In After Love, Marie (Bérénice Bejo) and Boris (Cédric Kahn) are in the middle of a separation but still living under the same roof, quarreling and shouting at each other in front of their two young daughters, Jade (Jade Soentjens) and Margaux (Margaux Soentjens). Marie gets annoyed at everything Boris does, from his text messaging to the way he sets a plate on a table—and she really loses it when he eats her cheese. She tries to speed up the divorce, but Boris always has an excuse to stall it. He mostly says that he has no money for a new place, but as the audience learns, over and over again, Boris has just never been good with money. The family’s home appears as a space where debt never ceases to be accrued: Every item in every room, every tile on every wall, bears an invisible ownership tag that’s ready to be claimed when the time is right, when the time is nasty.
Writer-director Joachim Lafosse films the couple’s home, as spacious and picturesque as it is, as a kind of designer tomb where dreams go to die a slow and painful death—a space for nursing resentment, not love or children, who turn out to be all but a nuisance. It’s as if Lafosse’s camera is demanding us to be unflinching witnesses to this domestic asphyxiation. This is also true of Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos’s film about family misery in which the camera all but refuses to flee the horror of domestic life. And in both films, there’s nowhere to really flee to. But whereas Lanthimos builds his world through allegory and nuance, Lafosse favors realism and literality. Marie and Boris’s arguments are about objects and numbers: who will keep what, who owes what to whom. They’re able to articulate their anger with precision, even if we never learn what the last straw between them really was.
After Love too often puts too much trust in dialogue, as Marie and Boris’s predicament—whether to quit or stay—is sometimes perfectly conveyed by the actors’ facial expressions and body language, as in the exceptional scene where Jade and Margaux dance to Maître Gims’s song “Bella” and invite their parents to join them. Marie’s confrontation with everything that she’s about to irreversibly lose, everything she’s already lost, plays out entirely in Bejo’s face. It’s through the way that Marie stares at her dancing children and the way that the parents are seduced into reparation that we see and feel how tempting it is to hold on to old pain like one does a teddy bear.
It’s precisely when the body is called to do the talking, to do the mending, even if just for one song, that ambivalence is made clear. Like an Elena Ferrante character, Marie wants to leave, but Marie wants to stay. She loves the children, but she abhors them. She wants to go forward and she wants to go backward. By the time she suddenly erupts in tears she’s already caught in the rhythm of the music, in the arms of her (ex-)lover, and sharing the floor with the children, who are now swaying back and forth cheek to cheek, at once symptoms and agents of the family’s misery and bliss.