Dir: Gael Morel. Fr. 2007. 90 mins
A mother's grief warps into a suffocating obsession in Apres Lui, a sombre study of aching loss and broken hearts. The latest feature from Gael Morel (Le Clan, A Toute Vitesse etc) is a typically dour, unsentimental drama that refuses to sweeten the story of a woman desperate to retain a living sense of her dead son.
The tough subject matter will alienate some audiences but the attraction lies in a committed performance from Catherine Deneuve that is her most memorable and moving since Place Vendome (1998). The Cannes launch and subsequent domestic release should ensure respectable returns in France with some slim potential in territories previously responsive to the films of Gael Morel and the star power of Deneuve.
A vivacious divorcee who runs a bookshop in Lyon, Camille (Deneuve) is devastated when her 20-year-old son Mathieu (Adrien Jolivet) is killed in a car crash. She rejects the sympathy and solidarity of her family to seek out Franck (Dumerchez) who was Mathieu's best friend and who was driving on the night of the accident.
Franck becomes her pet project as he is the only one who can keep her memories of Mathieu alive and real. She starts to burden him with the expectations of the future that Mathieu might have had, employing him at the bookshop and urging him to pursue his studies. Her focus on Franck excludes everyone and everything else in her life.
Apres Lui does feel a little overwrought and has a central situation that some audiences may resist as well as an enigmatic conclusion that will do nothing to placate them. It unfolds around a number of powerful scenes, not least the one in which Camille violently rejects her daughter Laure (Elodie Bouchez) and her new grandchild in favour of continuing her obsessive pursuit of Franck.
Confrontations and showdowns provide the emotional fireworks but the film is sometimes most effective in its quieter, reflective moments when the camera lingers over the grief-strained features of a distraught Camille and the soundtrack swells up to a particularly plaintive choice of song like the one by Beth Gibbons.
The film is also squarely built around the abilities of Deneuve, who displays a naked vulnerability and raw emotion that belies her unjust but enduring ice maiden reputation. There is also a generosity in her playing that never allows Dumerchez to seem overwhelmed in her presence. His melancholic, slightly apologetic air is perfectly suited to the character and also helps convince us why she might also want to mother him and offer him the forgiveness he seems unable to grant himself.
Apres Lui may not represent any great breakthrough for Gael Morel but it does underline his affinity with actors and his desire to make dramas that cut a little deeper than the mainstream.