On a December afternoon, Mimi Brănescu drives his pre-teen daughter to an appointment with her dentist, Maria Popistaşu, with whom Brănescu has been having a clandestine affair. Along the way, he gets a call from his wife, Mirela Oprişor, who tells him she’s getting off work early, and wants to come to the appointment. And so for long, agonizing minutes, a somewhat huffy Popistaşu discusses orthodontic procedures with Oprişor, who cluelessly peppers the dentist with questions about teeth. Meanwhile, Brănescu shrinks back, dying a little with every terse exchange, desperate to get the two women away from each other before something gets said that could ruin everything.
Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas is a suspense film of a kind, only the big drama isn’t “When will that bomb under the table go off?” but “When will Brănescu’s wife find out she’s been betrayed?” It eventually happens in a lengthy, devastating conversation in which Brănescu decides just to blurt out a confession to Oprişor, after which the husband and wife bitterly hash out the details: Who? Why? How long? What happens now? It’s a pitch-perfect scene, neither overly histrionic nor overly business-like. In one moment, Oprişor is sobbing that she wants to bash her own head in for wasting her life with Brănescu; in the next, they’re discussing who’s going to tell their daughter, and when. The scene looks and sounds exactly like how two people who’ve lived together and loved each other for more than a decade would terminate their marriage.
That’s in keeping with the style of the rest of the movie, too, which is more about well-observed moments of everyday life than it is about heightened melodrama. Tuesday, After Christmas opens with two sweet, low-key scenes: one of Brănescu lounging around naked with Popistaşu, joking about his “mutant toes”; the other of him Christmas shopping with his wife, debating whether the snowboard they’re buying for their daughter is too big and too pink. The easiness of both exchanges makes it clear that he loves his family, and he loves his mistress. Only later, when we see Brănescu having a chilly conversation with Popistaşu’s mother, or we see his daughter chewing gum that Popistaşu bought for him, is it clear that there’s no way this golden age can last. All it takes is one sentence—“I’ve met someone, and we’re in love”—and everything breaks.