As a contemplative exercise on the fragility of life and the need to cherish every moment of it, Afterwards has lots to offer.
Much of the credit for this must go to Alexandre Desplat, who composed the score, and to Taiwan-born cinematographer Mark Lee (李屏賓), who created the richly textured mood of Afterwards and helped save the film from the overwrought contrivances of director Gilles Bourdos, who seems to be aspiring to the same tortuous ambiguity that is the hallmark of auteur Atom Egoyan, whose most recent work, Chloe, is currently screening in Taipei, and the haunted metaphysical depths of Wim Wenders.
Afterwards tells the story of Nathan (Romain Duris), a high-flying lawyer whose cold detachment and cynical assessment of the world around him have brought him professional success but poisoned his relationship with his wife and daughter.
He is visited by Doctor Kay (John Malkovich), who seems to tell him that he is about to die.
Doctor Kay is “a messenger” (the film was also released under the title The Messenger), a person who is able to foresee the imminent death of those around him. His goal is to allow them to end their lives at peace with themselves and those around them.
Hesitant initially to listen, Nathan begins to heed Kay’s advice and subsequently begins to depend on it as the doctor’s cryptic directions gradually put him in touch with his family.
The most appealing aspect of Afterwards its unconventional approach to the central subject of death. Having announced that a character will die, it follows him through the mundane joys and frustrations that lead up to, but are often totally unconnected with, his demise. Death is all around us, even as we talk with friends, walk down the street or go to the bank.
Lee’s luscious cinematography — Lee played a major part in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s (侯孝賢) success and also contributed to the look of Wong Kar-wai’s (王家衛) In the Mood for Love (花樣年華) — helps create a mood that is at once beautiful yet full of trepidation and sorrow.
The big city with its dangers and delights, the highways through wide-open spaces, the antiseptic motels by the interchange — all have beauty, even as they serve as a background to tragedy. Desplat’s score plays well with these images, toying with our emotions in the way you might expect from the sound track of a thriller, building unease at the realization that all this beauty could, and indeed will, suddenly cease to be.
Kay and Nathan have tensions of their own, not least because the latter believes the former is threatening him with death (blame always attaches to the bearer of bad news), and while the metaphysical conundrum of what we would do if we knew we only had a certain amount of time to live is subtly explored, Nathan’s character remains steadfastly one dimensional, preventing any real engagement with him as anything other than a symbolic representation of a materialistic everyman.
Devices such as the character of Jeremy, a patient in Kay’s ward who has a heart condition that could cause his death at any moment and who rails against his fate until he finds comfort in visits from Jennifer, a girl who wrote to him after hearing of his story on TV, are a bit Oprah. Such heavy-handed treatment suggests that Bourdos is not fully confident with his material, adding a ponderous, hectoring quality that does the film no favors.
There are plenty of ideas knocking about inside Afterwards, but it has neither the loose lyricism of Wenders nor the intricate craftsmanship of Egoyan, and while striving to emulate both, it fails to be either.
ROMAIN DURIS (NATHAN),
JOHN MALKOVICH (DOCTOR KAY), EVANGELINE LILLY (CLAIRE),
PASCALE BUSSIERES (ANNA),
SARA WAISGLASS (TRACEY),
REECE THOMPSON (JEREMY)
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