Like its last rattle, death lingers. Grief prescribes no easy to follow manual in how someone deals with the loss of a loved one, especially when that someone was the glue that held so much of a family together. Without them, the group tethers and frays, tensions become fraught, more volatile. While reconciliation is possible and the pains of loss will ebb with time, some families take longer to be pulled back together when that gravitational force is absent.
The film follows Suzanne (Andie MacDowell), introducing the audience to her just as her husband, Glenn (Gareth Williams) is beginning to succumb to his cancer diagnosis. Following his death we watch as she and her two sons Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd) a book editor in a relationship with Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), and Chris (James Adomian), the black sheep of the family who’s trying to funnel his creative and impulsive energy into a fulfilling outlet. Glenn’s death causes the family to jettison themselves into increasingly curious and in some cases, damaging manners. Chris drinks away the pain of the loss, falling into a depression while Nicholas makes the frustratingly rash decision to end his long-term relationship in favor of the younger Emilie (Dree Hemingway), one of his fathers prior students. Suzanne tries to find companionship, despite the disapproval she gets from her sons, Nicholas in particular who sees it as a betrayal of his father’s memory. Painful and heartbreaking while simultaneously joyous and celebratory, Love After Love is an ode to deep seeded dysfunction and familial bonds that tie us, no matter how abhorrent family members become.
Totally and refreshingly disinterested in telling a story of grief that compounds on the familiar, cinematic beats, director Russel Harbaugh has instead decided to aim for a more fly on the wall, scrapbook mentality. Rather than follow the story in linear fashion we’re instead invited to flashes of moments, unceremoniously dropped into the story after leaps of time have taken place. We see Glenn briefly before his illness overtakes him, enough to get a sense of his spirit and of his and Suzannes unconditional love. That first dinner scene with all of their friends and family gathered is the warmest of them all but with lingering hints of despair laying dormant underneath. Glenn’s death didn’t cause the familial and relationship issues, but it was the catalyst that set them free.
Screenwriters Harbaugh and Eric Mendelsohn both experienced loss prior to and as they were writing the screenplay and it shows with a rawness concerning death that isn’t often captured in cinema. There’s an ugliness that comes with the deterioration of body and mind that viewers don’t want to admit or bare witness to but is integral to the momentum of the film. The script allows us to see the lows of the characters early in the film so that we don’t presume that Nicholas is acting terribly just out of grief.
Combining scriptural sensibilities that value attention to detail when it comes to loss and merging those with old photograph hues that recall fading memories, Love After Love is a beautifully immersive experience.
The film is brought further to life by fully embodied actors from the entire ensemble cast but none more so that MacDowell and O’Dowd, both delivering career re-defining performances. MacDowell plays a character as biting as O’Dowd but with a well earned wisdom behind her words. She conveys her adoration of her sons even when her face is boiling over in anger over the latest embarrassment one of them have caused her. It’s a nuanced role that allows MacDowell to play with her innate likability in a manner the audience hasn’t seen before as it’s both the heart of her as well as the gate to her own self-destruction, having too much left to give after having lost a husband so young.
O’Dowd meanwhile drops any hint of the mischievous humor he displays with ease, instead crafting a performance that swells in its entitled duality. Nicholas is an unlikable, embittered and violent man who makes destructive decisions and it’s a testament to O’Dowd that inspite of this he still manages to escape the film from being flatly loathsome. He delivers just enough pathos to earn our support by displaying barely shaded pain behind his eyes, with his words that possess a simmering, double meaning and by wearing a smile on his face that is devoid of all humor and one downward turned lip away from being a snarl.
His first time full length feature film, Harbaugh has burst through the gates as a inspiring and confident talent. Take for instance a sequence as we watch Suzanne wander a hotel after a one night stand. Harbaugh has the trust in his audience to play with the narrative and shows us that this isn’t Suzanne making one lone trek but instead it’s her journeying through multiple moments of isolation and of romance as the man she meets at the end is a different one that who began the sequence. We’re watching her evolve and move forward in her life and instead of dedicating an entire portion of the film to just her newfound dating experiences, Harbaugh abbreviates it, believing that what came before and what comes after is more important.
A film that burrows into you after its ended with its insightful truths about the human condition, Love After Love is strong in its resolve, lyrically composed and poetically captured. Love After Love reminds that death isn’t an end or beginning for those left behind, but a moment that defines what happens in the painful and inevitable next.