Summer Holiday (2008) dir. Radu Muntean
Starring: Dragos Bucur, Anamaria Marinca, Mimi Branescu, Adrian Vancica, Vlad Muntean
By Greg Klymkiw
I found the plan for living
That'll last me all through life
I'm gonna take this girl of mine
And make her my wife
Have you heard the news?
Have you heard what I've been saying?
I've been saying I'm in love with you
Have you heard the news?
Have you heard why I'm so happy?
I feel happy 'cause you love me too
-Cliff Richard, "Big News", from the movie Summer Holiday (1963)
In director Radu Muntean's 2008 Summer Holiday, vacation time at a seaside resort in post-Ceauşescu Romania is a far cry from the shenanigans undertaken by dreamy British heart-throb Cliff Richard in the squeaky-clean 1963 British musical with the identical title. Muntean's Romania is utterly bereft of sweet-faced lads emitting dulcet tones - especially those attached to lyrics promising that marriage to the woman you love is a happy "plan of living" that will last forever. (That said, there IS an uncharacteristically sleazy sequence in Rouben Mamoulian's identically titled 1948 Arthur Freed-produced musical involving Mickey Rooney and a sordid barroom floozy. But I digress.)
Not much in Eastern Europe ever seems to last forever. Within the post-Communist context, themes that should be (and indeed are) universal, have that extra tinge of sordid dreariness that offers humour of a much darker nature and drama laced with arsenic. Summer Holiday is all about those fleeting moments of youth that men spend their whole lives the world over desperately trying to recapture. Add Eastern Europe to the mixture, however, and Western male angst pales mightily in comparison.
Shot with well-composed long-takes, there's a Bresson-like quality to Muntean's picture as he goes for a realist approach in this melancholy tale of Bogdan (Dragos Bucur) who, whilst vacationing with his beautiful, loving wife Smaranda (AnaMaria Marinca) and their sweet little boy Adrian (Vlad Muntean), longs for his youthful days of "freedom". On a chance meeting with Penescu (Mimi Branescu) and Iordache (Adrian Vancica), a couple of old buddies from Bogdan's carefree past, he indulges himself in a night of wanton boozing, bowling, clubbing, shawarma gobbling and whoring. The evening of debauchery concludes when the men visit Ceauşescu's long-abandoned country villa to see if the Communist Dictator's peacocks still roam the grounds.
This is "freedom"?
As the film unspools there are numerous moments where most men will wince with the sort of recognition and self-realization that comes from looking into either a literal or figurative mirror. Watching Bogdan playing with his son on the beach - clearly loving the kid, but quickly losing patience as the child wants to follow his own muse instead of Dad's is the first sign that all might not be right with the film's central character.
We see the looks of frustration on his wife's face as he takes an endless cel phone call to deal with a business matter, but when he puts the phone away, his wife's demeanour softens and she looks at him adoringly. Alas, Bogdan's gaze fixes on some young people romping in the water. The wife's face sours again. This, unfortunately is when Bogdan chooses to look at her. This will not be the last time something like this happens.
The movie is replete with so many moments of crossed-wires and misunderstandings. The film's sense of humanity is palpable - it's real, painful and yes, at times funny. The writing is very good, but Muntean's direction and his magnificent cast are even better. It's familiar territory - a man yearns for what he thinks he no longer has and discovers that what he has is so much better than what he regrets not having - but in spite of this slight been-there-done-that quality to the material, Muntean and his actors make it fresh and vibrant.
Bogdan's shenanigans with his buddies - especially the wonderful dialogue and rapport between the men - is like a Romanian heir apparent to Fellini's I Vitteloni and Barry Levinson's Diner. Closer in spirit to the former than the latter, Muntean delivers the humour, but every so often, a moment of heartbreak sneaks in or worse, some genuine meanness and our laughs are doused with the recoil of recognition - we almost cringe with the pain of shame.
Men might resist growing up, but the more they do, the sadder and more pathetic their lives become. There might be more truth in that old Cliff Richard song from HIS Summer Holiday that spills over into Muntean's Summer Holiday. Bogdan, like Cliff, ultimately did find "the plan for living" to last him "all through life" when he took that "girl of mine" and made her his wife. As dark as Muntean's film gets, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
"Summer Holiday" is available on the very fine label, the Kimstim Collection and is distributed exclusively in the United States by Zeitgeist Films. It's available via both Amazon.com and Amazon.ca and I highly recommend you complete your "Summer Holiday" collection and also buy the Cliff Richard musical AND Rouben Mamoulian's "Summer Holiday" which is - I kid you not - a musical remake of O'Neill's "Ah Wilderness" starring Mickey Rooney. Come on, get all three. I dare you. Make it a "Summer Holiday" hat-trick.