The extended-family drama Love After Love is swimming with hate, mostly self-hate, but that’s the kind that tends to get projected most viciously onto others. It opens on a soon-to-be-widowed mother, Suzanne — played by a flabbergastingly young-looking Andie MacDowell, in a performance that will put to rest any doubts that she can act (she doesn’t often, but yes, she can) — and her son, Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd), a book editor and alleged writer in the process of separating from a wife, Rebecca (Juliet Rylance), who’s plainly too good for him. O’Dowd’s Nicholas might be one of the least appealing protagonists in cinema history, and if you’re like me you’ll spend most of the movie’s running time squirming in discomfort and hoping you’re not as much like him as you think you are. I found it a great masochistic experience.
Like Hamlet if the protagonist had no capacity for self-reflection, Love After Love turns on the loss of a father, and on a son’s sense — unarticulated but unavoidable — that he’ll never measure up in his mother’s eyes or anyone else’s. There’s a creepy incestuous vibe between Nicholas and his mother that Suzanne doesn’t entirely discourage, though the aggression is largely on Nicholas’s end.
He’s an overbearing guy, invasive when he thinks he’s being loving. He’s one of those public thigh-strokers: He runs his hand up and down Rebecca’s leg at a family dinner and later caresses his new fiancée, Emilie (Dree Hemingway), in view of her own family. Any affection you might feel for him based on his being played by Chris O’Dowd (and who doesn’t like Chris O’Dowd?) will fly out the window in a scene in which he verbally abuses Rebecca, who has come to his family’s spacious, upstate New York home to lend emotional support. He registers her discomfort at being there — their marriage is in its death throes — but accuses her of seeking attention. As he talks, she stares ahead in near catatonia, the last straw of their relationship quietly breaking. Seen through the eyes of a spouse, a verbal abuser like Nicholas can be as creepy as Alexander Skarsgård’s physical abuser in HBO’s Big Little Lies. How do women endure it?
Does Love After Love sound like fun? It’s not, but it’s not an emptily masochistic experience, like such film-festival favorites as Listen Up, Philip, or one of Noah Baumbach’s poison pen letters to the family. The director and co-writer is a first-timer, Russell Harbaugh, who worked on the bracing brotherly-hate drama The Mend and was an assistant to Eric Mendelsohn on the excellent suburban Gothic 3 Backyards. (Mendelsohn co-wrote Love After Love.) The superb cinematographer Chris Teague follows the characters at a respectful distance — selectively going close — as they attempt to relieve their pain and often merely deepen it. Much of Love After Love consists of unnervingly pregnant silences, but now and then the composer David Shire delivers some inspired discordant horn and piano noodling. The opening is a brilliant piece of writing. Sitting across from his mother, who’s in a window seat, Nicholas says, “What was the question?” Suzanne laughs and he goes on, haltingly, “I mean … What’s happy?”
The film features not one but two nightmarish dinner scenes. In the first, Nicholas’s brother, Chris (James Adomian) — who seems even more of a loser than Nicholas is — gets staggeringly drunk at Nicholas’s engagement party and pees on the guests’ coats. The second is Nicholas’s toast to his new wife’s single father — who’s quietly beginning to date Suzanne — that goes on and on with a swelling undercurrent of rage while Suzanne goes ashen. But Harbaugh pulls something miraculous out of his hat. Later on, loser Chris does a stand-up comedy act onstage (the camera is close on him but we hear the audience) and it’s messy — unfinished — but sharp and searching. Chris turns out to be pretty amazing. He also has an outlet to work through his grief that Nicholas doesn’t. Nicholas works at HarperCollins under his ex-wife, Rebecca, and — with some prodding from a passive-aggressive Suzanne — begins to realize his mistake in throwing away his marriage. But Rebecca is too smart not to recoil. Also, she’s not a masochist.
The performances could hardly be better — with the exception of O’Dowd, who’s good but maybe needed to find just one redeeming moment. (The writers could have helped.) As for Andie McDowell, I haven’t changed my thinking about her amateurish work in almost everything but Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but I also see that with the right material her inward demeanor can be powerful. It’s fun to see a performance so revelatory — it takes the sting out of the general horribleness.