Afterglow: Alan Rudolph Romantic Comedy Starring Julie Christie in Comeback Performance

Followers of Alan Rudolph’s career will rejoice at his latest effort, Afterglow, an incredibly and incurably romantic comedy-drama that most perceptively dissects the delicate imbalances of two very modern but very different marriages. In what must be a major comeback, the still strikingly beautiful Julie Christie renders such a glowingly captivating performance that she alone justifies the price of admission for a movie that helmer’s devotees will admire for its mature approach and visual sophistication, while his detractors might dismiss as no more than a divertissement.

Audiences for Rudolph’s movies have been small but this meticulously crafted Robert Altman production deserves to be seen on the wide screen to appreciate its considerable charm and mise-en-scene.

It may be prophetic that precisely 20 years after his debut, Rudolph returns to concerns that have preoccupied him in his early pictures, most notably Welcome to L.A. and Choose Me. Though lacking the quirky charm and more accessible appeal of Choose Me, Rudolph’s best (and most commercial) film, Afterglow employs the same narrative structure, revolving around four characters whose paths crisscross and fates intertwine. This time around, the quartet of characters doesn’t wonder in and out of Eve’s lounge (as in Choose Me), but the bar of a Montreal hotel and the Byrons’ elegant duplex.

An ambitious corporate exec, Jeffrey Byron (Jonny Lee Miller) is a self-centered twentysomething careerist, who’s convinced that “everything’s working quite well on many levels.” In contrast, his sexually frustrated wife, Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle), believes that “nothing is working,” least of all her burning desire to become a mother, a wish denied by Jeffrey. Indeed, while Marianne is carefully tracking her fertility cycle, he’s tracking the stock market.

Across town, Lucky “Fix-it” Mann (Nick Nolte), an amorous repair contractor, experiences his own marital problems with long-time, beautiful spouse, Phyllis (Christie), a former B-Movie actress who spends most of her time watching her lousy old pictures and nostalgically reminiscing about happier times. Both marriages are sexually and emotionally barren, albeit for different reason. Rudolph does a masterful job as scripter, treating the story as a jigsaw puzzle, whose overall pattern gradually becomes clear. It turns out the older duo has never come to terms with their daughter’s departure after hearing a cruel argument between them.

The quartet is thrown off balance, when handyman Lucky arrives at the Byrons ultra-designed apartment to do some minor repairs and Marianne becomes instantly infatuated with him, throwing herself into his arms. As always, Rudolph’s narratives are as shapely, graceful and symmetric as the art decor of his films. Afterglow is no exception: It takes no time for Jeffrey to meet and immediately fall for the older and more sophisticated Phyllis. While most of the film crosscuts between the two newly-formed couples, eventually all four meet at the Ritz Hotel to face each other and themselves. Aptly titled, almost any definition of he word afterglow applies, be it “a reflection of past splendor,” “a glow remaining where a light has disappeared,” or “a comedy of tears.”

However, for this modern fairy tale to be enchanting, it needed four spectacular performers, and, unfortunately, it has only two. In what’s her most polished performance since Shampoo and Heaven Can Wait, Christie dominates every scene she is in, rendering the witty, often wickedly funny lines that Rudolph had scripted for her with the kind of suave irony brought by experience and savoir vivre. She is ably supported by Nolte, in a flashy, equally demanding role, as a man pretending to be a stud but still deeply hurt from not being the biological father of their teenage daughter, who’s now missing.

The younger members of the cast present pic’s major problem: Boyle is too harsh and one-dimensional, failing to make the adroit transition from a bitter, lonely femme to one wildly intoxicated by her extra-marital tryst. Miller, who was so impressive as Sick Boy in Trainspotting, is also pale and a bit stiff. This may be a function of the writing, as there’s no doubt that Rudolph favors the older couple (who are his own age) with more sympathetic and multi-shaded portrayals.

Still, whatever is wrong with the acting is made up by the fluid staging and leisurely pacing (Rudolph’s hallmark as director) that make Afterglow serious and comic, frivolous and substantial, giddy and lyrical all at the same time. With Altman as producer, the entire movie has a choreographic fluency to it, accentuated by first-rate production values, especially Toyomichi Kurita’s swoony camera that fits Rudolph’s inherent romanticism like a silk glove.

Cast

Phyllis Mann (Julie Christie)
Lucky “Fix-It” Mann (Nick Nolte)
Marianne Byron (Lara Flynn Boyle)
Jeffrey Byron (Jonny Lee Miller)

Credits:

Running time: 113 minutes

A Moonstone Entertainment presentation of a Sand Castle 5 and Elysian Dreams co-production. Produced by Robert Altman.
Executive producers, Ernst Stroh and Willi Baer.
Co-producer, James McLindon.
Directed, written by Alan Rudolph.
Camera: Toyomichi Kurita.
Editor: Suzy Elmiger.
Music: Mark Isham.
Production design: Francois Seguin.
Costume design: Francois Barbeau.

Reviewed in Cannes Film Festival 1997 (Market)