At first glance, Tuesday, After Christmas seems, in both form and content, only a modestly ambitious endeavor. Yet the singular attention with which it carries out its aims—and the rigorous success it ultimately attains—is nonetheless unsparing, and bracing. Romanian writer-director Radu Muntean’s drama-of-adultery is crafted with exacting, abstract formalism, its long takes and barely mobile compositions drawing attention to not only the complex human emotions on display, but the oppressive environmental spaces which simultaneously bear down on its characters and leave them stranded, and unprotected, from the violence of their choices. A mood of inevitable catastrophe hovers over the naturally lit bedrooms, mundane kitchens, and sterile offices navigated by Paul (Mimi Branescu), a banker introduced lying behind, and kissing the shoulders of, a nude, blond dentist named Raluca (Maria Popistasu) who, as their conversation slowly reveals via allusions to other women and children, is in fact his mistress. Muntean frames the couple’s playful horizontal chit chat in a static shot that barely wavers, allowing intimate voyeuristic access to not simply their dialogue, but their excited fondness for one another through unswerving attentiveness (visible in their lively faces, nonchalant comportment, and casual physical interactions with each other).
A subsequent cut to Paul shopping at a department store with his wife, Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), immediately reveals, in the man’s detached and morose countenance, the deep dissatisfaction that thrusts Tuesday, After Christmas to its centerpiece admission, by husband to wife, of infidelity. Before arriving at that destination, however, Muntean lingers on humdrum encounters infused with barely suppressed discontent, as when Paul semi-jokingly snipes at his sister-in-law over the extravagant telescope she’s bought her boyfriend, or when he massages Adriana’s foot, his thousand-mile stare communicating the unhappiness consuming his heart and mind. Tension bubbles just beneath the placid surface of Muntean’s keenly observant tale, until it finally begins to outright boil during a lengthy scene in which Paul and Adriana take their daughter Mara (Sasa Paul-Szel) to an appointment for braces with Raluca. With the trio positioned around the constricting frame for maximum friction and alienation, their ensuing talk about Mara’s oral condition becomes a torturous test of repression for Raluca (her contorted countenance on the verge of waterworks) and Paul (struck dumb by these awkward circumstances), all while Adriana—still unaware of the affair—intermittently exerts authority and control in an apparent subconscious response to the ruse being perpetrated in her presence.
Muntean’s obsessive gaze might border on the emotionally exploitative were it not accompanied by deep empathy for the plights of all involved. That compassion culminates during Paul’s sudden admission to Adriana of his unfaithfulness, which initiates an amazingly protracted, unbroken single take that finds Adriana responding to this bombshell with blistering hurt, fury, resentment, jealousy, and misery. Though such material naturally lends itself to grandstanding theatrics, Oprisor’s performance never wavers in its genuineness, with her screams, tears, and eventual body-blows all rooted in a confused pain—born from betrayal and abandonment—that one can spy in her desperate, lost eyes. It’s a performance, and sequence, so gripping that Tuesday, After Christmas never quite recovers from it, especially given that its power comes less from any overarching momentum (pacing can, admittedly, be a tad sluggish) than from individual showcase scenes. Nonetheless, Muntean considers his characters perceptively and intensely throughout, be it in Raluca’s disappearance from sight during the third act, which slyly expresses the primacy of Paul and Adriana’s dynamic in this adulterous scenario, to a concluding grace note—of Adriana handing Paul a present behind her back without turning around—that, with a poignant clarity typical of this unassuming and insightful gem, simultaneously conveys the couple’s intimate familiarity and brokenhearted disconnection.