Belgian auteur Joachim Lafosse has always confined his movies to limited settings — the isolated NGO compound in The White Knights; the menacing bourgeois homes of Private Property, Private Lessons and his best film to date, Our Children — forcing his characters to share claustrophobic spaces that gradually get the better of them.
He takes that method to the extreme in After Love (L’Econome du couple), a portrait of amorous breakdown that’s at times virtuously directed, using a single ground floor apartment — albeit a fairly large and tastefully decorated one — to chronicle a French couple’s bitter unraveling over the course of several months. It’s like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage condensed into a shorter timeframe and only a handful of rooms, although its depiction of a crumbling relationship can be just as complex, if not quite as emotionally resonant during its final stages.
Starring Berenice Bejo (The Artist) as a woman trying to liberate herself from an increasingly unlivable situation, and director-turned-actor Cedric Kahn (Roberto Succo) as the brooding boyfriend who just won’t let her go, this skillfully performed chamber-piece (or chambre-piece) premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, where it could find a decent share of art house pickups outside co-producing countries Belgium and France.
From an opening sequence-shot, which has regular DP Jean-Francois Hensgens relentlessly tracking the main characters throughout the flat’s spacious foyer/kitchen, we quickly understand the issue at hand: Marie (Bejo) is the mother of two playful twin girls (Jade and Margaux Soentjens), and their life together seems to be going pretty well — except for the fact that the girls’ father, Boris (Kahn), is still living with them, although it’s clear that Marie has wanted him out for some time.
Boris is indeed the unshaven, unpleasant elephant in the room that just won’t leave, and his reasons for staying are gradually revealed in a psychologically nimble screenplay by Lafosse, Fanny Burdino and Mazarine Pingeot (famous in France as the secret daughter that President Francois Mitterrand sired with his longtime mistress).
For one, Boris seems to still have a thing for Marie, even if she’s had enough of him. But even more than that, there’s the question of money (the film’s subtler French title translates to Couple’s Economy), because the unemployed Boris refuses to pack his bags until Marie pays him for his full 50 percent share in the apartment, which he proudly boasts to have earned by renovating the place (he’s an out-of-work architect) with his own blood, sweat and “love.”
The idiosyncrasies of real estate law have fascinated Lafosse in the past — his breakout feature from 2006, Nue-propriete, took its original title from a specific type of French ownership regime — and if he hadn’t become one of the more promising filmmakers to emerge out of Europe in recent years, he could have been a tax lawyer or notaire, so much his plots get caught up in the dirty details of property regulations.
In After Love, Boris’ refusal to cede what he believes is his legal right masks his character’s greater inability to recognize his own failures, and Kahn expertly portrays a man trying to hold on to what’s already lost. He’s constantly forced to humiliate himself and doesn’t really seem to have any qualms about it, whether it’s by camping out every night in the apartment’s tiny office or, in one of the most powerful scenes, showing up at a dinner party where he’s the last person anyone wants at the table.
Marie also spends most of the film sticking to her guns and keeping Boris at arm’s length, though she’s so stubborn about it that Bejo’s performance can seem lopsided at times. It’s only when her character breaks down or opens up — such as during a heartbreaking family dance sequence set to the cheesy French rap ballad “Bella” — that she reveals Marie to be just as damaged as her former lover, especially at the hands of her nosy-body mother (the great Marthe Keller, Marathon Man).
If Lafosse maintains the pressure-cooker atmosphere for most of the running time, a few heavy plot twists in the third act — twists that belong more in a TV movie than something as sophisticated as this — wind up killing part of the underlying tension, as does the director’s decision to break his rule and stage some of the closing sequences outside the apartment set (meticulously designed by Olivier Radot).
But even if the air fizzles out a bit during the denouement, the film still accomplishes what it set out to do, with both Kahn and Bejo aptly shouldering all the narrative weight until the final scene — a scene which, in true form, involves even more legalese about property disputes. In that sense, Lafosse has remained loyal to his roots as a sort of cinematic magistrate, and After Love ultimately makes a strong case for — or rather against — what happens when the person you no longer love is still stuck on the lease.
Production companies: Les Films du Worso, Versus Production
Cast: Berenice Bejo, Cedric Kahn, Marthe Keller, Jade Soentjens, Margaux Soentjens
Director: Joachim Lafosse
Screenwriters: Mazarine Pingeot, Fanny Burdino, Joachim Lafosse
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon, Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart
Director of photography: Jean-Francoi Hensgens
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Yann Dedet
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Sales agent: Le Pacte