A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that, in 2015, about half of adult Chicagoans had never been married, up from 42 percent a decade earlier. I expect that trend to accelerate even more rapidly after this weekend, when Joachim Lafosse’s anguished Belgian drama After Love and Lake Bell’s spirited satire I Do . . . Until I Don’t arrive simultaneously on local screens. After Love focuses on the crumbling union between an upper-class woman and the husband she’s been supporting financially, a situation complicated by their little twin daughters and the husband’s unwillingness to go. I Do . . . Until I Don’t revolves around a filmmaker shooting a documentary on the demise of marriage, which entails airing the dirty laundry of two unhappy couples. I Do, true to its genre, ends more happily than After Love, but both movies find endless tension where intimacy is enforced by law.
Bell, who made her feature writing and directing debut with the funny, unassuming In a World . . . (2013), sometimes reminds me of Albert Brooks—not only because his Real Life (1979) wrote the playbook for every documentary-shoot comedy, but also because, like Brooks, Bell has an off-kilter perspective that keeps you laughing even as it threatens to capsize the story. I Do opens with a soliloquy from the hard, beautiful British documentarian Vivian Prudeck (Dolly Wells), who has arrived in Vero Beach, Florida—divorce capital of the United States—preaching reform of matrimonial law. “No one wants anything for life,” she tells a local audience. “It just reminds us of our impending death.” Prudeck proposes a seven-year marriage contract, a crazy idea that might have generated a whole comedy in itself. Yet Bell opts instead to explore the relationships of the documentary subjects, among them Alice (played by herself) and Noah (Ed Helms), whose small business is going bankrupt, and Harvey (Paul Reiser) and Cybil (Mary Steenburgen), who have raised a daughter together but can no longer tolerate each other.
Bell finds plenty of laughs in marital intimacy—not the gauzy, erotic kind but the gross, off-putting, 24-7 kind. “He wears his glasses during cunnilingus,” Alice complains to Prudeck when she and Noah are being interviewed. “My vagina felt like it was under scrutiny.” The couple have been trying to conceive, without success, and the exercise has turned their love life into a science project; in one scene, Alice is startled to learn that Noah is tracking her ovulation with a new cell-phone app. He has a weird fetish for smelling his wife’s sour breath, and their attempt at spontaneous sex in the bathroom comes to a screeching halt when she discovers that he hasn’t flushed the toilet. This is a millennial marriage, to be sure: in bed at night, Alice tries to interest Noah in sex, learns that he’s already “taken care of it,” and pulls away in disappointment, curling up with her cell phone to watch GIFs on Tumblr.
Harvey and Cybil have 20 years on Alice and Noah; their marriage has already exploded into open warfare and died down again into a joyless detente. When they meet at a diner to negotiate some business, Harvey clomps in wearing black leather motorcycle gear and a black helmet with a tinted visor. “Is it too sexy?” he asks Cybil. She replies, “Am I a gay man in the 60s looking to bone?” Interviewed by Prudeck, she accuses Harvey of having turned their bedroom into “a hostile environment”—by snoring. Physical intimacy is out of the question for these two: when Cybil stumbles across a cheap massage parlor in town, she buys Harvey a gift certificate for a happy ending. “I’m not gonna sex you for our anniversary,” she informs him, “so you might as well get a handie from a stranger.” The two subplots intersect briefly when Alice, hoping to make some cash as a masseuse, finds herself in a room with the half-naked Harvey and, misunderstanding the requirement to “cup his balls,” approaches him with a pair of tongs and a plastic cup.
Deep down, both these couples really do love each other, whereas Marie (Bérénice Bejo), the protagonist of After Love, has already given up on her spouse. Boris (Cédric Kahn), her husband of 15 years, has moved out of the house at her insistence but won’t follow the rules of their agreement, showing up whenever he pleases to spend time with their identical, school-age twins, Jade and Margaux. When Boris tells the girls they can have ice cream, Marie overrules him; after she leaves the room, the girls giggle at Boris’s emasculation, and he joins in. The more Marie tries to disengage from him, the harder he digs in; to her dismay, her wealthy mother, Christine (Marthe Keller), wants to hire Boris, who’s been out of work for years, to make renovations on her home. Except for Marie, everyone wants the marriage to continue, but she can’t change the way she feels. Throwing a little dinner party, she confides in a friend that she can’t be in the same room with Boris anymore; naturally he crashes the party, making himself at home and goading her friends.
Intimacy might be a source of irritation in I Do, but in After Love it can be downright excruciating. Boris wants to preserve the closeness of their little family, which puts Marie in the position of carrying out a charade with her own children. “Maybe we won’t split up,” Boris tells the girls during a glum family conference, as Marie’s gaze dims. “Maybe we’ll all stay here together.” Later in the film, after Marie has returned home from a trip, the foursome relax for a game of cards and instantly slip into their old family rhythm again, joking and teasing. The girls blast a pop tune on the stereo, bopping around in the living room, and the parents join in for some line dancing.But when they separate into pairs and Marie suddenly finds herself on Boris’s shoulder, she bursts into tears. After the girls have been put to bed, the spouses kiss and Boris drags Marie into bed, but then Lafosse cuts to the living room, where Marie has ditched Boris to spend the night on the couch alone.
After Love ends in a lawyer’s office, which is where a lot of marriages end too. The financial imbalance between Boris and Marie has been a sticking point all along, and Boris, whose pride has taken a beating, insists on being paid for the labor he put into renovating their home, over and above the increase in its market value. This sort of financial haggling distinguishes Lafosse’s movie from Bell’s, because as any survivor of a bad marriage can tell you, the rubber doesn’t really hit the road until divorce negotiations begin. If Vivian Prudeck had her way, even the happiest married couples would go through a similar process every seven years, reappraising each other financially and seeking better terms for their new contract. I can’t imagine anyone staying together under those circumstances—marriage may be a financial arrangement disguised as a consecration of love, but you’ll get through it a lot more easily if you don’t bring that up. v