Death is just a thing that happens sometimes. If we’re being completely honest, death is a thing that happens all the time. Now. And now. And in the space between those words. Almost two people die every second of every day, blindly joining hands as they close their eyes and jump into the abyss — quickly now, so as not to hold up the line. Life goes on because not everyone goes with it.
Like a traditional melodrama that’s been thoroughly filleted and then pounded flat, Russell Harbaugh’s raw and exquisite “Love After Love” is a very honest film about how things change when someone is gone, which means that it’s also a film about how they don’t. One moment a bed is full, the next moment the bed is empty; one moment a house is empty, the next moment the house is haunted. Everything is effected, but nothing is different. The bed is still a bed — the house is still a house. We burn people into ash and put them on the mantel. Work resumes on Monday, there are no reserved subway seats for mourners (which feels unfair), and sometime around midnight Jimmy Fallon plays charades with Tom Cruise on TV. That should be comforting, or banal, but instead it just seems cold.
Nick is sort of an asshole, but we don’t start resenting him until his dad, Glenn (Gareth Williams), begins dying from throat cancer — pity isn’t a word in this movie’s vocabulary. Played to perfection by Chris O’Dowd (a “comic” actor who’s always better in semi-poisoned roles that allow him a measure of entitlement), Nick loves to excuse his own shitty behavior. The film’s arresting prologue finds the character having a heart-to-heart with his mom, Suzanne (a never-better Andie MacDowell), in the living room of her Hudson home, asking rhetorical questions like “What’s happy, really?” Loopy on wine and curled on a window ledge, Suzanne can smell what we’ll soon discover: Her son is asking for permission to cheat on his girlfriend, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance).
People are gathered on the lawn outside for the last barbecue of the summer, the crowd a constellation of aspirants and intellectuals whose mortal concerns are smudged together under the cascading trumpets of David Shire’s beautifully indifferent score. There’s Nick’s brother, Chris (James Adomian), a fledgling comedian who thinks of himself as the family fuck-up. There’s Emilie (Dree Hemingway), a young blonde actress who doesn’t mind being Rebecca’s understudy so long as Nick eventually proposes to her. There’s a table full of people whose names we never catch, even when they come back later and show us all the intimate places where they’ve been tattooed. Glenn is happily holding court, even though his voice is raspy.
And then, in the span of a single cut, it’s nearly winter and Glenn is wheezing for air. The summer haze has been replaced by a sheet of gray, or that sour orange November light which makes it feel like the sun is always setting; shot on grainy film stock, Chris Teague’s supple cinematography textures the movie with the tender elusiveness of a read-only memory, visibly connecting Harbaugh’s debut to the savage Maurice Pialat dramas that informed it. Glenn dies, Nick leaves Rebecca for Emilie, Chris gets drunk, and the widow Suzanne — expanding on the mordantly volatile premise of Harbaugh’s short, “Rolling on the Floor Laughing” — starts sleeping with other men, eventually introducing one of them to her large adult sons.
All told, “Love After Love” seems much less interested in what’s happening to these characters than it is in measuring the distance between them and the departed Glenn, or them and each other, or them and themselves. Edited like a bonsai tree by Matthew C. Hart and “The Mend” director John Magary, Harbaugh’s film often feels like a compilation of the scenes that would be deleted from the Hollywood version of this same story.
Even in the midst of explosive setpieces, each splice tactically emphasizes a sense of overlap or isolation. We learn everything we need to know about the dynamic between Nick and Suzanne in a single cut between the two of them resting on different beds with their respective partners. The full impact of that contrast doesn’t hit until later, but of course Suzanne feels bitter about her’s son’s idiot blitheness — her husband was just cruelly taken from her, but Nick is going to ditch his girlfriend by choice? How callous.
“Rebecca was a person of real consequence,” Suzanne tells Nick at one point, a third-degree burn that’s all the more inflammatory when greased with MacDowell’s sugar-fried wit. The “Groundhog Day” star is wrenchingly great as an older woman who’s stuck in a purgatory where even her fleeting happiness causes real hurt. It almost seems like things would be easier for Suzanne if she were a bit older still, less sensual, more resigned. Her vibrancy is a curse — she yells at a young acting student whose flaunted sex appeal irritates her own.
If Suzanne is struggling to cope with how things have changed since Glenn’s death, Nick is failing to cope with how things have stayed the same. Fumbling and open-mouthed and sometimes even violent, Nick rages against the static nature of it all, impatient for the grace that Glenn was supposed to bequeath to him. “Love After Love” only grows more powerful as Harbaugh knowingly cuts from one bitter moment to the next, stranding Nick in a world that refuses to wait up for him. Whenever he finds his footing, the film abruptly jumps a few more weeks into the future, leaving Nick as unbalanced as we are — the elliptical editing forces us to spend the first half of every scene ferreting out contextual clues about where we are in time and what might have happened between cuts, Harbaugh’s style heightening grief’s dislocation because of how stubbornly it refuses to dramatize it.
In its way, this small, handcrafted, and immaculately well-realized feature challenges the limited way that movies tend to depict loss. Absent histrionics or montages or the structure of a studio-tested screenplay that builds to a clear moment of shared catharsis, “Love After Love” suggests that true absence can only be conveyed by absence itself — that loss is a process of subtraction, not addition, even if you’re the only one who can tell the difference. You might be able to grow from grief, but that’s your own damn business, because the rest of the world is just going to keep on spinning. In that light, it’s fitting that Harbaugh’s remarkable debut ends with a catchy bit of cognitive dissonance, and a cut to black that leaves you asking: “Wait, that’s it?”
“Love After Love” opens in theaters on March 30.