Taking the pedestrian and decidedly unsexy American male to Paris so he can become a sexual human being attuned to life’s small pleasures is a tired device that perhaps only Woody Allen could possibly resurrect from the stinky pile of cinematic clichés. Mike Mills seemed to know that when he decided to bring Paris to America in Beginners and not the other way around. In comes Eric Schaeffer with After Fall, Winter, in which the writer-director plays Michael, an awkward middle-aged novelist unwilling to write the sort of books that people who read books are willing to buy—and is thus 600,000 dollars in debt. His Parisian escape leads him to Sophie (Lizzie Brocheré), a feisty French girl with a really sharp tongue (aren’t they all?) who works as a doula for terminally ill patients during the day and as a merciless dominatrix during the night.
By the time Michael reminds us that, “Paris is the only place where you can be lost and found at the same time,” which is in the very beginning of the film, you’re already thinking: If only it weren’t infested with Americans of his ilk. Refreshingly, most of the characters in the film seem to agree, and the moments they spend dissing American crassness (particularly the American penchant for asking strangers a question without first saying “hello”) are some of the few pleasures the film has to offer. Michael, who’s a masochist, starts courting Sophie, who’s a sadist, yet they’re both oblivious of their respective and supposedly complementary fetishes. Although it’s refreshing to see a heterosexual romance on screen that allows for something other than vanilla sexuality, After Fall, Winter ends up embracing the feared extremity of non-normative sexual desire. Masochism here involves wanting to get smashed in the head by a brick and smothered with a plastic bag (especially when the girl you’ve been in love with for all of seven days calls you fat), and sadism is synonym with sex work (Sophie is a dominatrix for a call-girl agency who also seems to employ girls willing to kill in the name of fetish).
After Fall, Winter also has some very odd subplots about the scamming nature of gypsy women in the streets of Paris and a homoerotic connection between Sophie and a cancer-stricken 13-year-old girl (also a gypsy). The film wants to be some sort of non-puritan (queer?) version of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, or Lost in Translation, but its screenplay is too wordy to be able to feign inspired originality, offering lines such as “I’ve never let myself love anyone before,” the nonsensical “I just think that thinking about psychology and sex is perverse,” and, continuing with Basic Instinct 2‘s “How Lacanian” tradition of pleading for some sort of gravitas through psychoanalysis, “Freud says our wishes are our fears.”