What to Stream: “Afterglow,” a Melodramatic Spotlight for Julie Christie
The films of Alan Rudolph are prime examples of the art of movies—they don’t merely tell stories but also outleap them by way of imaginative artifice. Yet Rudolph’s distinctive and original approach to directing may well be the reason that, though he has been working in the center of Hollywood since the seventies, he nonetheless remains an unduly marginal figure. The sophistication of his artistry is splendidly on view in his 1997 melodrama, “Afterglow,” which exalts a cast of stars and not-quite-stars to an equally ardent pitch of romantic anguish and exaltation.
It’s a tale of crisscrossing couples in Montreal, and their melancholy intimate complications. Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller), a cold and swaggering young finance executive, suffers from a dangerously swollen ego. He is married to Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle), an artist who stays home and lacks confidence, and he treats her coldly and haughtily; she wants a child, and Jeffrey doesn’t care and won’t try. Lucky (Nick Nolte) is a contractor and a casual philanderer who meets a large number of lonely women in the course of his work. But his own brand of workingman’s swagger is also a source of casual emotional damage: he and Phyllis (Julie Christie), a former movie actress, are married, and she’s well aware of his rampant infidelity, and suffers terribly from it. Then Lucky gets a call to do work in Marianne and Jeffrey’s luxurious apartment, setting in motion an affair between Marianne and Lucky and, eventually, bringing Jeffrey and Phyllis together, as well.
It has become a trope of opera houses, since Peter Sellars’s audacious productions nearly forty years ago, to set works of the classical repertory in the present day, using the anachronisms to illuminate the situations in the historical originals. “Afterglow” plays like such a production—and feels like an opera. Rudolph relies on the situations and confrontations to generate performances and images of a mysterious, disturbingly ambiguous stylization. He also wrote the script, and he treats it less like a drama than like a libretto. His camera floats and glides and drifts amid the characters, as if to conjure the flow of positive and negative charges between them, the futile passage of their time. The actors deliver their lines with stark and declamatory fervor, and their gestures have a sharp, sculptural stillness that’s reminiscent of the grand artifices of classic-Hollywood productions.
The suave, airbrushed luminosity of Toyomichi Kurita’s cinematography; the wistful music, by Mark Isham (performed with instantly striking stylishness by a jazz band featuring a quartet of luminaries: Charles Lloyd, Geri Allen, Billy Higgins, and Gary Burton), plus the heightened elegance of the sets and costumes conjure a similar studio-centric grandeur. I’m not especially nostalgic for what’s called the midrange drama for adults—the kinds of relatively high-budget movies that Hollywood studios put out for mass consumption—because their studio-based constraints are often as visible as their artistry. But in “Afterglow” it isn’t only the elaborately industrial artistry that recalls earlier movie days; the very subject of the movie is the enduring and dangerous emotional power of its grand, damaged, and damaging archetypes. The drama is built on a pile of abraded glories and lurid wreckage arising from long-assumed, long-unquestioned forms of reckless passion.
Alan Rudolph, the son of the Hollywood film and TV director Oscar Rudolph, was born into an earlier era in the art of movies. He’s a filmmaker of neoclassical inspiration in the service of modernist sensibilities. In “Afterglow,” as in others of his best films, such as “Remember My Name,” “The Moderns,” and “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” he recovers the past, diving deep into loss and grief with a sense of style that is itself a form of redemption. Playing a tormented refugee from an earlier age of cinema who can’t resist watching her earlier work, Christie is surpassingly, supremely baroque; she glories in the cutting insinuation, and, when the action calls for it, she shines as the queen of the impassioned aria. Her taut yet florid performance earned an Oscar nomination, for Best Actress. It’s rare that such honors are so apt.
Stream “Afterglow” on Amazon Prime.
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