More often than not, especially in the wealthier parts of this world, having a child is an act of hope. For married couples, it’s a very obvious, very expensive way of renewing their vows — a leap of faith. Some people might have a kid as a desperate means of suturing their relationship together, but nobody does it expecting to get divorced. That’s what makes it all the more devastating when they do.
As sharp and savage as any breakup drama this side of “A Separation,” Joachim LaFosse’s “After Love” is the story of two people who are forced to live in the rubble of their 15-year relationship. By the time the film begins, the affection between Marie Barrault (“The Artist” star Bérénice Bejo) and Boris Marker (“Wild Life” director Cédric Kahn) has already curdled into something toxic; whatever wounds they’ve inflicted on each other have already begun to scab over and scar. They keep to separate areas of the sun-dappled house they share with their pre-teen daughters, Jade and Margaux (played by sisters Jade and Margaux Soentjens), both parents doing what little they can to hide their hatred for one another.
It’s all over but the crying. The trouble is that Boris won’t move out. The financial resentments that simmered beneath their union from the start have come to a full boil, and Boris — a working-class guy who married into a bourgeois family — refuses to pack up unless Marie pays him a huge sum of money for the renovations he’s done on the place. He can’t afford to leave, and you start to suspect that he doesn’t want to, anyway. He can sense that the marriage is already dead, just as he can smell that the body has been waiting to be interred for so long that it’s started to rot in every room of the house, but he won’t agree to bury it quite yet.
Maybe Boris believes in miracles, or maybe he’s just in denial of the pain that he’s causes; LaFosse’s evenhanded direction makes it compellingly difficult to judge. Unlike in previous films, where his handheld camerawork felt spotty and erratic, “After Love” is shot with a meticulous attention to focus, so that LaFosse is able to shift our sympathies just by softening a portion of the screen. The effect is extraordinarily empathetic and complicating, and the more we grow to feel for these characters, the more we begin to spot their underhanded manipulations.
That’s especially true for Boris, who stops just short of devolving into an outright brute (Kahn does a brilliant job of walking the line between aggravation and aggression). There’s something wrenchingly sad about how he leverages his daughters’ love for him, always playing the good cop so that Marie has to be the bad one. He gets to offer them the world and wait for their mother to wrest them back to reality (“Unlike me, they still believe your promises” she snipes with deadly accuracy). LaFosse knuckles down on the nuances of this dynamic, confining the vast majority of the movie to just a few small rooms and transforming every one of them into a caged arena of domestic heartbreak.
If Kahn has to fight for our sympathies, Bejo is faced with the equally challenging task of warding them off. Marie is a hard, defeated woman who’s built a shell around her sadness. She’s devastated that she’s come to hate everything about the man she once loved, that all of the things that seemed charming about him now drive her up the wall, but she knows there’s only so much she can do to change that. Bruno still looks at her like nothing’s changed (“I’ve seen you naked before,” he growls, protesting her newfound modesty), but Marie has already past the point of no return. Bejo does an extraordinary job of balancing maternal responsibility with self-preservation, of playing a woman who’s tough and distant and hates that she has to be that way. The actress’ huge brown eyes have never been more expressive, and you can see them widen as Marie grasps for anything onto which she can get a clean grip.
More often than not, that’s money. The film’s French title is “L’Economie du Couple,” which foregrounds how money tends to dominate matters of divorce. Even without such explicit context, it’s impossible to ignore the role that it plays in the film. “After Love” is about the money, and it’s also not about the money. Boris needs some Euros to pay off the shady goons who come by the house to rough him up, but — more than that — he needs a hefty sum to absolve himself of his guilt. On the other hand, Marie doesn’t want to give her ex the satisfaction, but paying him off might galvanize the transactional nature of their split. Whatever it takes to get those receipts.
LaFosse has spent his entire career testing these fraught tensions and trying to trace how mutual devotion so often withers into something darker; it’s like he’s trying to scare us straight about the dangers of monogamy. Prior to “After Love,” his most popular film was the agonizing “Our Children,” which told the story of a happy marriage that ended in a quadruple homicide. For this guy, a divorce drama that doesn’t end in murder is pretty much a walk in the park.
And yet, even when accounting for its forced and uncertain finale, this is the most poignant and perceptive thing that LaFosse has ever made, and therefore also the most painful. At the same time, the hurt it uncovers is just a negative impression of the love it left behind. For all of the heartache that runs through this deeply terrifying movie, we’re ultimately left with a clearer sense of the hope that made it possible in the first place.
“After Love” opens at The Quad in NYC on August 9, and then in Los Angeles and San Francisco on August 25.