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Landscapes and objects have a prodigious capacity to tell stories without words. And cinema – as a medium built on the exploration of time – is particularly suited to unearth these non-living sites as narrative repositories. In a poignant tale dealing with death and secret relationships, Aleem Khan’s debut feature, After Love, reassures us of the same. It maps the characters’ emotional journey through an unrushed, enthralling engagement with the narrative’s atmosphere.
Set in the port town of Dover, England, After Love follows Mary Hussain (Joanna Scanlan) trying to cope with the death of her husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia) and his extra-marital affair with a woman on the other side of the English Channel. In the first extended static shot of the film, on a rainy night, Ahmed passes away soundlessly while Mary keeps busy in the kitchen. Thereafter, his presence in the story solely remains in the form of personal belongings. As she sifts through them after his death, Mary discovers his relationship with Geneviève (Nathalie Richard) in Calais, France, another port town situated 21 miles away.
The drama intensifies when Mary leaves her home to meet Geneviève, where she starts working as a house cleaner after being mistaken for one. Mary gets the task of sorting Geneviève’s mess and help her shift to another house. While doing her duties, she unfolds Ahmed’s secret past from his clothes, photographs, shaving kit, videotapes, and little anecdotes by Geneviève and their son, Solomon (Talid Ariss). However, she does not reveal her identity to them straight away, letting the irony of the situation develop. With a playful balance of concealment and revelation throughout the narrative, the film maintains an engaging dramatic curve.
Domesticity and its associated rituals are an underlying theme in playing out the characters’ conflicts. It situates Ahmed’s absence in interior spaces, daily habits, and the labour of grief. Alexander Dynan’s unfaltering cinematography precisely establishes this with intelligence and austerity. Indeed, his style is reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s critical reflection on domestic spaces in classics like Jeanne Dielman. The sound design of After Love equally excels in infusing domestic objects with the film’s emotional texture – a teapot whistles deafeningly until tragedy befalls Mary; raindrops pattering on the window drown other sounds as she breaks down in bed.
Conversely, outdoor spaces and landscapes add another layer to explore the narrative’s depth. The English Channel, which separated and preserved Ahmed’s relationships, becomes a surface to project the characters’ inner state. It responds accordingly to the emotional condition of the characters, be that angst or spiritual salvation. A part of the English cliff coast breaks off, ceilings develop cracks, or seagulls start flying overhead to complement the varying tempo in the film’s understated magical world. Maneuvering between a passport-sized photograph and the expansive stretch of the coastline, the director draws an intoxicating portrait of grief and compassion that affects viscerally.
Joanna Scanlan’s memorable performance is reciprocated by the equally measured acting of Nathalie Richard and teen actor Talid Ariss. Traversing across three cultures, the characters’ differences in language (English French, Urdu), habits and sexuality further complicate the gamut of emotions. As their on-screen relationship evolves, it reaches a dramatic peak that sees the heights of Pedro Almodóvar or Xavier Dolan. Yet, After Love is a film that keeps growing long after its extended-shot climax positioning the characters against a seemingly infinite horizon.
The film communicates an expansive array of emotions built out of minute details. Winning big at the Dublin International Film Festival (Best Actress), the Cannes Film Festival (Gan Foundation Award for Distribution), Molodist International Film Festival (Best Feature Film) and the Les Arcs International Film Festival (Best Feature Film), Aleem Khan’s debut feature marks the entry of an exceptional filmmaker.