A tale of maternal grief to which some viewers will say “Good grief!” while others may be genuinely moved, “Apres lui” puts Catherine Deneuve front and center to compelling, if somewhat overwrought, effect. Helmer Gael Morel isn’t shy about employing the full camera vocabulary — from crane shots to extreme closeups — to frame his lead character’s dismay in the months after her 20-year-old son is killed in a car crash. Maiden local title for Fox Searchlight opens in Gaul two days after its May 21 preem in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight.
Kindling an obsessive interest in one’s late son’s best friend may strike some viewers as both far-fetched and unhealthy. But in human terms, it still makes more sense than nearly any of the over-the-top motivations in, say, “300.” Co-scripting with Christophe Honore (whose second film was the unsettling Oedipal blow-out “Ma mere”), Morel presents Camille (Deneuve) as an unpretentious and vivacious divorcee who runs a classy bookshop in Lyon.
Opening sequence has son Mathieu (Adrien Jolivet) and his best buddy, Franck (Thomas Dumerchez), frolicking in wigs and women’s clothing in Mathieu’s bedroom. Turns out they’re straight lads dressing as girls for a classmate’s bachelor party. Chummy Camille helps them with their mascara and lipstick and sends them on their way.
Later that night, the police call with news that Mathieu is dead. Stunned, Camille phones her daughter, Laure (Elodie Bouchez), who’s three months pregnant. Camille’s ex-husband, Francois (Guy Marchand), joins her at the hospital to identify the body.
After the funeral, as mourners gather at her apartment, Camille is drawn to the spot where the boys hit a tree. Franck, who was driving the car but wasn’t injured, is making his own bereaved pilgrimage, and Camille brings him to the wake. The second they arrive, it’s clear she’s the only one who thinks he belongs there.
Camille proceeds to make Franck, the hunky tattooed son of Portuguese workers, into her pet project. She insists on hiring him to work in her bookshop and tries to anticipate his every need for a radiant future. Mathieu was enormously important to both of them and now he’s gone.
Camille has the makings of a stalker and probably harbors too much animosity toward the roadside tree that took her son’s life, but she’s also understandably driven by high-octane grief. The combination throws off some interesting narrative sparks as the story makes its way to an ending that’s European to the core.
Script’s veneer of invention doesn’t always lift characters or situations above cringe-making cliche. But well-cast thesps imbue pic’s social experiment with a fair quotient of believability, no matter how extreme the situations.
Morel’s style consistently calls attention to itself, but the proceedings are never boring and Lyon is put to attractive use. French title means “after him.”