The French film Après Lui (After Him) is the story of Camille (Catherine Deneuve), a loving mother whose 20-year-old son, Mathieu (Adrien Jolivet), dies unexpectedly in a car crash. Devastated by her loss and feeling a disconnect from those around her, Camille gravitates to her son's best friend, Franck (Thomas Dumerchez, Paris, je t'aime), hoping to learn more about her boy and the night of his death. Franck was the one driving the car that night, and for whatever reason, he ran the vehicle off the road and into a tree, which is what killed Mathieu. Perhaps it's the sketchiness of the story--we never learn why they crashed--or just general grief that makes everyone else distrust Franck, but whatever it is makes it even harder for Camille's family to be understanding when her focus on the boy starts to border on obsession.
I don't want to mischaracterize Après Lui. When I say Camille is growing obsessed, I don't want people to think it's some kind of twisted stalker movie like...well, like Obsessed. Après Lui is a movie about grief, and about the strange turns that a person can take when dealing with the loss of a loved one. Directed by Gaël Morel from a screenplay he co-wrote with Christophe Honorè (Love Songs), Après Lui deals in quiet emotions rather than loud, dramatic ones. The further Camille gets from Mathieu's death, the more isolated she becomes and the more Franck becomes the only thing that makes her feel better. He goes part of the way to fill the hole in her life, the concern for his youth and promise becoming an outlet for her maternal love. Sure, her choices can be perplexing and wrongheaded, and a few moments do border on something more sexual, but Morel asks us to sympathize. Everyone goes about these things their own way.
As a character, Franck is someone we are more distanced from. What he is getting from Camille is not as clear. Perhaps that's because he's not clear on it either. Après Lui isn't a movie about providing easy answers, anyway. It ends on an ambiguous note, content with not forcing us to learn or understand. Camille's choices are her own, and as she tells someone who tries to offer trite counseling, no one can ever know what she feels. Perhaps the lesson here is that empathy is not about knowing, it is about feeling, and thus, accuracy is not required. Whether Morel has led us all the way up to where the healing process is really beginning or we have ended up at the place where it will stall doesn't really matter, just as long as we have been made to care. Like in life, silently observing and listening is the best way to be available to the person suffering.
Après Lui is not a fancy movie. It has no flashy style, makes no grand pronouncement. Rather, Morel seems determined to stay out of Catherine Deneuve's way. This is Camille's film, and so it belongs to the woman who plays her. Deneuve is staggeringly good in this. Her brittle performance hits all the right marks, be it laughing at a small joy or having a big cry. Every scene requires a down note, there must always be a little sadness under the surface of everything she does. It requires incredible assurance for an actress to appear this lost.
Après Lui is not the kind of movie one raves about. It's too small, too personal, and it doesn't necessarily inspire anyone to run around and tell everyone they know to see it. That said, everyone really should see it. It's worth the time. Après Lui is emotionally affecting in ways that films with more tidy narratives generally fail to be. Grief is not a simple subject, but by taking a simple approach, free of affectation, Gaël Morel makes it entirely relatable.
Subtitles are available in English, both a regular translation and titles geared toward the deaf and hearing impaired, as well as a Spanish subtitle option.