By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)
Aldous Huxley once wrote:
Too much consistency is as bad for the mind as it is for the body. Consistency is contrary to nature, contrary to life. The only completely consistent people are the dead.
There is certainly no consistency in how people react to the death of a loved one. Some keen and wail and then peacefully move on. Some remain stoic and grow a tumor. Some sublimate grief by acting out over a period. And the dead, as usual, retain their even keel.
In his feature film debut Love After Love, writer-director Russell Harbaugh examines the effects of a death in the family on a freshly-widowed mother and her two adult sons. In an audacious opening scene, a beautiful middle-aged woman (Andie MacDowell) and a young man (Chris O’Dowd) engage in an almost uncomfortably intimate conversation about love and happiness (after all, we’ve just met these two people). Imagine our surprise when we find out that they are not lovers, but mother and son. Not a shy family.
They are, in fact, a family in crisis. The woman, Suzanne, her son Nicholas, and his younger brother Chris (James Adomian) are bracing for the imminent passing of husband and father Glenn (Gareth Williams). Nicholas, his girlfriend Rebecca (Juliet Rhylance) and Chris have come in from New York City to attend a gathering at their parents’ upstate country spread (Suzanne and Glenn, both theater professors, have obviously done well financially). We see Glenn up and around, enjoying himself with friends and family.
However, once the party is over and Chris, Nicholas and Rebecca drive off, it becomes apparent that Glenn is receiving in-home hospice care and is clearly near the end. When the inevitable occurs, Harbaugh depicts Glenn’s death in a stark, unblinking manner; maintaining that tone of seat-squirming intimacy that he establishes in his opening scene.
From this point forward, there are time jumps showing how mother and sons are coping. Suzanne pursues half-hearted relationships (“I still feel like I’m being unfaithful,” she blurts out to one lover, while in a post-coital funk). Nicholas cheats on Rebecca; after she dumps him he impulsively asks his clandestine girlfriend (Dree Hemingway) to marry him. Chris flounders; frequently embarrassing himself and his family due to a drinking problem. Long-suppressed resentments between Suzanne and Nicholas come to a head. There are many accusations and recriminations. What family doesn’t have its problems?
The emotional centerpiece is an astounding 10-minute monolog about death and grieving from Chris, who is doing an open mic set at a comedy club (Adomian is a stand-up in real life). Harbaugh holds Chris’ face in close-up for most of the scene, which also serves as a Greek Chorus that contextualizes everything we’ve observed in the film up to that point.
Harbaugh (along with co-writer Eric Mendelsohn) has delivered a tautly-scripted 90-minute film about a difficult subject that is brutally honest, yet genuinely resonant. There are strong echoes of John Cassavetes. I’m sure Harbaugh has studied his work; I sensed this from the naturalistic tone, and in the comfortable manner the actors inhabit their characters, without coming off as “actor-ly”. Not always easy to watch…kind of like life.