The first relationship I had after my wife's suicide was, or at least I thought was, a polar opposite to the woman I married. The woman I married was a stunner with a horrible past, a wannabe delightful young woman who could enchant you and devastate you in the same breath. She tried hard to fight off her demons, but she ultimately failed.
The young woman I dated in the months after my wife's death was different. She was a brunette, my wife had been a blonde. She was quiet and thoughful, my wife had been loud and impulsive. She was, I believed, entirely different from my wife and, I'd dare say, a safe place to begin anew.
Of course, I was wrong.
That's the nature of love. That's the nature of love after love. Love is cyclical. I carried the intense grief of my wife's suicide into that next relationship...and the relationship after that...and the relationship after that...and, ultimately, until I pretty much gave up on the idea of a relationship because love, or at least how my life experiences had taught me to love, was a cycle that I couldn't break and a cycle that began to do more damage than good.
God, that's depressing.
That's kind of how I felt watching Russell Harbaugh's rather remarkable film Love After Love, a stunner of a film that defies Hollywood's insatiable need to turn every god damn thing into a Hallmark greeting card. There's no such faux sentimentality to be found anywhere within Love After Love and the film is all the better for it. If anything, Love After Love is a relentlessly difficult film to watch because it's unflinchingly honest and almost unbearably authentic.
Love After Love opens with one of the best opening scenes to be found in a film in recent years - Suzanne (Andie MacDowell), a soon to be widow, is having an alcohol infused heart-to-heart with her son Nick (Chris O'Dowd), a sort of loopiness fills the air as tangibly metaphysical questions like "What is happy, really?" float above their intimate tensions and unspoken words. Nick, it is obvious, is seeking his mother's endorsement for his own desire to cheat on his wife/co-worker, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance).
Nick is the kind of asshole who believes he's entitled to be an asshole. He has no remorse even when his words and/or his deeds become razor sharp and hurt the ones he professes to love.
Nick loves, though I doubt Nick has any understanding of what that word actually means. He's charmingly mean-spirited until we reach the point that his father Glenn (Gareth Williams) is known to be dying from throat cancer. At that point, Nick becomes something beyond your usual dysfunctional family asshole. He's not quite a sociopath, though he's unrelentingly someone you wouldn't want to be around. Ever.
Films about grief aren't quite a dime a dozen, but they are fairly common. Hollywood loves a good tearjerker, at least when they're not producing the latest superhero flick. However, a film like Love After Love is rare because Harbaugh has the balls to make the film with an almost frightening degree of artistic integrity.
There are two dinner scenes in Love After Love. They are scenes that should feel familiar and should be wrought with the usual family dynamic caricatures. Instead Harbaugh, who co-wrote the script with Eric Mendelsohn, uses these scenes in a stunningly precise and natural way. In the first dinner scene, we gain insight into Nick's brother Chris (James Adomian), who seems less raging yet perhaps even more of a loser than Nick. The intensely intoxicated Chris becomes so disoriented that he ends up urinating on the guests' coats, an action that isn't directly connected to but is undeniably related to his uncomfortableness at his brother's quietly offensive behaviors.
The second dinner scene involves Nick himself, seething at the notion of his now widowed mother beginning to date the single father of Nick's new wife, and offering an extended toast that builds in its rage the longer it continues as an aura of horror envelopes Suzanne.
The relationships in Love After Love are messy and they stay messy. The relationship between Nick and Suzanne is more than a little squirm-inducing, boundary issues prevalent throughout the film and a near emotional incestuousness turning some of their scenes, both loving and conflictual, into breathless operas.
Andie MacDowell gives the performance of her lifetime, exhibiting a rawness that we've seldom seen from her work. For those who've always believed MacDowell to be a much better actress than many proclaim, Love After Love should become Exhibit A. She's remarkable, as well, with Chris O'Dowd, playing against type and being remarkably effective in doing it. Without ever really exhibiting a single redeeming quality, O'Dowd serves up a compelling, impossible to not watch character and turns him into a mirror for the audience. It's a masterful performance that continues to shake me.
At first, it would seem that James Adomian's Chris, a fledgling stand-up comic, is an even bigger loser than Nick or at least believes himself to be. However, one scene, in particular, is so remarkably brought to life that we begin to understand Chris to be the one for whom the cycle of love and hate and love may actually one day be broken. It's a stunning scene that brought to mind Edward Norton's stunning mirror scene in 25th Hour and Adomian hits a home run doing it.
David Shire's original score has an apathetic dissonance to it, at times completely disappearing yet always nearby and at times bridging the film's marvelous use of silence. D.P. Chris Teague masterfully lenses the film, at times seeming to follow the characters from afar and other times engaging in an uncomfortable intimacy that hurts so much you want to look away from it.
I still remember the day I realized the things I'd done differently in the relationships that followed my wife's suicide were, in fact, for the most part the same. Much like the characters in Love After Love, the notion of some greeting card happy ending is laughable at best. Sometimes, there are no happy endings. Sometimes, love is overwhelmed by grief and hate and cycles that we believe we can break but we never really do. Sometimes, love doesn't really win but we keep on doing it anyway because it's love and it's what we want.
It's what we need.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic