Sunday, October 10, 2010

New York Film Festival 2010: Tuesday, After Christmas

Attend, please, to the Siren's tale of the venerable New York Film Festival, a tale with moments of pathos and a Code-mandated happy ending. In 2008, her friend Filmbrain prodded her to apply for press accreditation, and so the Siren did, with a neatly filled-out online application and a brief diffident email that never got a response. She was disappointed, but unsurprised.

Scroll down to the summer of 2009. Filmbrain, warmly supportive and lovely man that he is, once more encouraged the Siren to apply. She composed a longer supplication, which she paraphrases here: "Behold, I have a blog. This blog has readers. Nice readers. Smart readers. See the nice smart people who read my blog and blogroll it and link to it. Please, permit me to attend your filmgoing hoedown at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre in the heart of Manhattan."

This time the Siren received a polite, but firm reply telling her she had applied too late and the cupboard was bare. How well the Siren took this second rejection may be gathered from the email she sent a friend comparing herself to Stella Dallas at the birthday party.

Another year, 2010, and an even more desperately detailed application, in which the Siren fought to keep herself from quoting Vertigo: "Couldn't you like me just the way I am?"

And the NYFF press office said, "Please don't cry anymore. I'll get you in somehow. Come on. I had an Aunt Em myself once."

Just kidding. The Siren got an email with the press schedule and details of where to pick up her pass, which was adorned with a picture she pretty much hates, although she was the one who sent it in so she can't complain too much.

Nevertheless, for three weeks the Siren had the whole world on a plate. She was at the New York Film Festival. She met wonderful people and saw movies. Really good movies.

Now it's time to justify the press office's possible pity pass and start posting some things about the movies. In last week's Barron's the Siren had a brief review of the excellent Inside Job, Charles Ferguson's documentary about the 2008 financial crisis, which was shown at the festival. This followed on the heels of the Siren's full page review, also in Barron's, of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. The Siren assures you that the Ferguson film justifies her assertion that real-life Wall Street types are much funnier than in Stone's movie, sometimes even when they are trying to be.

Meanwhile, first up here at the Siren's place: what everyone was calling "the Romanian adultery movie" before it screened. The Siren was calling it that, anyway. If no one else was, it would not be the only time her take on this film diverged from others. Remember Oleanna, the David Mamet play and later movie about sexual harassment and the scourge of political correctness? The Siren saw it off-Broadway. Remember how Oleanna was supposed to divide everyone along gender lines, with women thinking the female character was a righteous avenger and men thinking "geez, poor William Macy"? Balderdash. It didn't play that way at all. That woman looked crazy to just about everybody, and she was meant to.

Tuesday, After Christmas, however--here we apparently have an actual gender-based Rorschach test.

Radu Muntean has made a brilliant movie; it was the Siren's first encounter with the so-called Romanian New Wave, and she loved it. This simply constructed domestic drama is composed of long widescreen takes in naturalistic light, but at no point does it seem static. Tuesday is indeed an adultery tale, opening with Paul (Mimi Branescu) in bed with his lover Raluca (Maria Popistasu). Paul is vaguely but gainfully employed, married to the faded and comparatively unexciting Adriana (Mirela Oprisor), and they have a nine-year-old daughter, Mara, played by a marvelously genuine child actress whose name the Siren hasn't been able to discover.

Raluca is a dentist, and Paul's decision to take Mara to his lover for braces prompts a scene between all four main players in Raluca's office. Raluca is none too pleased to be confronted with the entirety of Paul's domestic life. Adriana doesn't suspect anything, but neither does she want this pretty young woman pushing her into making hasty decisions about her daughter's teeth. Paul stands in acute discomfort, aware that Raluca is getting upset, and he tries to get his wife to agree to the damn braces so he can get out of there. Mara, in fourth grade but still so mentally young she believes in Santa Claus, just wants to look at the sheet with the colored bears on it, happy to let the clueless adults make the decisions. The long, agonizingly tense scene is a testament to just how good a film can be when all you do is turn the camera on gifted actors and let them tear into their characters.

It is all building to a confrontation, of course. The Siren knows of no adultery movie, past or present, that doesn't end in crisis--discovery, confession, murder, something. But the scenes in Tuesday that get you to that big moment--and when it comes, it's a lulu--are a marvel. The Siren particularly adored the sequence where Raluca, agitated after the braces debacle, goes home to her mother. Paul shows up; Mom knows who he is, and she quietly, cordially loathes him. Raluca's in the shower, so Mom offers him some cake, a social nicety that plays as the most hostile act possible short of cold-cocking the man. Mom slices into the cake like it's a frog in biology class. Paul chews with an expression appropriate to biting into a Tylenol capsule and Mom watches him, high hopes for his having a brain aneurysm stamped all over her face. Not since Meet Me in St. Louis had the Siren been this enthralled by cake-serving.

Who gives a damn if it's an old theme, when it's played with such brutal, entrancing authenticity?

[Extensive spoilers lie ahead, although this movie's plot will surprise no one.]

So now you are wondering, where is this alleged gender split? The Siren didn't realize there was one until she started reading the reviews, most of them by critics who were also enthusiastic about the film. She liked the reviews, and the Siren isn't picking on anybody; she was just gobsmacked at how differently she perceived the movie.

You see, the Siren despised Paul as much as Raluca's mom did. She thought this was a movie about a man who got bored with his wife, took up with a beautiful woman who had poor taste, pursued the woman even when her conscience started to bother her and finally, with lordly disregard for anything he might owe his wife of about a decade, let alone the daughter whose innocence is underlined every time she appears, decides to go off with his girlfriend because he's "very much in love."

The Siren can muster all sorts of sympathy for all sorts of adulterers, and she has the posts to prove it. But Paul is a toad. And the Siren is completely, fully, firmly convinced that the movie shows he is a toad. However, a lot of critics don't see it that way, and, well, they're all men. So, permit the Siren to make her case.

Let's start with that opening scene. The Siren was startled to read Robert Koehler at Film Journey describing it as "erotic." Look at the still above. There is gorgeous, stark-naked Raluca, and believe me you get a much closer look when she gets out of bed. If you are a man, OK, erotic. But, ahem, what is the Siren supposed to look at there? The stereo speakers? The couple's banter played as relaxed and intimate to Mike D'Angelo; the Siren shuddered as she listened to Paul bragging about his penis size, whining for a cigarette and blowing raspberries on Raluca's stomach. At this point the Siren didn't hate Paul, however. She thought he was a charmless oaf, but she didn't hate him. Charmless oafs have feelings too, you know.

Nor did the Siren turn on Paul when the scene shifted to a mall. In fact, the Siren felt a twinge of sympathy; Adriana tries on a purple shirt that doesn't fit and would be frumpy even if it did, and Paul has to tread around this fact in a way familiar to every man who ever went shopping with a woman. Vadim Rizov, in the Siren's favorite review of Tuesday, After Christmas so far (please, go read, it's excellent) saw the movie largely in terms of what it said about modern Romania, and mentions the mall as a shiny temple of Romanian capitalism. The Siren's notes, on the other hand, read verbatim, "Jesus Christ the clothes in Romanian malls are hideous." This does not count as a gender split, since Vadim and I are both right.

Vadim and I diverge on that opening though; he says "widescreen and plausibly warm light turn the potentially sordid into something that glows as much as the couple." The Siren emailed him to say she missed the part where Paul glowed and Vadim replied that "by the baseline standards of recent Romanian cinema, that guy's a dreamboat." The Siren told Vadim that if her choices are Mr. Lazarescu and "that guy," it's still a man's world, all right.

Paul goes to pick up Mara at school en route to the fateful brace-fitting. In the opening, Raluca gave him some nicotine gum to chew so his teeth wouldn't get stained and ruin his boyish looks. As Paul drives, lost in apprehension over the possible unraveling of his lies, he fails to notice Mara opening the package and popping a piece of Nicorette into her mouth.

That was when the Siren began to despise him. Oh, there are some arguable moments, like the scene where Adriana is cutting Paul's hair. He's naked, full frontal, turning around as she cuts, and you can read it as emasculation--his wife is absorbed in her task, his nudity irrelevant. But the Siren remembered the opening scene, which establishes so much more than it seems to, where Paul was bragging about his endowment. In a movie full of straight-on shots, this one scene is shot from a slightly higher angle. And there's this effect called foreshortening. Maybe this was a play for sympathy. But the Siren thought it pointed straight back to Paul's egotism.

Later Adriana, out of camera range, has Paul massage her foot, clad in a decidedly anti-erotic white athletic sock. Paul rubs it and stares off into the middle distance, while she makes happy, oblivious noises. It's a moment of intimacy that could escalate, if she tried to be seductive instead of domestic and cuddlesome, or if he had tried to rekindle things instead of taking his needs elsewhere. But it doesn't. He's already wondering how the hell to get out; his thoughts are, as always, with himself.

Paul confesses to the affair and the showdown begins, in a scene Aaron Cutler saw as the wife focusing solely on being turned into a fool. (Aaron's piece is very personal and touching.) But the Siren saw it as Mary Corliss at Time did. Adriana throws her hurt at her husband with increasing venom and violence, at one point almost spitting out that Paul had his daughter in the dentist's chair being examined "by the same hands that were giving you a hand job." And he cringes--how can she be so crude? Well, because she's right. The Siren has never been to Bucharest (pop. 2 million), but she's willing to go out on a limb and say it has multiple dentists. He didn't have to take his daughter to Raluca. Everything Adriana says is true, and Paul's sole reaction is defensiveness.

She tells him there's no way he is taking away her child. His expression tells you this was the first time the thought of who got Mara had occurred to him. She asks him whether he's going to have another child with Raluca, and he responds that he hasn't completely decided, for all the world as if asked whether he and Raluca were going to trade up to a two-bedroom. Much more than anything else, it's Paul's lack of thought, any thought, about Mara that breeds contempt.

And it is Mara to whom Muntean gives undiluted sympathy. In the final Christmas sequence, Adriana shows up, looking pretty for the first time, hair down, dressed up and still furious, not one bit interested in getting her husband back. Mara is lured away to sing Christmas carols so the adults can put out the presents from Santa; they're going to tell her about the mess her father has made of her life after Christmas. And what will the girl's fate be? It's right there in her Biblical name: Mara, "bitter."

(A great review by Marilyn Ferdinand, much more detached than mine, right here.)


Vanwall said...
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Anne Richardson said...

"Not since Meet Me in St. Louis had the Siren been this enthralled by cake-serving."

You might enjoy the way Madhur Jaffrey deploys cake in Autobiography Of A Princess (1976), a two hander (plus cake.)

The Siren said...

LOL Anne, I'm there.

camorrista said...


Don't be surprised if the boys start yelling & heckling.

The Siren said...

Camorrista, I am always glad to draw you out. I hope you mean you like the post. But why would anyone yell, was I not polite? I was rude to Paul but he IS fictional.

camorrista said...

Absolutely, I liked the post, and you were indeed polite & respectful (as you always are).

I anticipate the yelling & heckling not because of your comments about the movie (after all, most of us haven't seen it--& may never see it, given the vagaries of distribution) but because, first, you guilelessly slipped Mamet into the discussion.

It is his admirers, I suspect, who will raise the cudgels--some of them will quote Sean Connery, from SCARFACE; and some of them will quote Robert DeNiro, from WAG THE DOG; and some of them will quote Alec Baldwin, from GLENGARRY GLENROSS, but none of them will quote a Mamet women character because he doesn't write quotable lines for women characters--or to be more precise, he doesn't write human women. Either they're evil (OLEANNA, SPEED THE PLOW) or decorative (SCARFACE, WAG THE DOG).

And, second, you touched on something that (I believe) the wonderful Molly Haskell wrote about some years back--when it comes to male & female sex, male & female critics may watch the same movie but they don't see the same movie.

Vanwall said...
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Peter Nellhaus said...

You'd think that I would expect it by now, but I still get surprised to know that I'm confirmed to cover the Denver International Film Festival. Especially, because every year I ask the staff why certain films didn't make it to Denver. Anyways, congratulations for getting your press pass.

I'm not sure if I'll see Tuesday, After Christmas at the Denver fest or not, as the schedule won't be out until October 18, but I plan to see it some day, some way. I've dip my toes in the Romanian cinematic stream a couple of times as a viewer.

Vanwall said...

You know, camorrista and Siren, I was just reading that Molly Haskell piece in a used bookstore in the Vieux Carré today, where I picked up a copy of "City of Nets" and some Welty stories at the same time, how weirdly coincidental.

I liked the write-up, it was as honest as one reads nowadays. You see in a human fashion, not one governed by the self-affliction Paul is mouthing off about in the beginning. I daresay he'd be driving a lifted, big block, SUV that's never been off-road in its entire solo-driven-on-freeways life, if he was Stateside.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well knowing Koehler as I do he probably found it kinky.

I think Mamet's a total fraud. You want "Politically Uncorrect"? Try Terence Rattigan.

The Siren said...

Camorrista, there are Mamet efforts I like very much, but Oleanna is not one of them. It isn't so much that the deck is stacked; isn't it always? It's that we're being nudged to think things are somehow even.

Peter, I didn't believe I was going to get in this year until the email hit my inbox. I hope you do see this movie, it's a beaut.

Vanwall, thank you very much. You are in for a treat if you haven't read City of Nets; if you have, congratulations on getting your copy.

David, "kinky" isn't the word I'd use for that opening; kinky would have been fun, although I don't think it would fit with the rest of the movie. But then I obviously wouldn't have used erotic or glowing either.

John said...

Siren, could you always post links to your outside reviews when they are published? Your colleague Glenn does ---it's a good thing.

The Siren said...

John, thanks so much for asking, that warms my heart. Those two Barron's items are the only ones so far; there is another coming today but the link is thing-y so it will have to wait until I figure it out. With Barron's the stuff stays behind the firewall a bit. I also link on Twitter and Facebook for those who bother with me there. I suppose I shouldn't bury the links seven grafs in, that might help.

Ladybug said...
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Ladybug said...

If you click on the first link to The Siren's review in Barron's, you may get only a preview (at least I did), but if you google Barron's and The Siren, you'll get the articles and more. Use her staff name along with Barron's and they pop up first. Scroll down and you'll find Lou's comments in the NY Post on The Siren's review.

The Siren said...

Nora, thank you so much for including user's instructions. I have tried several times to fix that link and Barron's won't let me. And after all I've done for them, too. :D

NicksFlickPicks said...

Mara is played by a young actress called Sașa Paul-Szel. I actually appreciated the filmmaker's willingness to let her be a completely plausible bratty little interrupter, without coding her as a "bad kid." I felt so badly for her predicament without feeling railroaded into enjoying her all that much.

I don't know, though: Paul is clearly self-absorbed and limited in all the ways you say, but to me one of the virtues of T,AC was how non-editorializing it was of all three characters, and how pragmatically sympathetic it was toward all of their feelings, however flawed or dishonest. Paul does make unfair ploys for self-pity and self-interest, and Adriana is right that he does seem to want credit for not adding a gratuitously loutish attitude onto a heartbreaking situation that it was in his power to avoid, or to stop. But I don't see an all-out toad here. The equipment-size comment, at least, seems like a knowingly defensive joke in response to Raluca's comment about his ugly feet, especially since he giggles along with her frank observation that she's seen bigger. I didn't find him so bad to look at, either. And we gauge his reactions to those final questions of Adriana's a little differently—I saw him waiting out her (understandably) seething "don't you dare try to take her away from me," patiently secure in the knowledge that he never intended to make an exclusive grab for Mara, and that he simply wasn't sure he wanted another child with Raluca, despite his wife's quick assumption that he must, and that this must be part of what motivated his straying.

Anyway, chalk up yet another version of the same movie seen by yet another pair of eyes!

The Siren said...

Oh Nick, thanks so much for finding the name; I really did think the young actress was remarkable. You found Mara bratty? Truly? All she did was talk a lot, and not even that much--I have a daughter not much younger who could talk Mara into a coma, and she isn't bratty, just has a brain that zips along like the Eurostar and a tongue that is constantly trying to keep up. Brats don't just talk; they whine. They argue. They shriek.

For sure the movie is shot with a technique that allows the audience to zoom in on what they find sympathetic, or not, but at a minimum, it's a portrait of a man making what shrinks would call Bad Choices. The more Paul played for my sympathy, the less I wanted to give him any. I don't see him as secure in the knowledge he wasn't going to ignite a custody battle for Mara; I see him as not considering her one way or another, as emphasized in the car scene, which had me almost rising out of my seat.

I confess, I'd forgotten Raluca's joke in the first scene, but it does rather go to my point about finding the whole thing anti-erotic. As for Paul's physique, I may not have succeeded all that well, but I was trying hard to be diplomatic; I'm not John Simon and I don't demand wall-to-wall pulchritude on screen. If the actor were playing a charming part (which I'm sure he can do, he gave one hell of a performance) I might find a love scene with him erotic, or at least appealing. But this, um, no. No way.

Marilyn said...

I started to write a comment here (actually, I did and it got swallowed), but decided to write a review after all:

The Siren said...

Oh Marilyn, awesome, I love it. A much more detached view than mine. I'll link.

Marilyn said...

Thank you kindly.

Unknown said...

Nice header you got here! The Garbo pic got me to your blog :)