates the fluidity of the voyeuristic view as well. The cut also skips ahead in space. Meaning, if we cut from a shot of me in wide-shot, to a shot of me in close-up, we skip the image of me in medium-shot. It’s a certain kind of emphasis and impact. Conversely, if I simply walked towards your camera from a wide-shot and ended in a close-up, you’d be able to see my frame size “change” as I gradually approached the lens. Less shocking and surprising, more tense and suspenseful? I think so.
The use of the (generally) still camera here also gives a certain amount of evenness to the frame, allowing the drama not to be felt in the composition, but in the performance, movement of actors and narrative. In this sense, the goal is to eliminate the dramatic shot – a very Mamet-like idea – to keep things uninflected and simplify the storytelling to basic – and here basic also means extended – units.
The last thing to look at from the examples above is how the blocking itself tells a story that editing might have to do otherwise. For example, though I didn’t do a great job of demonstrating it, the time that passes between shots 2 and 3 (Paul at the door and Raluca arriving) is fairly long. It’s a very conscious decision by director, actors, and cinematographer of when to have the actors move. This “dead space,” which isn’t lessened by a cut to a close-up of Paul (which would eliminate the negative space around him and make Raluca’s absence less pronounced) and isn’t lessened by a cut back to Raluca (which would do the same as above but by virtue of showing her and not Paul waiting for her) is an intended effect of the type of technique on display here in Muntean’s film. There are any number of ways to interpret – or over-interpret – Paul waiting at the door. Fill in the ends of these sentences in any number of ways: He’s ahead of her in ______. He’s waiting on her to _______. She isn’t ready to _________. Or it could be plain old distance between characters, pure and simple.