Judge Joel Pearce wonders if actresses who play grieving mothers will eventually play grieving grandmothers.
A portrait of loss and grief.
Après Lui is proof they have star vehicles in Europe, too, though of an entirely different sort. While the cover of the DVD boasts that it was part of the "Directors' Fortnight" at Cannes, it only takes a few minutes to realize that it's really just an opportunity for Catherine Deneuve (Belle Toujours) to show off that she's still a great actress.
Facts of the Case
Camille's (Deneuve) son dies in a tragic car accident. Just like any other mother, she is heartbroken by the loss. As she tries to cope with what has happened, she becomes more and more fascinated with his best friend, Franck (Thomas Dumerchez, Paris, Je T'Aime), who survived the crash. While everyone else blames Franck for the accident, she realizes that he is hurting too, and becomes obsessed with him as she tries to heal both of their pain.
At the core of Après Lui, there is a fantastic performance by Deneuve. It seems that every actress who survives in the spotlight to middle age feels obligated to do a "loss of a child" role, to the point where it has almost become a genre of its own. These are demanding roles, of course, and Deneuve delivers with ease and grace. She shapes Camille as a fascinating character, one who behaves unexpectedly. My fears from the cover that Camille would begin an illicit affair with the young man are unfounded—this is not that kind of film.
As impressive as the main performance is, it's clear that Gael Morel (Full Speed) was much more interested in creating a great character than in crafting a great movie. While Camille behaves in unexpected ways, there is nothing else in the film that shocks, surprises, or impresses. Indeed, nothing really happens at all. As we reach the end, we still feel pity for Camille, but we've long since stopped wondering what will become of the characters. They will experience grief, because that's all there is.
The other characters are well performed, but are never allowed to take their place at center stage. The character of Franck, particularly, is not developed the way he could have been. There's a sense at the beginning that Camille's son and Franck are lovers, which wouldn't be a surprise given the subject matter of Morel's films. This is never brought up again, though it would have been an interesting aspect of the film to develop.
I suspect most viewers will be disappointed by Après Lui. This is not because it's a bad film—indeed, I think it delivers exactly what it wants to. It's disappointing because it takes the effort to create a fascinating character, but doesn't put her in a story worth telling. For an actress with the stature of Catherine Deneuve, that's a cinematic crime.
The DVD from MPI is quite impressive. A few years ago, foreign films on DVD were almost guaranteed to look terrible if transferred improperly from PAL masters. Thankfully, the shift to high definition has changed that for the better. Après Lui looks fantastic on DVD, with superb detail, nicely rendered colors, a rich black level and no digital artifacts. It lacks the depth of truly reference transfers, but even viewers with high quality displays will have nothing to complain about here. The sound transfer is decent as well, in the form of a low-bandwidth Dolby 5.1 track. The dialogue is clear and the soundtrack has some depth. There are no special features on the disc.
Those who truly appreciate art films will probably be able to forgive Après Lui's considerable flaws. It does, after all, feature some fine cinematography and several great performances. Realistically, though, I doubt Après Lui will ever be highly regarded. It is a small film with small ambitions, and fails to highlight the skills of the artists involved.
Guilty. Après Lui is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
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