Like the old-fashioned dance from which it takes its name – in which “one of the rules,” as director Andrei Cretulescu slyly notes, “is that you have to switch partners” – “Charleston” pulls off its own brisk two-step as it dances between genres.
“Some people called it a road movie. Some people called it a black comedy,” says Cretulescu. “But it is a film about love. That’s what I wanted to make from the very beginning, and hopefully, that’s what I made.”
It would be misleading, however, to call “Charleston” a love story; though it pays tribute to some of the genre’s conventions, the object of desire in this off-beat love triangle is killed off just minutes into the film—a swift narrative feint that allows Cretulescu to explore love through its absence. In “Charleston,” two men aren’t competing for the same woman so much as fighting over her memory, staking equal claims to the emotional wasteland her death has left behind.
Heavy stuff, to be sure, but the movie’s narrative energy and dark comedy come from the pas de deux between the widowed Alexandru – a gruff, burly, hard-drinking macho man who isn’t quite sure how to mourn – and his departed wife’s lover, Sebastian, a sensitive, teary-eyed romantic who arrives on Alexandru’s doorstep one day, wearing his heart on his sleeve.
“To me, they’re like two faces of the same coin,” says Cretulescu. “Charleston” is as much about love as masculinity, probing the way society expects men to process loss and grief. No less a presence in “Charleston” than the late Ioana is the actor Charlton Heston, “the embodiment of masculinity,” according to the director, and a beloved actor of the woman who inspired the film.
Cretulescu explains that when he was a boy, his mother left his father for another man. Though the affair ran its course in just a few months, the episode “stuck with me,” he says, and years later, the idea of “a human being in love at the same time with two human beings” became the starting point for his feature debut, which plays in competition Wednesday at the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival.
For audiences expecting the muted long takes and somber aesthetic that has dominated the past decade of Romanian filmmaking, Cretulescu’s stylized touches owe more to Aki Kaurismaki or Wes Anderson than Romanian New Wave auteurs like Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu. Cinematographer Barbu Bălăşoiu’s Bucharest is a vibrant, even sexy, counterpoint to the post-Soviet, grayscale graveyard that dominates Romanian cinema.
“It wasn’t in order to make a point,” Cretulescu says. “I just really wanted to tell this story the way I thought it should be told, to make it look the way I thought it should look.” He adds, “If I’m surprising some people, it’s for the better.”
Cretulescu says he wanted to capture the vivid, Technicolor template of Golden Age Hollywood, calling himself a “huge fan” of Michael Powell. A former film critic with no formal training behind the camera, he says that “20 years of writing and trying to understand cinema helped me a great deal.
“People called me a film critic, but I called myself a film student,” he says. “Watching and writing about movies was a way for me to learn film.”
For an ardent film-lover and history buff with an encyclopedic knowledge of the form, Cretulescu sees himself as part of a new generation of Romanian filmmakers building on the groundwork and spectacular success of the New Wave.
“There are expectations now. Twenty years ago, no one expected anything from Romanian cinema,” he says. “We have an obligation to continue what they started.”