The recent renaissance in Romanian cinema has been built upon the ability to find extraordinary drama in the everyday lives of ordinary people, and Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas is yet another remarkable offering from this country's new wave. What makes this film one of the most notable achievements in recent Romanian cinema is that it is less preoccupied with the lingering effects of the Ceauşescu regime and instead more interested in telling a story about people who could live in any western country. The film opens with a shot of a naked couple in bed. Paul (Mimi Branescu) is a middle-aged, greying man; Raluca (Maria Popistasu) is blonde, pretty and quite a few years younger than her partner. As we watch them in their post-coital happiness, we are instantly struck by the easy, playful intimacy that exists in their relationship.
They are not a couple, however. Paul is in fact married to Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), with whom he has an eight year-old daughter, and as soon as we discover this fact we are simply waiting for Paul's infidelity to be revealed. That sense of anticipation is where the film's dramatic tension is drawn from, but the engrossing effect of Tuesday, After Christmas is unusual because very little happens in the film that could be described as typically dramatic. After that opening sequence, in which Paul and Raluca kiss, joke around and talk about their forthcoming plans, the next scene shows us Paul and his wife in the midst of Christmas shopping. They try to pick out a snowboard for their daughter (who is currently going through a "pink phase"), they try on boots and a jumper, and they generally act the way married couples do. The dialogue is naturalistic and revolves around mundane things, while the performers have the rare, precious ability to act as if nobody at all is watching.
This is the great strength of Tuesday, After Christmas. It creates a sense of life so commonplace and familiar we feel as if we have intruded into the world these characters inhabit. Muntean lets the film unfold in unhurried single takes, his camera maintaining a fixed distance and allowing the characters to wander around the frame, and through observing them in their day-to-day activities we come to know them as complex, real individuals. Muntean doesn't adopt a stance in his depiction of this love triangle, he doesn't paint Paul as a cad for his behaviour or Raluca as a homewrecker, they are simply people who have found themselves in a difficult, emotionally charged situation. There is still love between Paul and Adriana – we see it in the way he rubs her feet after a long day, or when she cuts his hair – but perhaps what he feels for Raluca is real love as well? Branescu is astonishing as a man trying to process these conflicting feelings and consumed by a deep sense of shame for the manner in which he has hoodwinked his wife for so many months.
Muntean takes his time to drop the revelatory dramatic bombs we expect, confident in the strength of his writing and the ability of his actors to hold our attention through seemingly inconsequential encounters. There is a simmering threat of an eruption in some scenes, particularly when Raluca and Adriana finally meet, with Adriana seeing this young woman as their daughter's dentist and nothing more while Paul awkwardly stands in the background, suppressing his gnawing guilt. That sense of guilt finally leads to him confessing to his wife, and the scene that follows – an unbroken take of more than ten minutes – is a masterclass in acting, with Oprisor providing a devastating portrayal of a woman watching her marriage of ten years crumble around her. She attacks Paul with a righteous fury and attempts to hold back her confused tears, but above all she feels let down by her man, and Opriso's delivery of the line "you are my biggest disappointment ever" is a killer blow.
Tuesday, After Christmas is a sad film but it's also an invigorating one, having been made with such intelligence and insight, and feeling so richly authentic. So many films dealing with the breakup of a marriage or the revelation of infidelity feel the need for hysteria and melodrama, but Tuesday, After Christmas just gives us a painful portrait of people dealing with real circumstances as best they can. We don't know what the future will hold for Paul and Raluca, for Adriana, and for their daughter Mara, but the strain shows as we leave them playing happy families for one last Christmas.