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Translated Title: After Him
Cléo from 5 to 7 director Agnès Varda has been widely dubbed "the grandmother of the French New Wave" and actress Anna Karina was arguably the woman who internationally embodied its "female image" due to her work with legendary director Jean-Luc Godard.
Yet in my view actress Catherine Deneuve has never been given enough credit for her contribution to not only that particular movement but international cinema in general. As one of the few French actresses of that era to successfully branch out around the globe, Deneuve undeniably proved that she was much more than a pretty face by abandoning the New Wave roots of Demy's Cherbourg and Truffaut's Mississippi Mermaid and taking some major risks with daring turns in Polanski's Repulsion and Buñuel's Belle de jour.
And while most actors and actresses have more or less settled into taking whatever work is offered to them as they age or succumbed to playing the same "type" for which they've always been known, Deneuve has just gotten better. In fact, her presence has reached the point that even in a compelling if slightly lukewarm film like Gaël Morel's Après Lui, we still can't take our eyes off of a woman who can command a scene solely with her eyes.
Possessing that rare ability to convey emotion and thought processes simply with a lingering look or tear-stained glance, it's Deneuve's continued interest in challenging herself that has in fact continued to surprise viewers for roughly five decades. She has done this via her daring selection of work that has-- to cite only a few examples-- found Deneuve tackling a part in Von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, rolling around on the floor in the campy irresistible murder mystery musical 8 Women, voicing a character in Persepolis and appearing in an episode of TV's Nip/Tuck. Moreover, her inspiring career and constant experimentation to startle, amuse, sadden, quicken the heart, or drive us to tissues is one in which more performers in Hollywood should study.
And no doubt it's her presence alone that ensured Morel's Après Lui a world premiere screening at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Penned by Morel and Love Songs and Dans Paris writer/director Christophe Honoré, the film is a brief but beautifully executed study of a mother experiencing the devastation of losing her best friend and twenty year old son in a car crash.
Although the subject matter assures that it's box office poison, Morel's polished and offbeat film is anchored by Deneuve and makes for a fascinating portrait of the five stages of grief given an unusual spin when Deneuve's Camille becomes oddly obsessed with Franck, her son's best friend and the driver of the vehicle played by Thomas Dumechez.
While understandably, Camille's daughter and other guests at the funeral reception don't want Franck anywhere near them, Camille who picked Franck up at the tree where her beloved son Matthieu died brings him with her to the event. Whether she's becoming a part of his life because he's the closest thing to Matthieu she has left or perhaps because he may well indeed be the only one she feels can understand the loss on the same level, her reliance on him increases as the film continues much to the suspicions of Franck's less financially secure parents who don't like her involvement in ensuring he attends college, hiring him at her bookstore etc.
Per the cover of the film's box, the timbre of some scenes and the way they have an unspoken commitment to one another, the filmmaker implies that there's a strange perverse sexual attraction that Camille has for Franck. Yet to their credit, Morel and Honoré never define or clarify anything in absolutes or specific details, preferring we watch atypical human nature unfold as we would in real life and without it being explained.
Granted, overall, the eighty-nine minute work is slight on plot development as like the far superior French studies of tragedy such as Kieslowski's Three Colors: Blue and Claudel's I've Loved You So Long, its main concern is with the heroine's emotional progress. However, it contains yet another can't-look-away turn by Deneuve that bolsters it from feeling like a foreign and slightly more twisted "let's wallow in sadness" version of an Oprah Book Club Selection or Lifetime Movie.
Additionally, the young helmer Morel's Lui definitely impresses when you realize that the filmmaker is under the age of forty and that he has not only co-written a fascinating part for a woman of Deneuve's age that isn't demeaning but has also managed to present us with "a mother role" the likes of which we haven't seen.
Distributed overseas by Fox Searchlight, the film was just released to disc in the states in a beautifully transferred DVD from IFC Films and MPI Media Group with the theatrical trailer serving as the sole extra feature. And while Après Lui won't be considered one of the French screen legend's most successful movies since it doesn't grab you the way some of the masterful pictures of the past few decades did, nonetheless it illustrates Morel's immense promise and boasts Deneuve's richest turn in years.
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