Why does Joachim Lafosse’s “After Love” seem so excruciating and pointless when Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” (2011) and “The Salesman” (2016) — films about much the same subject, struggling couples — are masterpieces? Perhaps because Farhadi successfully puts his conflict in a context and employs a dramatic structure, whereas “After Love” is like being stuck at a dinner with an unpleasant couple who won’t stop squabbling.
There is, in fact, such a scene in the film. Marie (Bérénice Bejo), suffocating from the presence of the lumpen, boorish Boris (Cédric Kahn), her estranged mate, dines with some friends in the backyard. Boris invites himself into the group, and many minutes of shared loathing, poisonous remarks, and veiled threats verging on violence follow.
It may be the most uncomfortable meal on film since the Easter dinner scene in “Annie Hall” (1977), but with no comic relief.
Why do they stay together? It’s not because of the kids, 8-year-old Jade and Margaux (played by twin sisters Jade and Margaux Soentjens). Both parents may be self-centered, passive aggressive, and hopelessly neurotic, but they do recognize that the children, who invariably serve as pawns in their acts of domestic terrorism, are not benefiting from the prolongation of the ménage.
The bond instead appears to be money and property, and that is where “After Love” may be attempting to expand beyond the one-note theme that, at least in this house, hell is other people. Boris, who is working class (though he doesn’t seem to work), resents Marie’s bourgeois origins, even though he’s been living off Marie’s income and the assistance she receives from her mother (the wonderful Marthe Keller). He insists that he deserves a share of the value of the home to reimburse him for work he has put into improvements. Until he gets the money, he’s not leaving.
No doubt there have been worse reasons to stick together, but Lafosse makes sure the viewer also shares their pain. He emphasizes the claustrophobia by setting almost the entire film inside the disputed home. Demonstrating a skill at composition, he expresses the characters’ power relationships and isolation by means of the framing and architecture. And he suggests the seeming endlessness of the situation by cutting scenes short and elliptical editing.
It’s a lot of skill and talent expended on a spat a good lawyer could probably have sorted out during the opening credit sequence. Instead Lafosse offers a lot of the “after,” and none of the “love.”
Directed by Joachim Lafosse . Written by Lafosse, Mazarine Pingeot, and Fanny Burdino. Starring Bérénice Bejo , Cédric Kahn, Marthe Keller, Jade and Margaux Soentjens. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Sept. 13 and various dates through Sept. 29, www.mfa.org. 100 minutes . Unrated (marital bickering verging on domestic violence; victimized children). In French, with subtitles.