Ioana’s in a coffee shop taking a call, she leaves in a hurry and then disappears around a corner. There’s a screech of brakes and the sound of a collision. Subsequently, we see a man at a graveside leaving flowers. A few weeks after his wife’s buried, the man, Alexandru, turns 42. Alone in his apartment drowning his grief in booze and a never ending chain of cigarettes, he answers the door to a geeky young man, Sebastian. The young man announces that he was Ioana’s lover. Alexandru punches him out cold.
Charleston’s a study in grief whilst attempting to walk the difficult path between tragedy and comedy – a path that director Andrei Cretulescu navigates successfully, not least in the effective casting of the two main characters. Serban Pavlu, a leading actor of his generation in Romania, brings a subtle emotional quality to the character of Alexandru – an archetypal alpha male. As his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, he maintains an air of inscrutability and takes evident pleasure in teasing people. In the early scene of the birthday meal, he tells a friend that he needs crackers – ‘to wash down your pasta’ delivered dead pan with just the right touch of sardonic humour. As a connection develops between the two men, Alexandru informs Sebastian that he’s the ‘biggest idiot I’ve ever seen’ and, after putting a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder, says – ‘don’t change’. Radu Iacoban, complete with geeky moustache and glasses, plays the diffident gauche Sebastian to perfection.
In their shared love for Ioana, the two men can be seen as two sides of the same coin – coming together to form an interesting male composite. The character of the dead wife remains a mystery to be mediated through the men, in their need to express their grief. When Sebastian asks to see her grave, Alexandru retorts – I don’t know what she saw in you – more like a man talking to his best friend than to his wife’s lover. They drive in her car. Sebastian wears her pink pinafore apron in the kitchen.
Cretulescu,a former film critic, injects a strong visual sense into his story-telling. The film throughout has colourful backdrops, which pay homage to Michael Powell’s filmsRed Shoes(1948) and Black Narcissus (1949). The drama’s also played out against a soundtrack of songs that entertain in their evocation of the film’s mood and tone. The old Bucharest portrayed in the film’s rapidly disappearing. Its demise is poignantly depicted in the scene where the two men leave the city for the coast. They pass a beautiful old theatre in the process of demolition.
A successful directorial decision to film most scenes in continuous long takes with a static camera fixes the eye on the men and their connection to their surroundings. It also gives some privacy to the characters to let them breathe in front of the audience.
However, the underlying satisfaction of the film stems from how the story unfolds by showing what happens rather than by telling the audience. Alexandru’s a character who does things without explanation. His motivation’s gradually exposed through the film’s many engaging and well observed scenes. When Alexandru takes him to have lunch with her parents, Sebastian’s knowledge of Ioana’s favourite dessert, Tart tartin, arouses the mother’s suspicions. A polite comedy of manners’s played out when Alexandru explains Sebastian was his wife’s lover for the last five months of her life. Across this conversation the father (played by revered Romanian actor Victor Rebengiuc) continues to talk about his passion for basset hounds. All strands of the story come together in an emotionally charged denouement in the films closing sequences – that also holds a gentle surprise, which doesn’t disappoint.
During the post-screening Q&A, it was revealed the film was a homage to the director’s real-life mother Ioana. She left home for another man when the director was seven years old, but returned after three months because she loved her husband too much. Charleston’s a visual and emotional delight. It goes on release in Romania on 8thJune 2018 and was premiered in the UK within the Romanian Film Festival in London (www.rofilmfest.com)