After Love (L’économie du couple)

France/Belgium (2016) Dir. Joachim Lafosse

They say all is fair in love and war but when one turns into the other, fairness is often the last concern of those embroiled in a bitter dispute. Belgian writer-director Joachim Lafosse posits this idea via an indefatigable impasse created by the stubbornness of a couple whose relationship has irretrievably crashed after fifteen years.

At the centre of this standoff is the house, paid for by an inheritance from the mother of Marie Barrault (Bérénice Bejo) and subsequently maintained through her salary and savings. Marie’s partner, builder, architect and father to their twin daughters Jade and Margaux (Jade and Margaux Soentjens), Boris Marker (Cédric Kahn), performed all the renovations and improvements which added significant value to the property’s value.

Marie however refuses to acknowledge this as a valid contribution to the worth of the house and refuses to include this is the valuation of the property for sale. With no money or work, Boris has nowhere to live and refuses to leave until he gets what he believes is his fair 50/50 share of the money. Thus, the couple live separate lives in the same house with tensions rapidly increasing to breaking point.

It’s a natural reaction to pick a side in a situation like this and most likely, it would be Marie who engenders our initial sympathy. A working mum who is on top of everything and has paid for everything over a fifteen-year period forced to face her demons on a daily basis in the form of a man she cannot even abide to look at let alone love.

Boris is painted as a leech, an idler and, judging by the threatening men who show up, someone who can’t stay out of trouble. We don’t know if this is true or not as there is no evidence to the contrary, yet the sheer animus and contempt Marie holds against him doesn’t appear enough for Boris to defend his name against these implied failings.

What Lafosse and co-writers Fanny Burdino, Thomas Van Zuylen and Mazarine Pingeot have done is define Boris’s character through his steadfast refusal to leave until Marie coughs up the monies he is insistent is rightly his – without them he can’t afford to move out anyway, and even Marie is not so cold hearted to deny Boris access to the twins.

Like something out of a comedy, the rules of when, how and for how long Boris gets to be a father are enforced, despite him living in the same house, and woe betide him if he should forget or alter the dates on his own whim. At one point Marie lays into Boris for eating cheese from her aside of the fridge and not his, which he shrugs off.

Now we are wondering if perhaps Boris is getting the short of the stick by being treated as a pariah in his (?) own home. Perhaps Marie is being wholly unreasonable and her steely resolve is one of pettiness if she can’t even extend simple courtesies to him for the benefit of the twins, who are very much aware of the hostilities even if they don’t fully understand the reason or the implications of this acrimonious fall out.

Arguably, the most fascinating aspect of this film is how it refuses to share the past with the audience and acknowledge a time when Marie and Boris were a happy couple in love. Other filmmakers would throw in a few hope spots where an accident or some form of mnemonic leads to a temporary truce and a return to civil peaking terms; Lafosse does this but is far more subtle, preferring to toy with any optimism engendered instead.

The apex of this discomfort comes during a dinner party Marie throws for her friends, which is interrupted by Boris returning home. One mutual friend invites Boris to join them despite Marie’s obvious and emphatic refusal but Boris accepts anyway. What follows is ten of the most uncomfortable minutes ever committed to screen, that will have any viewer squirm as if this was a horror film or a teen gross out comedy.

Whilst we struggle with deciding who is right or wrong – or perhaps both are culpable -, there is still the small matter of what caused the relationship to collapse in the first place. Lafosse presents us with a very prevalent clue in the main thrust of Boris’s resolve – money. This shouldn’t be too surprising but it runs deeper that the shared profit of the house.

Through one particular heated exchange, Boris is quick to accuse Marie of being a “princess” used to relying on her parents’ wealth while he has known “hard times.” From this was can surmise that they came from different backgrounds, and the working class side of Boris expecting to be paid for a job he did is the principle he is applying in his claim for the renovation money.

Marie of the other hand is looking at this purely on a level of possession and the funding of it, suggesting a sense of entitlement endemic in people of wealth. The inference is that this is simply a class issue, two ends of the social spectrum engaged in battle over the very thing that separates them in the first place. So, where does your sympathy lie now?

Regardless of who you are rooting for, it is the phenomenal job of the cast in depicting their characters that will sway your emotions. Bérénice Bejo is starting to come into her own as a dramatic actress after making her name in The Artist, and should be grateful to have such a fine sparring partner in Cédric Kahn as Boris. And we mustn’t overlook the Soentjens sisters, naturally charismatic youngsters providing the film with its heart.

Sombre, stark and unflinchingly awkward, After Love is the antidote to every sentimental melodrama concerning the end of a relationship, preferring realism and veiled social commentary to false romantic ideals.

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