It’s probably a little lazy of me to describe Joachim Lafosse’s After Love (L’Économie du Couple) as ‘play-like'. Not only is it lazy, but it is also an entirely unoriginal interpretation; it only takes a brief survey of the available reviews online to find the comparison numerous times already. It is, however, the easiest point of reference when trying to convey the stifling and broiling tension inherent to this highly claustrophobic drama.
Lafosse has taken a somewhat simple scenario – a married couple with children, no longer in love and separating, who are forced into continued cohabitation due to financial constraints – and has placed the audience immediately at the centre of it by setting the entire film almost uniquely in their small and highly toxic home.
Indeed, a similarly theatrical comparison is Sartre’s No Exit, a one-act play set in a French salon, chronicling the interactions between a ménage à trois of wholly incompatible people, leading them to conclude that “Hell is other people.”
After Love takes that claim at face value. Marie (Bérénice Bejo) can no longer bear to be in her husband Boris’s (Cédric Kahn) presence.
She is constantly moving around the house, like a crazed prisoner pacing in her cell. She finds some reason, any reason, to physically distance herself from her husband, who we understand to have committed an undisclosed yet damning indiscretion. Boris, in the face of his wife’s stony stoicism and resignation, remains hopeful.
He suggests couple’s counselling and consoles his children that their parents may in fact get back together. His optimism is misplaced, however; they are ultimately and irrevocably doomed to failure.
Lafosse’s key success is in consistently ranking up the tension, transforming the everyday elements of this middle class family’s life into an emotionally and politically charged imbroglio. Almost everything is a cause for full-blown warfare. They fight over cheese, football boots, and bath time, constantly trying to one-up each other in front of their confused and emotionally distressed twin daughters.
These banal battles are elevated to an all-encompassing level of angst. One immediately feels the impact of each argumentative swing, voyeuristically watching the fallout of the nuclear family.
In one beautiful and ironic twist in tone, the conflict takes a brief ceasefire in a scene involving a game of Uno, with the inherent competitiveness of the game strangely allowing for a snatched moment of harmony. Perhaps the family take some comfort in the fact there can only be one indisputable winner in Uno, unlike in a divorce where the fighting seems endless and ultimately smacks of defeat for both parties.
Such familial moments are far more engrossing than examples of generically cinematic tension, which seem crowbarred in as if to drive the film unnecessarily forwards. A little-explored subplot in which Boris owes mobster-like characters a large sum of money sits particularly heavily and awkwardly in the mix.
The film’s final twist, whilst not entirely incongruous, also touches on the melodramatic.
Compounded by its convincing and strong central performances, After Love is a powerful testament to the fickle, brittle and volatile nature of love and family under the stresses of modern life. It seeks to illustrate our often absurd expectations for these endeavours, tacitly suggesting that, like with so much in life, we should realign our projections accordingly. It is neither happy nor sad. Optimistic nor damning. It just is; c’est la vie.