One reason I was so enthusiastic about Azazel Jacobs’s The Lovers, one of my favorite movies of 2017, was that it reminded me of the work of writer-director Alan Rudolph. Employing funny, literate dialogue and graceful camera movements, Jacobs created a heightened sense of reality in which it seemed natural for people to fall in love on a whim. This effect, and the means Jacobs used to achieve it, seemed straight out of the Rudolph playbook, something few filmmakers have bothered to consult since he stopped making movies in the early 2000s. (Rudolph ended his 15-year silence last year with the indie feature Ray Meets Helen; unfortunately no one in Chicago bothered to screen it, but it’s now available to watch online.) I’ve often wondered why that is—Rudolph’s distinctive blend of screwball comedy, film noir-style purple dialogue, and musical-like visuals yielded so many memorable movies (among them Choose Me, Trouble in Mind, The Moderns, and Love at Large) that I’m surprised no one tried to rip it off. A few 21st-century films have come close to achieving what Rudolph did in his winning streak of 80s and 90s—The Lovers, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love—but what makes them successfully Rudolphesque is the way they follow their own intuition. Perhaps Rudolph’s work is simply inimitable.
The past couple years have seen a renewed interest in this American original. Two of Rudolph’s films (Choose Me and Remember My Name) played in Chicago last year, and a few months ago there was a complete Rudolph retrospective in New York, with the director in attendance for multiple screenings. This Wednesday the Chicago Film Society screens Afterglow (1997), the director’s last American hit, at Northeastern Illinois University from an archival 35-millimeter print. It’s a bittersweet reminder of how scare the virtues that Rudolph epitomized have become in American movies. How many filmmakers today approach the romantic comedy as a vehicle for serious reflection? Afterglow, one of the few movies of the past generation or two to merit comparison with the films of Ernst Lubitsch, is a sexy, lighthearted entertainment about disappointment and the tension between romantic longing and the demands of adulthood. It hovers, hummingbird-like, between levity and ruefulness, never lighting on either side—it’s an astonishing feat.
As usual, Rudolph establishes his themes casually and wittily. “My soul needs an overhaul,” says Phyllis (Julie Christie) in one of Afterglow‘s early scenes, and what follows dramatizes exactly that. Phyllis, her husband Lucky (Nick Nolte), and the young married couple with whom they get entangled (Lara Flynn Boyle, Jonny Lee Miller) all undergo great changes over the course of an eventful weekend, but the extent of their transformation isn’t obvious at first, because the narrative contrivances distract from the emotional content. Yuppie housewife Marianne (Boyle) calls up fiftysomething fix-it man Lucky because she wants to turn a room of her penthouse apartment into a nursery. Her husband, a businessman named Jeffrey (Miller) who’s successful beyond his years, won’t sleep with her, and since Marianne is determined to have a baby “with or without” her husband, she seduces Lucky with the hopes of getting pregnant by him. While Lucky and Marianne carry on their affair, Jeffrey (who has a thing for older women) meets Phyllis at a hotel bar, seduces her, and invites her to come along on his weekend business trip. And so the couples inadvertently switch partners for a few days, only to realize what they’ve done when they all bump into each other back at the hotel.
Rudolph’s characters often express anxiety and vulnerability in a mannered, colorful way. The juxtaposition between form and content can be funny (as when Jeffrey, giving voice to his sexual urges, asks a friend, “Ever wonder about women being like fine wine?”), but it can also speak to the beautiful complexity of the characters’ feelings. “Isn’t it our job to take a flying leap into the future and spread a little joy along the way?” Marianne yells at Jeffrey when he tells her he doesn’t want children. Such dialogue suggests show-tune lyrics in its combination of cliche and emotional sincerity, making Afterglow something of a musical where nobody can sing. (Incidentally this was how Jean-Luc Godard described his 1961 feature A Woman Is a Woman, which Afterglow recalls in the conflict between Jeffrey and Marianne.) Rudolph underscores the comparison with his characteristically dancelike camera movements; executing a melange of careful tracking shots, pans, and zooms, the director, working with regular cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, constantly reframes his images. The camerawork is not only beautiful—it communicates a sense of lives in flux.
The film is full of such stylistic curlicues, from the consistent wordplay to the attractive images of Montreal’s architecture. (One virtue of Rudolph’s filmography is the way it relishes the flavors of cities one doesn’t often encounter in movies—consider how much mileage the director gets from Seattle in Trouble in Mind.) And then there’s the charm Rudolph elicits from his cast; the acting here sparkles like it did in Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s. All four leads are as self-consciously effervescent as the narrative contrivances, and they deliver Rudolph’s dialogue with an appropriate mix of artifice and candor. There’s a wonderful exchange between Boyle and Christie that occurs late in Afterglow whose effect is almost impossible to transcribe. “Is it true what they say about the laboring classes?” Phyllis asks Marianne after they meet. “Did [Lucky] give you everything you need?” “He’s the most sexual man I’ve ever met,” the younger woman responds. “Really. How many men have you met?” Marianne reflects for a moment, letting anticipation build, until she finally says, “Two.”
“In films like the 1986 Mélo . . . and Smoking/No Smoking (1993) . . . [Alain] Resnais explored the tension between cinematic realism and theatrical artifice,” wrote Dave Kehr in his 2014 obituary of the great French filmmaker. “In his hands, the conflict became a metaphor for the competing roles of chance and predetermination in shaping human lives.” Rudolph has never aspired to eeriness like Resnais did (for one thing, Rudolph never associates formal contrivances with death), but Afterglow, with its intimations of 30s film comedy and classical stage farce, embarks on a similar creative project. Beneath the brazen artificiality lie the qualities that, according to Rudolph, most make us human: our unpredictability, our capacity to fall in love, and our tendency to make mistakes. In two of the film’s most blatant contrivances, Lucky and Phyllis separately run into their estranged daughter, who ran away from home eight years earlier. (They moved to Montreal from Los Angeles because they’d heard a rumor she relocated there.) These encounters remind the older couple of how they’ve failed as parents but provide hope that they can still amend their mistakes—just like their affairs with Marianne and Jeffrey reawaken their dormant passion for each other—and the dialogue reflects this struggle between optimism and regret, rare coincidence and universal feelings. As he demonstrates in all his best films, Rudolph loves the artifice of movies, but only insofar as it brings us to something real.