By Jeremy Carr.
While watching After Love, a 2016 film about a Brussels couple in the midst of an emotionally evolving but physically inert separation, it’s often tempting to pick a side. Boris (Cédric Kahn) and Marie (Bérénice Bejo), partners of 15 years and parents of two young girls (sisters Jade and Margaux Soentjens), share a laudable division of domestic duties. At first, he seems to prefer games and fun, which of course appeals to the children, while she balances the housekeeping. But as the picture continues, episodically over a few days, it’s revealed they each have a hand in tasks such as helping with homework, cooking, and cleaning. There develops an oscillating good cop/bad cop back and forth of leadership and (in)action. Referring to when each parent generally oversees them, one daughter notes, “she has her days, he has his.” This also applies to fluctuating viewer allegiance. Rather realistically, there is no one person to root for, no singularly guilty party, and no purely innocent victim.
That wavering position is also part of the problem, though. Boris complains about one thing, Marie complains about another. He wields a subtle jab, she voices a routine annoyance. They are mutually malicious, but rarely in unison. What makes matters worse is that stagnant finances force the two under the same roof (he is unemployed and can’t afford a place of his own). And compounding the cohabitation consternation is the fact his residential renovations have added substantial value to the property, a property Marie’s family funds essentially paid for. The home where most of the story takes place is therefore not just a claustrophobic arena for contention, but is in itself a symbolic source of quarrelsome debate. Throughout the film, which was directed by Joachim Lafosse and written by Mazarine Pingeot, Fanny Burdino, and Thomas van Zuylen, corresponding issues of class (she comes from inherited wealth) confront issues relating to gainful employment and fiscal capabilities; ironically, Marie’s mother remains amicable with Boris, tries to land him a job, and offers him a place to stay. Human emotions are obviously at stake – particularly those of the two girls (neither mom nor dad are especially likable, so they seldom elicit much sympathy on their own) – but also at play are cold hard economic facts.
Lafosse, whose 2006 film Private Property also deals with divorce, has a perceptive sense of argumentative authenticity, notably in the way Marie and Boris engage in petty disputes over material assignments (his laundry versus hers, his solitary shelf in the fridge) and how casual bystanders are awkwardly embroiled in the discord. Though the squabbles are hardly as harsh as they could be, Lafosse doesn’t shy away from the hurtful frankness of a contested couple – principally the incessant goading. At the same time, he gives gentle hints of prospective reunion. In fact, the most auspicious scenes are those suggesting an enduring familial bond. The first comes about midway through the picture, when Marie rouses from bed and quietly enters a room where Boris is working. Neither speaks, and as Lafosse preserves a single take, the couple briefly shares a peaceable space, only to again part ways in silence. It is a slight reprieve, but they are back at it by morning. The second exceptional scene is mainly dependent on the daughters (much of what happens in the film, for better or worse, is dependent on the daughters). The children somehow manage to bring the whole family together in a convivial game of UNO. They laugh and share jokes, then they all join hands to dance. It’s a powerful glimpse at what once was, but when Marie begins to cry, it’s also clear it shall never be again. Indeed, a near fatal tragedy soon thereafter pushes the couple past the point of no return.
These are among the more nuanced scenes in After Love, which premiered at last year’ Cannes Film Festival. Otherwise, things carry on basically as expected. There’s something to be said for the way Lafosse handles the day-to-day drama, but because those instances are so familiar, so normal, the film feels like it’s simply going through the predictable motions. It hits on many “divorce movie” tropes, but does so with a somewhat detached ambivalence – it lacks commitment beyond the surface touchstones. Even the performances, which are all quite good, nevertheless feel inhibited (probably most famous for her turn in 2011’s The Artist, Bejo displays the widest range). Just as Marie recoils at Boris’ touch, affection and passion is largely absent from After Love as a whole. While this isn’t unusual for a film about the perils of estrangement, and it surely supplies meaty moody material for the actors, there isn’t much left for the viewer to hang on to.
Superficial accents likewise hinder the film in terms of its formal characteristics. There is a smart emphasis on the audible shifts of an embattled couple, where periods of silence are as biting as periods of intense argument, yet a similar visual suspension denies emotional engagement. Though the photography is crisp and well-composed in widescreen, and Lafosse and cinematographer Yann Dedet open up the house with considerable mobility, the arty shots held back from certain exchanges keep the audience detrimentally at bay. It’s an interesting choice to have the camera hovering just outside a room of interaction, for example, but After Love would be better served if it allowed the audience in more often. It would also help if the film was more open to thematic and topical possibility. The accurate portrayal of a husband and wife in the midst of matrimonial dissolution has (and has had) potential, but only if the characters are worth following and if there is something new brought to the narrative table. This can’t be said for After Love, a competent if uninspired production.
Jeremy Carr is a Faculty Associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for the publications Cineaste, CineAction, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Bright Lights Film Journal, The Moving Image, and Moving Pictures Magazine.