Decades after initially falling in love with Julie Christie, I recently re-viewed her 1997 Afterglow and understood how it is that every time I see her onscreen I fall in love all over again with Julie Christie. When first encountered, she was the wide-eyed, bekerchiefed Lara of Doctor Zhivago and the wistful, desperately glamorous model in Darling (for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress), and I was a young teen. Since that time, both Julie and I have been around the block a few times. Her face is artfully, and ever so slightly, touched up; my hair is white. To find her performance in Afterglow riveting is not, however, a question of mere nostalgia or some middle-aged desire to recherche le temps perdu—it is a gauge of how longtime fans are likely to appreciate the richness of Christie’s later career. In the late 1960s young people found her sultry New Wave looks either the stuff of exotic fantasies or the ultimate role model for hair-frosting, pale lipstick, and sang froid stylishness. Despite her own retrospectively clever self-assessment in a 2007 interview (“I was deeply shallow then”) it is actually viewers who have matured. For even though the Christie of Afterglow is more interestingly attractive, intelligently sexy, and husky-voiced than ever before, we are better able from a latter-day perspective to see that she is a fine, fine actor—primarily instinctual but also technically adroit—and one of the most compellingly watchable film stars of the past five decades. She has had six BAFTA nominations and two wins. Afterglow earned the third of her four Academy Award Best Actress Oscar nominations, and many filmgoers felt that even among the particularly high-octane group of nominees in the category in 2006 she should have taken home a second Oscar for her work in Away From Her, Sarah Polley’s superb adaptation of a short story by Nobelist Alice Munro.
At one point in Alan Rudolph’s absorbing and entertaining Afterglow, someone asks Christie’s character Phyllis Mann, “Oh, are you an actress?” With a flash of that fabulous grin, unconsciously sharp timing and painfully self-conscious irony, she rasps: “All the time.” Phyllis knows, in a mid-life best described as pleasantly bitter, that the modest talent that led to her only claim to fame–years ago, as a minor movie queen in B-minus (mostly horror) movies – has also been the primary bane of her existence. Rudolph explores, through an odd sequence of coincidental events, what it takes to break her out of her latest, long-running gig as a frustrated wife and failed mother, a beautiful woman in her early 50s whose tragedy is that she actually no longer has a role to play, and who drifts, watching videos of her old movies and dodging the threat of any real emotion with self-deprecating wit and too much gin.
With Afterglow, writer-director Rudolph continued to hack out his own distinctive path through postmodern urban angst and anomie. He did, on occasion lose his way, as those who managed to sit through Love at Large a few years earlier will remember. (Among other works in his quirky canon are Trouble in Mind and The Secret Lives of Dentists.) Afterglow, produced by his mentor Robert Altman, is one of Rudolph’s high-water marks, evincing a subtle but substantial advance over his previous best, 1984’s Choose Me. Here we are treated to the same lush visual vocabulary, the same cool affect that somehow manages to quicken rather than alienate. Afterglow is a wonderful mood piece, but it is more than that. Integrating coherently Rudolph’s dreamy, bracingly eccentric style, his sense of societal vulnerabilities, and his writing’s oblique narrative investigations into human relationship, the film takes great cinematic risks. What gives the film its own afterglow is the grace with which Rudolph manages to keep his three-ring circus balanced. We leave the theatre not only not particularly bothered but actually invigorated by his unique capacity for juggling icy surrealism with an almost giddy lyricism, and clinical dissections of the human heart with plot elements straight out of Restoration farce.
The ruefully smoldering heart of Afterglow is Christie’s performance—it is a delicately calibrated seduction that draws the viewer to Phyllis through a credible but surprising strata of nuanced development. With irresistible sympathy Christie creates a woman who has come to the end of wanting to fool others and who can no longer fool herself.
Also helping Rudolph hold this odd and ultimately moving entertainment together are the three other lead actors: Nick Nolte as Phyllis’ cheerfully philandering handyman husband, Lucky, and Lara Flynn Boyle (best known for her role in the television cult classic “Twin Peaks”) and Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting, Sherlock Holmes in CBS’s “Elementary”) as a young couple facing their own marital challenges. More accurately, it is the fact that the couples are not facing what ails them that leads them astray—albeit, eventually, to a sort of enlightenment. Miller’s character, Jeffrey, a prissy young financier whose emotional circuits are clogged by his pretensions to a cold perfection of high-tech, hard-edge style, seeks to revive himself through an affair with Phyllis. Her maturity and romantic air of loss have the effect of turning the jaded young man into a positively medieval, chivalric knight. Concurrently–with each pairing unbeknownst to the other–Nolte’s Lucky has struck up a liaison with Boyle’s lonely young wife, Marianne.
What begins as a cold examination of estrangement, set against the gray stone buildings and wintry sunsets of Montreal and musically edged by that master of film-score chill, Mark Isham, ends after all is said and done as something quite different. The characters have come to a new place, and so have we. From a film of high artifice, with a vivifying sense of something rather magical, some real-life lessons have been learned about breaking free, and about the even harder business of breaking through, of expressing need and forgiveness. As one character in Afterglow—speaking, one suspects, for the filmmaker himself—repeatedly exhorts: “Take a flying leap into the future.”
– Hadley Hury
(Available through Blu-ray, Amazon, Netflix, and select streaming sites)