Thursday, December 29, 2016

Review - After the Life: Trilogy 3

December 29, 2016

After the Life: Trilogy 3 – France, 2002

It is not a novel sentiment, but it bears repeating - Drug addiction is hell. And perhaps nowhere has this message been presented more consistently than in the movie theaters, in films from as far back as 1916’s The Devil’s Needle to more recent films such as 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. Writer-Director Lucas Belvaux’s After the Life, however, does something that most of these similarly-themed films do not – it allows viewers to see the corruptive nature of drug addiction on not just addicts but also the people most devoted to them.

After the Life begins with an eerie shot of a man named Pascal Manise (Gilbert Melki) descending down a mountain on one of those lifts usually reserved for ski slopes or remote locations. With eyes that barely move and a silence that betrays a deep-seated pain, he is clearly a man in deep contemplation. Soon we learn that Pascal is a police inspector, and almost as quickly, we watch as he goes into the back of a restaurant and is handed the kind of bag that could only contain something illegal.

Once home, Pascal greets his wife, Agnes (Dominique Blanc), and for a split second you would be forgiven for thinking theirs to be a rather normal marriage. There are smiles between them, seemingly genuine looks of care, and banter than matches the kind usually uttered between couples during good times. They even go so far as to refer to each other as ‘Sherlock” and “Mrs. Holmes.” It is, of course, an illusion. Soon we are presented with a camera shot of a silver tray with used needles on top of it and Agnes’s joyfully peaceful expression as she drifts off to a drug-inspired sleep. There is no sign of romance.

With such a set up, After the Life has all the makings of a powerful drama – there’s the wife, an addict whose habit has caused her husband to become the kind of cop he likely swore he would not become, and her enabler husband, faithfully caring for his wife, all the while knowing what he has become in the process. Theirs is a relationship of both love and hate. She hates him when he does not have the drugs she relies on; he hates her for what he has to do to keep her happy.

In most films, a character like Agnes would be a sick or terminally-ill patient, someone with whom audiences could empathize and rue the limited avenues available to someone living with so much pain. In such a scenario, drug use would be acceptable. Here, however, nothing excuses Agnes’s use, and the depths to which she goes to get her daily fix strike us not as something we should empathize with and accept, but as something horrible that must be put a stop to. This is especially true after Pascal is blackmailed by one of the dealers he has been getting morphine from. His blackmailer’s “request” is simple: Find a criminal and shoot him before he has a chance to talk; only then will his wife get what she needs.

I would like to be able to describe After the Life as a taut drama from start to finish with moments of chilling suspense. I really would. And for much of the first half, I was confident that I would be able to. However, as the film progresses, it gets bogged down in convoluted storylines that are unconvincingly connected by the end the film. There’s a woman who wants Pascal to investigate her husband, and one of Agnes’s co-workers who may or may not have information about a terrorist who’s on the loose. The former felt like a distraction, and the latter seemed rushed and undeveloped. Even more egregious is the insertion of said terrorist into Agnes’s storyline, for while I understand why his presence was necessary for Agnes’s development, it still felt incredibly forced, like one of those coincidences that sounds better in a screenwriter’s head than it looks on screen.

Still, the film never completely loses its way, and much of the credit for this belongs to Blanc and Melki, both of whom give performances that have the potential to shock and move audiences. I also appreciated the way the first half of the film builds up to its big reveals instead of hitting audiences over the head with them early on. This approach makes Agnes’s levels of desperation all the more involving. Melki matches her intensity with cold aloofness, When Pascal does finally break down emotionally and desperately seek some form of physical confirmation of the pain he is in, he does so when his wife cannot respond to him. In the scene, Melki’s reactions are truly heartbreaking.

I have often wondered if a movie can truly be recommended for the performances of one or more of its actors. After all, what does it say about a film if the reason to see it is a performance and not a story? However, in After the Life, the performances are what stand out most of all. This does not mean that the story the film tells is an awful one, but when the film was over, I kept replaying particular moments of impressive acting in my head, while the plot faded and became a bit of a blur. Take that as the grain of salt that it is. (on DVD)

3 stars

*After the Life is in French with English subtitles. 
*After the Life is the third film is a trilogy. No, I have not seen the first two films. In my defense, the descriptions on both the front and back of the DVD were entirely in Chinese.

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