The original French title of Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s latest domestic drama is L’economie du couple, which translates (awkwardly) as “The Economy of the Couple.” It’s understandable that a U.S. distributor would opt instead for the rather nondescript and bland After Love — who the hell wants to see a movie with the word “economy” in the title? — but this nonetheless stands as a bit of a missed opportunity. Most films about relationships on the rocks center on things like betrayal and guilt and lust. Rare is the work that tackles one of the most common and corrosive sources of conflict among couples: financial instability.
In charting the final days of the collapsing marriage between Boris Marker (Cedric Kahn) and Marie Barrault (Berenice Bejo), Lafosse focuses on the issue of money, and uses it both as narrative engine and metaphor. Although they’ve already decided to split, Boris continues to live in the same flat as Marie and their twin daughters. He can’t afford a new place but also feels that he has an ownership stake in their apartment thanks to the renovations he’s made over the years — changes that he feels have increased its value.
As they bicker about just what, exactly, Boris is owed, aspects of their past peek through. He clearly resents Marie’s well-to-do background: On one level, he believes it justifies him writing off her wishes and complaints as the rantings of a rich girl; on another, that they’ve had so much help from her parents over the years reminds him of his own inability to provide. Early on, we see them arguing over a pair of soccer cleats that Boris has promised to buy one of their daughters. Marie keeps reminding him to get the shoes; he keeps saying he will. The day before the girl’s game, Marie, fed up with Boris’ procrastination, purchases the shoes herself, which in turn sets him off.
They’re a fun couple to be around.
But it’s not just money. Their life simmers at perpetual low-boil turmoil, in need of constant management — emotionally, spatially, socially. Boris has his designated day with the girls, but how exactly does he stay away on the other days, when everybody’s living under the same roof? One night, Marie has some friends over, and they sit out in the backyard gossiping about all sorts of things — including Boris. And then Boris shows up. One of the friends invites him to sit down. (After all, they were all close once.) Should he sit? Should he eat? Should he talk? And who’s that guy across the table, glowering at him and swooning over his soon-to-be-single wife?
After Love is a very busy movie — the characters are in constant motion, whether bickering or just going about their business. The camera rarely leaves the high-pressure confines of this apartment, that practical and symbolic object of their psychological in-between-ness. And the atmosphere’s oppressiveness is further enhanced by an odd, telling mismatch in the performances: Throughout, Bejo is alternately exhausted, enraged, tender, affectless — she runs the full range. By contrast, Kahn (who, a decade or so ago, was one of France’s most exciting filmmakers, although his recent work has had little to no impact over here) is consistent in his pissy insistence: He’s aggressive, accusatory, relentless; the nuances in his performance are present, but well-hidden.
For all that, I walked away from After Love feeling like I knew precious little about these characters. Lafosse gets so many critical things right about this decaying relationship that, at first, I did not wonder too much about the lack of specificity or detail about them as people. But later, it gnawed at me. We see early on that Boris is in debt to some rough, gangstery types. Who exactly is this guy? Similarly, there’s a largely unexplored dynamic between Marie and her mother (Marthe Keller). And the two daughters too often feel like narrative props rather than real people — which wouldn’t be such a problem if they didn’t play such a crucial role in the film’s climax. But even such vagueness adds to After Love’s ultimately disquieting effect: All that arguing and calculating resentment has not only strangled these characters’ capacity for love, it’s smothered our ability to empathize.