LOVE AFTER LOVE: Better Featured Image

Can a film ever properly capture the feeling of grief with accuracy? Should it? Those were the questions that came to me as I watched LOVE AFTER LOVE. The film grounds the action in a family processing the death of a loved one.

It touches on how grief can enhance the best and the worst in someone. How a close family can simultaneously support one another and splinter under the weight of pain. Again, however, the question lingers. Can the medium of film make that experience true on-screen? Even if it can, is that something it should?

LOVE AFTER LOVE: Glenn and Suzanne
Gareth Williams and Andi McDowell before things go bad in LOVE AFTER LOVE. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

The Idea Behind LOVE AFTER LOVE

Glenn (Gareth Williams) has the sort of ideal life many hope to have when we start to flirt with retirement. He has a beautiful funny wife Suzanne (Andi McDowell) and two creative interesting sons Nick (Chris O’Dowd) and Chris (James Adomian). He holds court over them, their friends and lovers, in a beautiful backyard. Reading poetry, drinking, smoking — he is a proverbial man in full.

Alas, this the last we will see him so full of life.

In short order, the patriarch succumbs to throat cancer and leaves each member of his family confused, agitated, and bereft. Nick takes the moment to upgrade his dalliance with the younger Emilie (Dree Hemingway) from affair to full-blown relationship, leaving his romantic and business partner Rebecca (Juliet Rylance).

Chris discovers the joys of drunkenly derailing your brother’s engagement/Christmas party by peeing in places besides the bathroom. Suzanne alternates between rage, emptiness, and a hunger for any kind of connection, even and especially physical. We sit with them as they navigate their new reality and the way it reveals elements of themselves perhaps best left hidden.

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The Writing

The script, from director Russell Harbaugh and co-writer Eric Mendelsohn, does not shy away from the brittle awkward moments that come part and parcel of big life changes. It lingers on moments far longer than we would like, perhaps, feeling the discomfort of the family. A toast that is all passive aggressive rage dressed up as a celebration. A harmless rideshare that ends in selfish and casual cruelty. An attempt to be happy for someone else while sad going horribly off the rails.

It is never better — or more brutal — than those moments.

At others, however, it stumbles.

First, structurally. In attempting to simulate grief, LOVE AFTER LOVE floats from vignette to vignette. It makes sense as a tool to evoke the kind of timeslips that can accompany psychological pain but as a narrative device, it is distancing. Without a sense of time passing, it is difficult to grasp the damage grief is doing. Self-destructive behaviors at two weeks are arguably understandable in a way they aren’t at three months. A moment of catharsis means more if know how long it has been denied.

Second, the script sometimes is just too dead-on. By far the biggest culprit is a monologue delivered as standup routine by Chris. It is beautiful and sad and, yes, funny, in abstract. Near the end of this movie, however, it just tells us what the movie has been striving too. That’s redundant. That it also does it more efficiently and more clearly than the movie is damning. It reads as though someone decided to cut and paste the SparkNotes of a story three chapters before it ended.

LOVE AFTER LOVE: Nick
Chris O’Dowd finds himself separated from the life he knew in LOVE AFTER LOVE. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Casting the Widow of LOVE AFTER LOVE

First, I’ll echo what you have already heard. Andi McDowell has never been better. This may feel like faint or back-handed praise given her reputation, but it is not. The way she shows you a woman presses on and almost making it is impressive and arresting. Her agelessness creates an interesting effect in the center of the movie.

At around 58 or 59 at the time of filming, she is age appropriate to play a mother to O’Dowd and Adomian, but she easily could pass as their sister. She has a peer at work that is about 15 years younger than her but they look and act as though they are the same age. When McDowell starts seeing new men, she is pursuing similarly aged individuals but she looks so much younger than them.

What initially struck me as an error in casting, however, actually renders her pain acuter. She is a mom who successfully got her two boys to adulthood. She, thus, has spent the past several years interacting with them less as a mom and more as “just” a family member. Now, in the wake of her husband’s death and her kids’ bad behaviors, she feels compelled to revisit a role she no longer fits in.

Similarly, she should be senior to her friend at work, Karen (Francesca Faridany), but when she tries to pull rank, it is clear she gave up that power in seeking friendship instead. Finally, she finds herself ambivalently back in the dating pool and facing limited prospects that all seem ill-fitting. All of this information is conveyed on-screen, but her physical appearance successfully signals it and allows the movie to depict minimally, without repeated pronouncements.

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Casting the Sons of LOVE AFTER LOVE

Chris O’Dowd is the more centralized son of the family and the film reflect this. As seemingly the more together son — he is successful in business, smart, attractive — he also has farther to fall. And fall he does, revealing himself as toxic, selfish, and needy. There’s a poison pill in the center of his soul and he fully embraces the opportunity to break it open following his father’s demise.

There is something in particular he does — either by choice or direction — that is so striking. He is a vicious arguer, all ad hominem attacks, no substance. But he never does it face to face. He positions himself behind people and shreds them, usually standing over the seated individual. It is such an interesting choice and tells you all you need to know about Nick. He’s the kind of terrible you don’t see coming.

Adomian, on the other hand, is all open wounds and honesty. He never hides how he is feeling and it is unclear if he is even trying. Therefore, even as a mess, he comes across as the true “good” son. No pretense, no attempts to be what he is not. He’ll never be as successful as Nick but he’ll never be as rotten either.

LOVE AFTER LOVE: Emilie and Nick
Chris O’Dowd and Dree Hemingway share a brief, rare moment of sweetness in a scene from LOVE AFTER LOVE. (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Casting the Rest of the LOVE AFTER LOVE Call Sheet

First amongst the supporting cast is Faridany. While we see the family in decline, she knew them before. Thus her continued desire to be part of them tells us what kind of gravitational pull this family had. Via her constant presence at the outskirts of the family unit — as friend, as something of a sister, as a crush object, as a lover — we mourn the dissolution of the family for her. The group she has wanted to be part of for so long is falling apart but she can’t let go.

Rylance does great work with little as O’Dowd’s longtime girlfriend/abruptly ex. In some ways, she exists as a contrast to the family. While she is clearly devastated by Nick’s betrayal — and perhaps Glenn’s passing — when we next see her, she is coping well. While Nick thrashes about, flailing between choices, she has obviously put their relationship behind her. She is not bitter or angry, she has just accepted the end.

Her “replacement,” Hemingway’s Emilie at first seems a bit generic. However, her willingness to take Nick’s less than stellar sexual performance and the passive-aggressive treatment of Suzanne adds depth. In her career, she is an actor scraping by taking whatever she can get. It now seems to have bled into her life as she is willing to take less than she deserves from her fiancé and future family.

The true standout moment for her comes late as Nick acts out during dinner. While it is not directed at her, you can feel her take it personally. By the end of his “performance,” she is the only one left in the room but her crumbled demeanor tells you all you need to know about the future of their relationship.

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Filming

LOVE AFTER LOVE’s direction matches the script’s tone well. It fades in and out of scenes. Often, it gives us no initial idea how long has elapsed between moments. Sometimes, it never reveals that.

Again, as with the script, the strength of this is debatable. It makes us feel the characters’ personal disorientation but often makes things feel consequence-less. When late in the movie a relationship is revealed to be very dead, it is difficult to muster feelings about it. We have seen none of the hard times and little of the good ones.

At other times, it makes subtle passing moments hit like thunder. Suzanne wonders a hotel where she has just slept with someone and ends up at what appears to be a prom. Briefly, as she walks through the crowd, she raises her arms slightly. We see her shift and start to dance. Then, maybe a second later, it ends. It is a more effective depiction of her struggle between being the mourning widow and enjoying her life than either of the previous scenes with different men has been. You can feel both the tension between desire and responsibility and the way her grief still jumps up to surprise.

Given how important physical connection and sex is to this movie, I appreciate how unflinching the film is at depicting it. It is rarely gauzy and often feels just as rushed and needy as it would in real life. On the other hand, Harbaugh never indulges in that premium cable canard of making sex seem just sad and empty. He lets everything be as it would; all the pleasure and regret left exposed to our eyes.

LOVE AFTER LOVE: Suzanne
Andi McDowell spits fire during a moment of LOVE AFTER LOVE (Courtesy of IFC Films)

Striking the Set

LOVE AFTER LOVE boasts excellent performances from its three leads and some strong supporting turns as well.

In the end, however, LOVE AFTER LOVE is the kind of movie I respect but don’t really enjoy. Obviously, a film can depict grief with some level of accuracy and should not be stopped from doing it. As a cinematic experience, however, it is something of a flat one.

Grief can be numbing and LOVE AFTER is after a time as well. I think it successfully achieves Harbaugh’s goals, I’m just not sure I can recommend that as something to see.

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