All About Michael
Eric Schaeffer advertises his latest movie as the second installment in a projected quartet. This began with 1997’s Autumn, and revisits one character, Michael (played by Schaeffer), at 15-year intervals. Although the Michael of After Fall, Winter, is supposed to be in his 40s, emotionally, he seems trapped in a prickly adolescence, still unable to understand why other people don’t value him as he values himself.
Available on demand via FilmBuff beginning 31 January, After Fall, Winter opens with author Michael $600k in debt, forced to sell his uptown NYC apartment, and trying not to face the creeping realization that his only success might be the book he wrote more than 20 years earlier. Like a bourgeois fairy godmother, an old friend offers him a Montmartre attic for the winter and, after a bit of gloomy mumbling, Michael heads to Paris—used here as scenic backdrop and—equally as unoriginally—as the excuse for a few mutually xenophobic quips about snobby Gauls and brash Americans.
On his first evening, he meets the very beautiful Sophie (Lizzie Brocheré) in a neighborhood shop and, as she makes clear she is unimpressed by him, he decides to pursue her. The whole is unashamedly a fairly hasty set up to launch a love affair, as each character comes with a melodramatic backstory. If Michael’s establishes him in need of redemption, Sophie’s makes her seem both sides of a full-blown Madonna/whore archetype: she works part-time as a hospice counselor and a dominatrix, mother and slut. The patient with whom she spends most time is a 13-year-old girl, Anais (Marie Luneau), apparently abandoned by her own mother.
When the movie reveals relatively early on that Michael visits a dominatrix whenever his own self-loathing overwhelms him, it abandons the possible tension concerning his or Sophie’s fate. Either they will discover their mutual needs and enjoy them, or deny them and part. The only question left is how gripping the “will they, won’t they?” trajectory will be. At the same time, Schaeffer shows little interest in this question, as the movie meanders maddeningly to a hasty denouement of knotted loose ends and histrionic grandstanding worthy of the Jacobean stage or ‘30s Hollywood.
Despite these burdens, and the hazards of a self-indulgent script, all three of the main actors, Schaeffer included, flesh out their characters well. Brocheré makes Sophie a genuine enigma, and manages to transform her self-consciously arch dialogue into something an adult might say. Schaeffer endows Michael with all the superficial charm of the passive-aggressive man-boy down on his luck, as well as a fragile amour-propre and almost total self-absorption.
When Michael decides to tell Sophie that he loves her, it never occurs to him to wonder whether she loves him. Schaeffer conveys beautifully Michael’s smug confidence that he has bestowed on Sophie a great gift, and then his total surprise when she suggests she might not feel as he does. As if playing along with a slightly naughty child, Michael offers Sophie the chance to say she loves him, but when she joins in the game and jokingly responds, “No!”, he is not just taken aback, but visibly cut to the quick, huffy and sulky. It’s a superb scene, but such quality is all too rare in the movie. Instead, the audience learns the same things about Michael over and over again.
This tendency to repetition is evident in another aspect of After Fall, Winter. Schaeffer confuses homages to other films with borrowing their ideas to prop up the wandering fantasy of Michael and Sophie’s love affair. The scenes of Sophie at work feel ripped off from the clinical precision of pain inflicted and borne in Barbet Schroeder’s 40-year-old Maitresse. Some conversations recall Frederic Fonteyne’s Une Liaison Pornographique. Other exchanges, in particular the walking and talking sequences, seem like unimaginative riffs on the much smarter dialogue of cityscape movies like Before Sunrise, where the fumbling introspection seems at least age-appropriate.
The movie’s use of pretty backgrounds is also too familiar. The almost constant presence of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the picturesque quais along the Seine begins to feel like one long establishing shot screaming, “Paris!” After Fall, Winter even opens with a shot of an illuminated Eiffel Tower, that other icon of the American abroad. The trouble with recalling such generic images and the more specific devices of other filmmakers is that it leaves the borrower open to comparison. The imitations that pop up throughout Schaeffer’s film are pale indeed.
If the visuals are banal, so too is the film’s basic plot. After Fall, Winter is yet another misogynistic movie in which a woman has to suffer so that a man can grasp some minor insight into his psyche. Here, women are embodiments of masculine pleasure or pain, or pleasure through pain, but they are never people. We know through exposition why Sophie might have chosen to become a dominatrix, but we never understand how she feels about it. At the end of the film, it is impossible to disentangle the obsessions of the filmmaker and those of his protagonist. Pardon me if I skip the sequels.