The silences speak volumes in “Love After Love,” something that’s evident in the film’s opening scene in which Suzanne (Andie MacDowell) and her son ponder happiness while leaving room for something – or someone else – in their conversation. As director Russell Harbaugh soon reveals, that space is left for the family’s patriarch, who’s still alive when the film opens, but passes almost immediately thereafter, never coming up in conversation as the characters are too timid to bring up his name, yet always present in their minds.
Harbaugh has found a unique way in to exploring grief without wallowing in sorrow, dancing around the subject as he follows Suzanne and Nick as they attempt to move on in their love lives, their relationships with others more revealing than in each other’s company. Cleverly edited in such a way that the film skips forward to show time as a relentless beast, its characters remain still, often trapped in the carefully composed frames that would seem to emanate from the degree of control that they’d like to imagine having over their lives during a difficult period. While Nick moves from one woman to another, starting with the stability of his colleague (Juliet Rylance) at the publishing house where he works and then an actress who he can be impulsive with (Dree Hemingway), Suzanne is more tentative in her return to dating, making her way through places she doesn’t want to be such as basketball games before finding somewhere comfortable. All the while, you see them both at big family dinners where some guests come and go and others, like Nick’s brother Chris (James Adomian), remain a constant, as the more things change, the more they stay the same.
For the confidence that Suzanne and Nick may find themselves lacking in the wake of their loss, Harbaugh shows no such signs as a filmmaker, trusting the audience to catch up as he hurdles ahead and having such strong performances from MacDowell and O’Dowd to know all the context you need is already there in their expressions. A resplendent score from David Shire is selectively deployed as if it were a fireworks display, the feverish anticipation percolating with violins and bursts of saxophone setting a mood from the start as pent up emotion that eventually morphs into deep notes on a piano that feel like heartstrings being pulled. But in evoking such strong emotions, “Love After Love” never feels manipulative, allowing the experience of the characters to wash over you to feel as if it’s your own.
“Love After Love” is a gorgeously wrought drama, and hard to believe it’s only Harbaugh’s first, but it buzzes from the anxious energy that comes from searching for what’s next, putting it in direct opposition to most films that have taken on the abstract subject of loss. Though it’s up for debate whether Suzanne, Nick or Chris are satisfied with what they find, there’s little doubt that in terms of Harbaugh as a filmmaker, what’s there is new and exciting indeed.