In her new film, Love After Love, Andie MacDowell plays Suzanne, a woman whose perfect life falls apart after the sudden death of her husband. Two adult children grieve alongside her—Nicholas (Chris O’Dowd), an unhappily married novelist, knows he’s Suzanne’s favorite son, while Chris (James Adomian), a directionless ball of resentment, is acutely aware that he’s not.
The movie takes us through roughly a year in the family’s lives, as they deal with grief in ways that make the audience as uncomfortable as them. Suzanne starts the grueling process of dating again in her 50s, the childish, coddled Nicholas decides to pull the rug out from under his marriage and settle down with someone younger, and Chris decides to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. But is he any good? Are any of them actually happy?
Writer/Director Russell Harbaugh’s screenplay is less interested in plot than miniature moments of introspection, and despite a couple bursts of familial melodrama, the film’s most effective moments are some of its quietest. There’s the opening scene of MacDowell (giving what could be the best dramatic performance of her career) musing about her character’s happiness while perched on a windowsill. And the one where we watch her do an elegant, if uncertain, dance through the beats of a formal dinner party until deciding to have sex with someone for the first time since the death of her husband.
It’s a peculiar little film—and yes, another indie about rich white people with problems—but a satisfying exploration of longing and uncertainty with a central relationship you rarely see onscreen. I sat down with MacDowell last summer, when Love After Love was still on the festival circuit; it’s just been released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles, and is available on demand. Below is a transcript of our chat, edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: In comparison to your more recent roles—especially Magic Mike XXL—Love After Love is such a significant departure in terms of tone and structure. Can you tell me what you thought when you read this screenplay for the first time?
ANDIE MACDOWELL: It’s really my preferred taste? I just think it’s hard to get roles like this. And I don’t think there are very many roles that are written for women that are this interesting! I think all the women in this are really interesting. And Russ’s ability to see a mature woman that’s full-bodied and human—his way of understanding humans. A lot of times people don’t understand women, and he really gets us. The fact that I have sex and it’s not a bad thing; it’s just making contact or looking for something or trying to resolve something in my life. The beauty of it—the humanness of her needs and wants and desires—starting from the very beginning, her kids are torturing her because she’s had many marriages, and supposedly open marriages. Life is perfect, and then the journey that she has to go to in order to...finally when you see her at the end, she’s happy again. She’s happy again.
It’s funny that so often in movies about people who aren’t in their 20s and 30s, having sex is presented as this huge triumphant thing, like, “Oh finally! They’re getting back out there!”
But this was very natural and lacked that sort of subtext.
Yeah, she can have a one-night stand. Look, she regretted it, which is, I think normal. That was the first man after losing her husband! Think about that! And [it was] her coworker! Like, No! No! But at the same time, understandable. But there was compassion and love and tenderness, but then, she’s alone. Again, it’s not the answer. It doesn’t really fix it. You can’t just find someone to replace [her husband].
I liked that this perfect marriage was your character’s third. It’s sort of rare for a movie to tell audiences that your first marriages might be duds. That sometimes it doesn’t work out.
Right. She’s messy! She’s messy and she’s still lovable. We’re all messy, and anyone who’s pretending that they aren’t is lying. [Laughs]
You mentioned your character’s happiness, and that reminded me of the opening monologue of Sex Lies and Videotape about happiness... You’re at your therapist talking—
Oh, right! About garbage!
[Laughs]. Yes, the garbage.
And the reason she’s talking about garbage is because she doesn’t want to talk about sex.
She just talks about anything but sex.
Anything but what her real issues are. Let’s talk about garbage.
There’s some line about questioning your happiness. How you’re not sure if you’ve ever been happy.
[Laughs] How I got really fat.
This one opens with you sort of pondering happiness, and—
Yeah, that’s true.
The universality of that consideration struck me. Whether you’re younger, whether you’re older, if you’re married or not— “Are we happy” is this constant question in our lives.
This may seem weird but there are a lot of similarities between Suzanne and your character in [Nora Ephron’s] Michael.
[Laughs]. Oh, yeah.
Obviously it’s a broad comedy—a very different kind of movie—but there’s also something really special and thoughtful about it.
It’s also more commercial.
But very strange commercial movie. Especially your character.
I think that’s a very underrated film. It’s a great movie. I love the scene on the staircase with William Hurt. I love that scene.
You have a moment when you’re singing in that film. [“Sitting on the Side of the Road In the Middle of Nowhere”] Where did that song come from? This is just a question I’ve always wanted answered. [Laughs]
There was a writer, a country writer, and I don’t remember her name. And we found her through my manager...and it just worked out that she wrote this perfect song. She’d read the script and write a song for it. She was just really clever and did a good job. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I had to ask about that, but I’ll return to this film. Your character has a really interesting relationship with her son in it, Chris O’Dowd. In a lot of movies, you have mothers having very close relationships with their daughters, fathers being close to their sons, and if it’s a mother being close with their son, it’s typically so the son can learn something about women better in his romantic life. Like, “Oh now he understands woman.” That doesn’t really happen here. It’s just this strange and raw relationship between a parent and her adult children.
We talked a lot about not having good boundaries. And it’s not that they’re sexual boundaries—that’s not the issue—it’s emotional boundaries. And getting into each other’s business! It’s too much of an attachment in a way. I think of them as she was a young mother, and they grew up together! There’s an intimacy and relationship there—a friendship—that is not necessarily just mother and son. Throughout the whole film, how he holds me, how I hold him...what I ask of him, what he tells me, his unaccepting of me, me unaccepting of his choices, and yet we love each other! Again, we love each other. But again its very messy. [Laughs]. It’s messy! And it happens in real life! In my relationships, boundaries are always something you’re learning how to set. You’re learning what’s right and what’s wrong. When you do need to say something and when you should just keep your mouth shut. I think that happens with mothers and children a lot. I blow it a lot. I’m thinking, God, why did I say anything?! I should have just kept my mouth shut.
You have a son, right?
Yes. One son and two daughters.
In your interview with The Hollywood Reporter, you mentioned watching a lot of Cassavettes movies in preparation for the role. Was there a particular one you were most inspired by? This movie does feel older—like something from another decade.
[I watched a lot of] Maurice Pialat—À nos amours and Loulou. I had been a Bergman fan early on in my career. I studied Method—I was a Method actor, that was my first choice. I liked that process. And finding that being a natural actor, not overacting, coming from an interior life—subtle acting has always been a personal choice. Though I don’t think that my Magic Mike was [like that], that character was really broad. [Laughs] But my preference is revealing a character from the inside out, not making super broad choice. And that’s sort of very Bergmanesque. That’s my preference. Sex Lies was that.
Yeah, you get that here. And I loved how disjointed the whole thing was—how many scenes were just little glimmers of something.
Mmm hmm, yes.
Through a doorway. Through a window.
[There are some] lines that are super important, but you’re looking at someone else. It’s an interesting choice.
I know just based on timing that there’s no way Love After Love was written as a response to today’s political and cultural climate, but there’s something nice about this movie—especially in terms of how it deals with grief, to show that whatever you’re going through might take a long time, but we find ways to deal with it. The standup scene in particular with your other son [James Adomian]—
How. Good. Was. He? I love him. I love him! But I told him, it’s like you didn’t get enough love from your mother. And the movie was focusing on so many people and you had your chance and there you were and it’s just beautiful. And it really pulls it all together. For anything that Chris and I did, James summed it up. He finally speaks! No one speaks until him.
Even though he’s sort of bumbling through it.
Yes, but he says what we don’t say. We’re just getting through. We’re just functioning, we’re making disasters of all our lives, but he sums it up.
And at the end, it’s not a disaster.
Yes. By the end we’ve moved on.