“What was the question?”
The opening line of Russell Harbaugh’s 2018 film Love After Love lets you know that this movie isn’t going to lead you by the hand. It starts as if you’ve just come back to yourself after drifting away from a conversation. You’ll be left to work out what is going on, who is related to whom and how; even the amount of time that has passed between scenes is left as a matter of conjecture.
Family patriarch Glenn is in the opening scenes, raspy-voiced but hearty at a family gathering; then he is in bed, struggling to breathe, and in the bathroom, with his two adult sons struggling to lower him onto the toilet and his wife tugging his pants down to his ankles; then he is gone and the men from the funeral home are clattering the gurney as they transfer him from the bed in which he has passed away.
His death comes a fifth of the way into this ninety minute film, but it’s the stone, cast in a pond, whose ripples we’ll be watching for the remaining duration. If last week, we talked about Groundhog Day and other fantasies of endless repetition, here Love After Love reminds us that the world doesn’t solely run on hours, days, months, and years. There are other ways to mark life’s pace, and other kinds of endlessness, like the time in which someone close to you is irrevocably gone. You might not be able to say how much of the calendar this movie covers, yet it clearly takes place almost entirely within one season: the season of grief.
Theatre professor Suzanne, played by Andie MacDowell, has lost her husband. She’s a shrewd observer of her sons’ self-destructive ways: the narcissistic, sexually incontinent publisher Nick (Chris O’Dowd) and the aspiring stand-up comedian Chris (James Adomian) are managing to make a greater or lesser mess of their lives even before death hits. (That line from the movie’s opening comes from a conversation in which Nick is effectively asking his mother’s permission to cheat on his partner).
Nick is angry that the ripples from a death seem to abate so quicky – “It’s almost worse how easy it is to get over grief”, he says – but Suzanne is unwilling for her life to be over, too. New men come to her bed and one joins the family at the dinner table, bringing a teenage son of his own. The toast Nick offers is bitter: “to this special thing that’s happening right before our eyes, even though we’re desperately trying not to notice it is, and I think that it’s right that we try to celebrate that.”
Love After Love feels like a real memory, stitched together from moments, partial vignettes, sense impressions. You lose the full detail of any given day, yet remember the laboured breathing of someone who’s on the way out, the sudden silence of their home, the moment in a church with just a few close family before the mourners arrive for the funeral.
This is a family of watchers – Suzanne seeing what’s going on beneath the surface of her sons, Chris mining observations for his comedy routine, Nick ever anxious to see if he’s getting the love he thinks he’s due – but that doesn’t mean they’re passive, or restrained. Feelings, and bodily fluids, overspill. Suzanne flies off the handle at one of her students, then at her colleagues. One brother kicks the other, sleeping on the floor, to wake him; at the kitchen table they talk, weep, hug. People say and do seemingly unforgiveable things and yet find it in themselves to later sit across from one another at a restaurant table, or even in a hot tub at a party. A second loss, managed with seemingly better grace than the first, closes the film; tells us that, while we may still miss the one who was lost, the chapter of grief does end – even if only because there is fresh mourning to be done.
It’s not an easy film, this: not so much that it’s a puzzle to be solved, but that it’s clear-eyed about our flaws when it could be sentimental. The same story could be told in the fashion of a Hallmark movie, but Harbaugh wants us to linger in the less comfortable moments – not as torment, but because there’s more love to be found in this honest watching. And it might be the kind of love, unsparing and unwavering as it looks upon the worst of our behaviour, that we need right now.
We’re living in a time when we’re forced, more than usual, to recognise how close death lurks beneath the surface of life. We bookend even professional interactions with tentative phrases to check we’re not intruding on sudden grief, to wish people good health: “I trust this email finds you, your colleagues, and loved ones well”; “we are fine and grateful that our friends & relatives remain safe & well”; “we’re okay here…for the current value of okay.” Routine communication is more or less awkwardly entangled with leaky intimacies, personal hardship admitted or concealed, embarrassment about relative privilege and good fortune, confessions of loss and grief.
For some of us, escapism is the answer. (And don’t get me wrong, we’ve also plunged into a back catalogue of screwball comedies, old TV shows, “comfort watches” here). Who wants to face what goes on within and between people as a family suffers grievous loss, when we could be watching the latest Marvel TV show and waiting for it to unpack its mystery shtick of cosmic energies and sub-Tom-Clancy spy agencies? (A story of grief is also wrapped up in Marvel’s WandaVision, though the layers of paper covering are shinier and the gift inside came off a shelf where it resided with all the other action figures). And it’s not as if pop culture can’t be the vehicle for emotions both strong and subtle: as if the lamest song from your youth can’t evoke deep memories of someone who’s been lost to you.
Yet there’s something about movies like Love After Love which don’t shy away from making things difficult, which ask you to work at understanding what is going on in terms of emotion as well as plot, which keep forcing you to sit with the essential mystery of grief: someone is gone from the world who was here before, and the world is going to keep on turning though you wish it would stop. And eventually, alone or together, you will have to find a way to keep on going, too.