The husband, Boris (Cédric Kahn), is warm, friendly, emotionally open, and shows deep affection for his children. However, he is also impulsive, inconsistent in his care, manipulative, financially strapped to the point of borrowing money from unsavory people, and not great at keeping promises. The wife, Marie (Bérénice Bejo, of The Artist), is distant and calculating, creates rules and enforces them with an iron fist. But she is also a good provider, a source of domestic stability, and clearly loves their lovely twin daughters. She has separated from Boris, but there is the matter of their apartment, which she bought while he, a contractor by trade, renovated it. She wants him out, but he can neither afford another place to stay or find work, so he stays. And the tension builds.
That is the premise of the masterful After Love, though the French title L’économie du couple is more accurate, as Boris and Marie argue about money and how it represents their worth to each other in the relationship. We can see how their marriage once worked whenever they are in sync, as they are the definitive example of “opposites attract.” But the marriage has gone off track, and now we have parachuted into the end of it.
Director Joachim Lafosse sets all the action (save for a couple of scenes near the end) inside the dissolving couple’s small but expensively designed apartment and courtyard, increasing the sense of tension and claustrophobia inherent in the premise.
There are several set pieces underscoring Boris and Marie’s contempt for each other. One highlight is a dinner party she throws for their friends while he is out. After telling them how much she’s come to despise her husband, Boris shows up and is ready to join the festivities, but he senses they have been talking about him. One of the friends, in sympathy, offers him a drink, but what follows is quite possibly the most uncomfortable table conversation since American Beauty, as the erstwhile couple’s friends are reduced to watching their petty sniping. He won’t leave; she won’t serve him cake. It goes on forever. The friends try to weigh in, but Boris is merciless to them because he, rightfully, believes they are on the side of his wife.
However, there are also scenes hinting at the complexities of the human heart and how hate is not necessarily the opposite of love (that, as the cliché goes, would be indifference). A stunning, single-shot set piece starts off with Marie unable to sleep, so she walks into Boris’s room, where he is at his desk, sets herself down on a couch, and stares at him. He turns and stares back at her and then goes off to the kitchen, the camera following him all the while. Boris returns with a beer, sits down across from Marie, and they just look at each other. Meticulously timed to a composition by Johann Sebastian Bach (which is the only score in the film), it is a heartbreaking moment capturing two people who still want to connect on some level but are unable to.
The performances are, not surprisingly, first-rate. But Bejo, in particular, is a revelation. She drew the short straw, having to play a character who comes across as cold and off-putting. Marie needs to make her rules, and she reserves a cold fury and revulsion toward Boris that is barely kept in check. Yet she is also in obvious pain, and Lafosse reveals that in the few unguarded moments when the camera catches her alone. She does not cry, there are no hysterics, just a glance in the mirror as she is drying her hair. This is a deeply sad woman, and Bejo portrays her with sympathy, subtlety, and heart.