A film so authentic in its portrayal of the slow, painful dissolution of a marriage, France’s After Love takes a fly-on-the-wall approach at observing the emotionally destructive dance taking place between Marie (The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo) and Boris (Cédric Kahn, known primarily as a writer-director), with their young twin girls as collateral damage. Director/co-writer Joachim Lafosse (The White Knights, Our Children) sets his biting drama almost entirely in the confines of the couple’s home, in which the in-debt Boris is forced to live in the living room, making things all the more awkward and frequently confrontational.
Although Marie and Boris fight frequently about who spends what days with the girls (one of whom seems especially rebellious as a result of the overt bad vibes permeating the household), their deepest triggers seems to revolve around the value of the home, which she purchased largely with a family inheritance. But Boris, an architect, claims that his renovations have increased the value of the property and that he deserves an equal share of the profits from the eventual sale. While this subject is often at the center of their most venomous fights, it’s only a jumping-off point to much nastier subjects about her growing up in privilege and his leaching off of her while he spent recklessly (Boris even has goons after him for money owed from an unknown debt, which Marie deals with without being asked).
The strength of After Love is in director Lafosse’s observations about the day-to-day family routines, mostly revolving around the girls’ schedules. These things must stay constant even as the rest of their world falls to pieces. And as one might expect, any deviation from the routines is met with aggression and resentment. But being in such close proximity also opens up opportunities for more intimate, pleasant family moments, which only further complicate things when talk turns to what we assume will be an eventual divorce. The film is often an endurance test. How much pain can the filmmakers inflict on this couple? How many times will Boris show up when Marie has company over to ruin the moment by simply refusing to leave?
After Love tries (not always succeeding) not to paint anyone as the bad guy, and attempting something resembling a neutral stance elevates the anxiety levels of the entire production. Bejo and Kahn are so good at illustrating shades of cruelty and kindness in their performances that it’s near impossible not to feel the tension and volatility of the situation. The pristine household that serves as the backdrop for this intimate war only makes the entire dynamic seem all the more surreal. This is a home built for a happy family being occupied by barely contained hostility. The film is a stunning acting exercise and a testament to the power that can be derived from a minimalist approach to drama.
The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.