Imagine a prison movie where the inmates have the keys to their own cells, but prefer to remain incarcerated. That’s the impression one gets from watching Belgian director Joachim Lafosse’s “After Love,” which takes place inside a Brussels household where the emotional connection holding a couple together has gone, leaving only tension and resentment in its place. Granted, it’s a nice enough flat, with big windows and a private garden, and Polish handyman Boris (Cédric Kahn) renovated it himself for Marie (Bérénice Bejo), his partner of 15 years, so it stands to reason that he might not want to leave. Still, audiences will be clawing to get out as Lafosse’s suffocating, play-like drama unfolds — the discomfort mounting like so much poison gas as Lafosse captures the toxic hostility of ex-lovers forced to live together long after both parties have decided to separate.
As it happens, “After Love” marks another pass at the subject of post-romantic rupture from a director who already gave us one of the decade’s most insightful films about divorce. That film was 2006’s “Private Property,” which examined the effect a single mother’s decision to sell to the family home has on their grown children. Tragically, for all its carefully observed truths (so exceptionally conveyed by leading lady Isabelle Huppert), “Private Property” hardly found an audience, so it’s with the earnest intention of connecting with a wider public that Lafosse has slowly yet strategically been refashioning his filmmaking style toward greater accessibility.
Though his aesthetic has been right at home on the festival circuit — and at Cannes in particular (where even his most devastating drama, the Un Certain Regard-launched “Our Children,” had trouble translating its acclaim into commercial interest) — his models are late-’70s and early-’80s studio movies, specifically, the sort of ripped-from-real-life adult dramas Hollywood doesn’t make any more. “After Love” is his “Kramer vs. Kramer,” and though the central dynamic is even more upsetting than that film’s heart-rending custody battle between redemptive daddy Dustin Hoffman and walk-out mom Meryl Streep, Lafosse is willing to sacrifice entertainment in favor of truth.
His empathies (and ours) go to Marie, who brings home the bacon in a household where the imbalance between her and Boris’ incomes has clearly been a major contributing factor toward their split. In fact, if Boris could find a steady job, he would already be out of the house, but as it is, he can’t afford his own apartment, and so — in what he perceives as the ultimate injustice — finds himself banished to the couch in the home he renovated. Meanwhile, as the primary earner, Marie holds the power in what remains of the relationship, setting rules upon rules in order to maintain some sense of normalcy (for the benefit of their daughters, at least, played by sisters Jade and Margaux Soentjens).
And yet, Lafosse and his three co-writers — Mazarine Pingeot (whose screen credit elicited titters from a pre-Cannes press crowd, being the illegitimate daughter of former French president Francois Mitterand), Fanny Burdino and Thomas van Zuylen — have planted landmines amid the family’s seemingly mundane domestic interactions, none more volatile than Marie’s intrusive mother (Marthe Keller). Marie has no choice but to vent to friends, though when she invites them over for supper, Boris finds a way to awkwardly insert himself into the gathering. It’s an impossibly uncomfortable scene, especially such a gathering of mild-mannered white people (Tyler Perry might have played it differently), and Lafosse orchestrates it such that audiences will be holding their breath the entire scene.
Boris claims that he merely wants what’s fair: his half of the house, a former carpentry workshop he renovated to its posh new state (nevermind that she paid for nearly all of it). At times, however, this seems to be an excuse not to exit Marie’s life. In a remarkable performance that at times suggests a desperate animal with nothing to lose, Kahn conveys the fact that Boris’ attachment to Marie hasn’t yet run its course — that if she truly intends to jettison him, she’ll have to meet his terms. For her part, Bejo has never had a role quite like this, although her work in Asghar Farhadi’s “The Past” demonstrated that the distractingly beautiful, yet dramatically limited actress could tackle such an unglamorous emotional role. While we sense the exasperation behind Bejo’s eyes, it’s her strength that defines the character.
But maybe, just maybe, she still loves him, too. In the film’s best scene, the two girls flip on the stereo and spontaneously begin to dance, luring their parents out onto the “floor.” Lafosse wouldn’t dare slap a score on top of the action, which unfolds as a series of long but far-from-static scenes (d.p. Jean-François Hensgens’ dynamic camera and widescreen framing accentuate the claustrophobia of their domestic prison). But as in “Our Children,” observing how the characters respond to a song reveals far more than any amount of dialogue could, and as Marie and Boris humor their daughters, we see the love they once shared for one another and realize why it’s so hard to break free from its shackles.