Joachim Lafosse’s Our Children explored the desperation and unhappiness that can drive a mother to physically harm her own children. Now Lafosse is back with another – marginally lighter – drama about domestic dysfunction, this time featuring Bérénice Bejo and Cédric Kahn as a couple with two daughters (played wonderfully by real-life siblings Jade Soentjens and Margaux Soentjens) that have fallen out of love yet still live together. In After Love, Lafosse wastes no time with exposition, instead throwing us right into the middle of Marie and Boris’ crumbling relationship.
While the specific details of their falling out are never revealed, the discrepancies and disagreements at the root of their present (and perhaps long-running) incompatibility are plain to see. While Marie is sophisticated, logical and seemingly involved in intellectually challenging work (the specifics of their careers are kept intentionally vague), Boris is rough around the edges, enjoys working with his hands, and is driven primarily by instinct and emotion. Marie is from a wealthier background and more financially responsible than Boris; relatively unremarkable facts that in Lafosse’s skilful hands are used to demonstrate the economic tensions that can undermine a relationship from within.
After Love’s original French title, directly translatable as “The Economy of the Couple”, is in this light particularly apt. Although Marie owns their house and has paid off a larger share of the mortgage, Boris resents her for purchasing it with her inheritance and for supposedly undervaluing the manual labour he has put into it. In the many arguments between them, Boris repeatedly dismisses Marie’s points as “bourgeois” and “typical of someone born rich”, signs of his status insecurity more than anything else. He behaves like a boor at a dinner party Marie hosts for friends that he was not invited to, insisting that those sitting at the table take sides, theatrically chowing down on the cheese and wine not intended for his consumption.
But despite his bad behaviour, there is an inherent warmth and charm to Boris that makes him an effective foil to Marie’s frigid personality. Marie’s at times obsessive rule-making – each has separate days and hours they can see the children, and even separate fridge compartments – and permanent frown mean that over time, Boris becomes the more likeable character. Lafosse and cinematographer Jean-François Hensgens do an excellent job of bringing to life the dynamic continuity of family life; long, unbroken tracking shots expertly link together different characters, actions and spaces. We see how arguments take place not in isolation but alongside and indeed often as the result of the tasks of daily life, such as cooking dinner or taking one’s kids to football practice.
Instead of cutting, Lafosse prefers using depth of field, camera movement and props and cues to develop emotions, giving the film a very naturalistic quality. All things considered, After Love is an uncompromisingly realistic depiction of the acrid decomposition of a once loving couple. It finds great meaning in life’s small details, which some may interpret as a thin script, and avoids clichés and facile resolutions, which others may find unnecessarily pessimistic. But for the viewer ready to accept that despite our best efforts, and moments of warmth and apparent reconciliation, relationships don’t always work out for the best, Lafosse’s film is likely to be an enriching and satisfying experience.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka