In After Love's opening scene, the handheld camera observes Marie (Bérénice Bejo) as she arrives home with her 8-year-old twins, Jade and Margaux (Jade and Margaux Soentjens). But we viewers don't follow them from the street, through the pleasant garden and into the tasteful first-floor apartment. We're already inside, awaiting them in the place nearly all of the film is set.
The unnamed city beyond the patio — the movie was shot in Brussels — barely matters, so inside is the right place to be. Marie and her partner, Boris (Cédric Kahn), built this home together, and are now battling over how to disassemble it. The apartment is a metaphor for lost domestic harmony, but also an actual issue in the breakup.
Marie has evicted Boris from her life, but not their apartment. He sleeps in a small office and is supposed to come and go according to a schedule Marie established. Sometimes he's there when her rules say he shouldn't be. Thus her first words to him, just after she and the girls enter: "What are you doing here?"
It's a question neither Boris nor writer-director Joachim Lafosse's perceptive drama can ever fully answer.
The movie's original French title means "The Economy of a Couple," and money issues helped unravel Marie and Boris' relationship. She works steadily, and he doesn't. But Boris did renovate the apartment, and insists he isn't leaving until Marie agrees to pay him half of its value.
That she resists such a deal seems fine with Boris. After all, if she ever does agree, he'll have to move out and live apart from Marie and the girls.
Occasionally an outsider enters the damaged sanctuary and, inevitably, addresses the ongoing struggle. Marie's mother (Marthe Keller) thinks the couple should reconcile. The guests at a dinner party to which Boris is not invited — but briefly attends anyway — take Marie's side.
Yet most scenes involve just the kids and one or more of the parents. There are loud arguments and moments of unexpected rapport, but much more everyday stuff: cooking, math homework, lost sneakers. When a crisis arrives in the final act, the contrivance highlights the naturalness of the rest of story (credited to Lafosse and three other scripters, but partly improvised).
The director had his performers watch just one film before making this one: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The hostilities in Lafosse's tale are less baroque, and involve a fairly simple dynamic: Marie is controlling, yet wants Boris to take more responsibility. Boris is caring and committed, but not so good at actually fulfilling the obligations he willingly undertakes. (Can Boris simply buy a new pair of soccer shoes for Jade? Of course he can ... not.)
The performers' styles fit their roles. Bejo, best-known in the U.S. for The Artist, admits to being uncomfortable with improvisation. Kahn, who's primarily a director, has a more experimental outlook. The result is an on-screen relationship in which Marie appears more steady and Boris more playful.
The couple's discord could lead to several possible outcomes. But it's unlikely that Lafosse — who first attracted attention with 2006's Private Property — will forget to resolve the matter of the apartment's ownership. In After Love, a home's physical form is as crucial as its emotional one.