Good grief

After HimAfter Him: 93 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Gaël Morel. Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Thomas Dumerchez, Adrien Jolivet

Grief is a raw and complex emotion, and this French film evokes it beautifully. Anyone who has ever lost someone close to them — in particular, any parent who has lost a child — will empathise with middle-aged divorcee Camille (Deneuve) as she comes to terms with the death of her teenage son, Mathieu (Jolivet) in a high-speed car accident. Her needle flicks back and forth from numbness to emotional outpouring.

After Him is a character study of Camille, but at its heart is a relationship. Camille forms a bond with Franck (Dumerchez), Mathieu's best friend and the driver of the car on the night of the accident. Initially, the ease with which Camille shows grace is surprising and moving. A wordless embrace comprises her first encounter with Franck after the accident. She understands his grief, mirrored in her own experience and exacerbated by guilt.

Subsequently, she insists he attend Mathieu's wake. He is reluctant, suspecting he will not be welcomed by the other guests. Sure enough, Franck's presence invokes discomfort and even outright hostility among Mathieu's grieving family and friends.

Again, Camille's attitude of forgiveness towards Franck provides a profound contrast. But it's at this point that the magnanimity of her actions starts to come under scrutiny. It seems the apparently selfless act does little good for anyone, least of all Franck, who knew his presence at the wake would cause disruption, and endured the experience only upon Camille's insistence. Clearly it is primarily her own needs that she has in mind.

As the film progresses, her relationship with Franck develops an unsavoury edge. It seems she hopes he will fill the void left by Mathieu's death — a reasonable and natural hope. But her increasing obsessiveness takes on an unintended, almost sinister air that is anything but motherly.

She never confronts Franck outright about the active — albeit accidental — role he played in Mathieu's death. But her suffocating manner becomes something of a passive act of punishment against the guilt-ridden boy. Unfortunately the character becomes increasingly inscrutable, and for the viewer Camille's motives for and awareness of the implications of her behaviour become obscured.

This inscrutability and the unresolved nature of the narrative mean that this is ultimately an alienating film. As a reflection on the nature of grief, that is appropriate. Grief is something we carry with us, in one form or another, throughout our lives, for better or worse. It doesn't have a neat ending, nor does it supply easy answers. In many cases, it goes hand in hand with a sense of aloneness.

The lack of not only a resolution, but also a dramatic pay-off, may be appropriate to a reflection on grief, but it makes for unsatisfying storytelling. After Him will leave many people knowing more, but understanding less, about the experience of grief than they did before they watched it.

Après Lui

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the inaugural edition of the journal Studies in Australian Weird Fiction. Email Tim




submit a comment


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up