A young couple’s relationship coalesces and fragments repeatedly, for cloudily motivated reasons, over the course of one fraught night in the diffuse and often frustrating third feature from Romanian director Catalin Mitulescu (“The Way I Spent the End of the World,” “Loverboy”). With episodic pacing despite the controlled one-night time frame, the film lacks any real buildup of momentum; in fact, the stakes seem to dwindle as the sky lightens and the ceaselessly turning wheel of make-up and break-up just keeps on spinning. The performances are committed, and nearly the whole middle section of the film is taken up with an entertainingly rambunctious wedding party that feels authentic in its random outbursts of violence and excessive sentimentality, but “By the Rails” stumbles hard in making its characters’ moody behaviors relatable, or even particularly interesting to anyone but, apparently, each other.
The solipsism of the central relationship essentially derives from the self-centeredness of each of the participants (even their child seems not to factor much into their thinking). And so the story can perhaps be best understood as two discrete and not necessarily compatible personalities trying to negotiate a path between prideful aloneness and compromised togetherness. It’s a negotiation in which they are much more involved than the audience.
Adrian (Alexandru Potocean) has been working as a waiter in a lakefront restaurant in an Italian town for over a year, and is popular and valued, while back in small-town Romania his wife Eva (Ada Condeescu, reuniting with Mitulescu after “Loverboy”) and small son live in a not-quite-finished one-story house near the railroad tracks. Given a week off to return for a visit by his boss (with whom he appears to have a casual flirtation), Adrian arrives at the bus station in the dead of night and finds Eva waiting for him. But she is distant, and she is oddly dressed, a casual denim jacket slung over a slippery synthetic satin gown and sparkly heels.
The attire is not explained until much later, after Eva has flounced out of the darkened house following Adrian’s nonplussed reaction to her confession that she cheated on him. There’s a brief flare of surreal interest when another young woman suddenly appears, dressed in similarly fancy gear, and one starts to wonder if all this is somehow a dream of Adrian’s populated with enigmatic women in flammable fabrics. The explanation turns out to be much more prosaic, if no less unexpected: friends of Adrian and Eva’s are getting married that very night and their party, a raucous, messy, unsophisticated affair, is taking place in a temporary roadside tent some way off.
As the dynamic between the couple shifts, the two actors do their best to give motivation to their characters’ weather-vane changes, even if it’s just in a prolonged gaze in which unspoken information is exchanged, or a glance of disappointment. But they’re torpedoed by the rhythm of Mitulescu’s film in which lines of connection are hesitantly drawn, only to be erased, like the shaking of an Etch-a-Sketch, before a real picture can emerge. This thinness is not flattered by comparison with the classic films of the Romanian New Wave, with which Mitulescu is loosely associated. It’s one of the hallmarks of that movement that minutely observed moments gain deeper resonance and context as time goes on.
Only really coming to life in the clamorous party scenes, Liviu Marghidan’s photography is functional but a little anonymous. And though there’s no obvious use of telephoto lenses that might account for it, it does feel like we’re very far removed from the action, and from the emotional core of the film, observing the Brownian motion of Adrian’s and Eva’s interactions with a dispassion more suited to proteins in a petri dish.
Mitulescu has undoubtedly designed his film as a kind of dance, with the partners sometimes in step and sometimes separated, though always hyper-aware of each other. But it’s a dance that doesn’t change or develop, and it’s anyone’s guess where they’ll be when the music stops. And that is the final disappointment of this faraway gaze of a film: an epilogue that tells us what happened, but doesn’t feel like a resolution of anything gone before. For all the wisdom these vague characters have accumulated over this one apparently crucial night in their lives, they might as well have decided the ultimate outcome on a coin toss.