Director: Alan Rudolph

In the context of a Hollywood more that ever wedded to blockbusting genre formulas, writer-director Alan Rudolph’s cinema offers particularly refined pleasures as well as a model for how the independent film-maker in America can survive. Ruldolph graduated from the Robert Altman school of maverick movie-making, and their collaboration has continued with Altman acting as a producer on many of his protege’s works, including Afterglow. Crucially, though, Rudolph’s films have never seemed like pastiches or imitations of Altman, even when the influences are clear. Perhaps that distinctiveness-in-partnership is the most interesting model his career offers.
Like most gifted auteurs, Rudolph has been making the same film since the beginning of his career over twenty years ago. From Welcome to L.A. through Remember My Name and Trouble in Mind to Love at Large, he has played sweet variations on La Ronde’s theme of love and its deceptions. He is a cynic who is also a romantic, and the movies are both very witty and very seductive.
Afterglow is vintage Rudolph, with the added bonus of Julie Christie in her best role since Don’t Look Now. Here she plays a retired movie star who’s married to handyman Nick Nolte (appropriately, he’s named ‘Lucky’ Mann). There’s an unresolved tension in their relationship, which has to do with their estranged daughter, who Christie claims to have seen on the streets of Montreal. Across town, another, younger couple are also unfulfilled, though for quite different reasons. The wife (a delightful Lara Flynn Boyle) is desperate for a child, a longing that falls on the deaf ears of her careerist husband (Jonny Lee Miller). Inevitably, Rudolph brings the two couples together, with Boyle seducing Nolte and Christie toying with Miller.
The film could be described as a romantic comedy, or even a sex farce. Yet it also tackles serious issues and very real emotions. As always, Rudolph mixes the comic and the grave, the frivolous and the substantial, with the fluency and elegance of a Max Ophuls (La Ronde, Lola Montes), that master of graceful camera movements and shifting emotions. Like Ophuls, Rudolph is often accused of being frivolous, of creating beautiful but artificial worlds of stylised romance. What such criticism fails to recognise is the ironic counterpoint the film-maker sets up between artifice and emotion. As Rudolph had remarked of Afterglow, the surface is absolutely, intentionally artificial to some degree, but what people are feeling for each other is not.
The comparisons with Ophuls are particularly apt in the case of Afterglow, whose very title conjures up time’s effect on love (one dictionary definition of ‘afterglow’ is a trace or impression of past emotion), a key Ophuls preoccupation. In Rudolph’s film, the older couple are mired in different versions of the past (the circumstances surrounding their daughter’s disappearance) while the younger pair are lost in opposing versions of the future (whether or not to have a child). As with Ophuls, Rudolph’s thesis seems to be that love is the ultimate grail, eternally sought and eternally veiled by the vagaries of human endeavour.
It should be added that Rudolph’s superb film benefits from years of collaborative work with a number of talents, including the gifted Toyomichi Kurita (cinematographer), Mark Isham (composer) and Francois Seguin (production designer). Of the performers, Nick Nolte and Julie Christie are superb. Christie was nominated for the ‘Best Actress’ Oscar and she should have won.

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