There have been one or two movies about infidelity before (maybe three), and while you may have naturally assumed that 'Obsession' was the ultimate cinematic comment on the subject, Radu Muntean's 'Tuesday, After Christmas' is perhaps the most vital "boy cheats girl" tale since Bergman's 'Scenes From a Marriage.' A clean and unyielding portrait of the Bucharest bourgeoise, Muntean's film wastes little time in transcending its familiar milieu. Its first shot - one of those miraculous long-takes that have become a staple of recent Romanian cinema - is immediately arresting as it observes Cristi (Dragos Bucur) and Raluca (Maria Popistasu) sharing a relaxed and engaging post-coital conversation in the nude. Raluca isn't Cristi's wife, she's his daughter's dentist, and while the various relationships aren't made explicitly clear until the next scene, the instability of their affair is clear from their affectionate but wary conversation. There aren't all that many films which offer both penis and labia in their opening image (at least not since the 'Alpha and Omega' debacle of 2010), but it's essential to Muntean's approach that his characters appear as exposed to us as they do inscrutable to one another.
Because 'Tuesday, After Christmas' derives its power not from avoiding the beats and tropes we've come to expect from this kind of story, but from not apologizing for them - Muntean approaches these moments with a complete lack of vanity, and a greater concern for what makes them ordinary instead of what makes them his. All that Muntean's characters have to do to transcend their archetypes is to be decent and rational (Cristi's wife isn't a nasty shrew, and Raluca never suddenly succumbs to 'Fatal Attraction' syndrome), and the film's precise and unconventional framing highlights its remarkable performances.
Bucur, Popistasu, and Mirela Oprisor (who plays Bucur's wife both on and off screen) are tasked with channeling their inner stage-actor, as the film is comprised of endless and immaculately rehearsed long-takes that can't afford to feel false and pre-destined, and the organic precision they share is unreal. These are regular people who fall in love and jeopardize their families not out of malice or narrative convention, but simply because life happens, and it isn't always neat or explicable when it does. Muntean confirms that there isn't an iota of improvisation here, but the fluid performances and the deceptively voyeuristic camera make it easy to forget that the actors are working from a script at all. And while the film never quite recaptures the wild electricity of its first scene and spends much of its frustrating final portion lingering on inconsequential sub-characters, 'Tuesday, After Tomorrow' is often rapturously real. This is a story you know by heart, but Muntean's film might have you feeling it for the first time.
The good news is that Fox Lorber has purchased the film for domestic distribution, so even if you can't make it to NYFF you'll eventually be able to see this compelling film for yourself.
Gorgeous and infuriating, Aleksei Fedorchenko's 'Silent Souls' is a 75-minute reverie of earthy nostalgia. It's a ghost story with no ghosts, an elegaic road trip about a corpse that uses the deceased as a means of mourning Russia's entire Merjan culture. The film is ostensibly about Aist, an aging and single photographer and aspiring poet enlisted by his boss Miron for a delicate mission. See, Miron's beloved wife has just died, and he requires a partner to help him deliver her body to the sea and cremate it on a funeral pyre. Aist insists that they bring along his two pet buntings, who chirp in a cage wedged between the front seats of Miron's car throughout the duration of the film.
Fedorchenko's tender farewell may be a succinctly expansive allegory, but it isn't only focused on the big picture. He bluntly details the particulars of the Merjan customs, which include "smoking" (the process in which the deceased's partner speaks about the most intimate details of their sex life), and braiding the deceased's pubic hair as her friends did for her on her wedding night. The whole thing is languid and crisply filmed, but the material struggles to validate its feature length, and Fedorchenko doesn't offer as much to contemplate as he does time to contemplate it. Our gruff heroes fulfill their quest earlier than expected, and the final portions of the film drift further into abstraction as tangents about Aist's childhood and quixotic father don't compliment or cohere with the central requiem as forcefully as they should. It's a contemplative work, and jabs of complete clarity pop up sporadically (the way Fedorchenko frames an interlude with two prostitutes is absolutely unforgettable, and for a ribald, carnal moment infuses and rejoins the entire Merjan heritage with a sweet physicality), but it all feels thinner than it should, and anyone not completely engaged with the experience is likely to be irked to indifference by the awkward, fable-esque conclusion.
'The Robber' exists as a pure antonym to the Jason Bourne films, a controlled and steady running-man story about an anti-hero the authorities have every reason to pursue. Benjamin Heisenberg's film is the true-ish story of Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust, as quietly note-perfect here as he was in 'Revanche'), a man addicted to two things: running, and robbing banks. Of course, it's only when he dons a mask and combines his two compulsions that he really starts to feel alive. Rettenberger is a bit of a mystery, and one Heisenberg doesn't have much interest in solving.
We watch as Rettenberger is freed from prison and his treadmill-equipped cell, becomes a public figure by winning the Vienna marathon, re-ignites a sexual relationship with an old flame named Erika, and commits a string of armed heists. And before embarking on any of those things (well, not the sex) Rettenberger fits himself with a band around his chest so as to measure his pulse, as if training his body to keep calm in the most extreme of situations is akin to enlightenment. He's a withdrawn man who doesn't ever crack a smile, and all we can plausibly assume is that he runs because he must, and he robs because the police offer the only chase that can sufficiently challenge him (he never does anything with the money).
Heisenberg's frames are simple and unfussy, and the spirited getaway sequence that makes for the film's centerpiece is a jaw-dropping burst of steadicam work every bit as astonishing as the kitchen scene from 'Goodfellas.' Lust sprints through down, up staircases, and through cellars as the cops are hot on his tail, and the steadicam operator (Matthias Biber - he deserves a serious shout-out) keeps pace with him all the way, the camera remaining squarely trained on the back of the actor's head. The grace and fluidity of the sustained image is essential in communicating Rettenberger's euphoria - he's a junkie getting a soothing kick of his favorite dope, and the jerky hand-held look of the Bourne films would have instantly betrayed Rettenberger's definitive quality.
Because he's the kind of guy who seems placid even when he completely snaps, and rest assured we do see him snap. Lust's face betrays every firing synapse in the moments leading up to the pivotal act of violence which steers the last half of the film, but Heisenberg leaves all the work to his star actor, and when Rettenberger rages it doesn't seem like an earned breakdown so much as a new persona to whom we're introduced and feebly asked to care.
And so the film follows an unusual structure, initially appearing as aimless as its hero in a fashion that's as appropriate as it is only occasionally riveting. The romantic sub-plot doesn't function as it should, coming off as flat and intrusive and providing a far greater distraction to the audience than it does to film's unusually focused protagonist. Rettenberger's romantic relationship has the potential to be his story's most interesting element, as its abstract fulfillment seems to contradict what little we know about the eponymous robber's view of the world, but Heisenberg handles it clumsily and Erika is every bit as dull as her man, which is a mistake the film can't afford to make.
Heisenberg's elliptical cutting (we're often privy only to the "before" and "after" of critical events) helps to maintain Rettenberger's intriguing inaccessibility, keeping him a touch beyond the audience's reach no matter how much we try to keep pace. But as 'The Robber' resolves itself as the exhausting document of a hunted man, Heisenberg uses Erika to undermine his protagonist's inscrutability at all the worst moments. At a certain point all the fine details begin to feel self-serving and arbitrary, and Heisenberg - as open and candid a guy as could be - becomes so effective at maintaining our distance from his subject that his more brazen attempts to bring us closer only serve to make the whole enterprise feel false, like an odd bit of starlight so far away that its origins just don't seem to matter.