Afterglow Movie Review
Rudolph makes movies about characters living out their fates in ways we often understand and see in ourselves. And though his characters come off as real, his movies seem contrived, sliding between the edges of sweet and biting, while running off on tangents that both intrigue and bore. All at the same time. It's a disorientation he relishes: his view of life and how people really behave. With movies like Choose Me, Trixie, Investigating Sex, and The Secret Lives of Dentists, Rudolph's career is a living, breathing embodiment of quixotic variability.
I haven't seen any Rudolph movies since Afterglow, due to both a lack of opportunity and limited interest. Released in 1997, this story about marriage, philandering, and adultery barely registered with mainstream audiences, but became Rudolph's Big Indie-Fest Art Film, ringing up a bevy of Jury Awards and Audience Awards around the festival circuit, while garnering Julie Christie a Best Actress Award from the National Film Critics Society and an Academy Award nomination. Afterglow is now available on a no-frills DVD, and Julie Christie's inspired performance as a simmering, middle-aged woman in a sexless marriage -- and, I may add, Nick Nolte as her husband -- make it worth renting.
As far as a plot, Afterglow really doesn't have one or, maybe, too much a one. Mix Mozart opera with Ingmar Bergman and you get the idea. Julie Christie plays Phyllis, an ex-actress of grade-Z horror films married to Lucky (Nolte), a Mr. Fix-It handyman known for his versatility with pliers and pipes, and a set of agile hands that tend to more-than-willing housewife customers. He gets it on with Marianne (Laura Flynn Boyle), who's married to Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller), who may or may not be gay, or having an affair with his much older secretary, while he's trying to get it on with Phyliss. Then there's a runaway daughter and... it goes on and on in ways time and space do not allow.
Rudolph films in a real-life tempo that lets the actors improvise and emote to the nines. It's the kind of thing that works in one scene or maybe two. A fight between Lucky and Jeffrey, two jealous husbands as inept and angry in comic fisticuffs as any real guys fighting in a bar. Afterglow is full of these actorly "scenes" (a Rudolph trademark, which is probably why he keeps getting top talent on the cheap), but it's a technique that stops the plot dead. It's a movie allergic to the concept of pace.
Still, Nolte and Christie make it worth your time. He's prime beef sexy under a sink, hips and legs stretched on the kitchen floor, his lady customer standing over him gaping, anticipating, and barely containing herself. Later Marianne, in a full, slinky slip, does wrap herself around him. "Ohh, my," she coos standing in her doorway as he's about to take his leave, "you smell just like a man." We know exactly what she means.
Julie Christie's Phyllis is hard to describe and has to be seen. Insecure, yet passionately confident, aloof while wanting to be available, she's playing an actress acting unconcerned about her husband's affairs (for reasons too complicated to go into), as he dallies with her permission. It's hard to get a read on her. Who and what she's about is a problem with the screenplay, but Christie surmounts the writing to become this magnetic and mystifying woman. Her acting is the centerpiece of the movie.
At home, on the couch watching one of her old movies, she's in a bathrobe, wearing her glasses, as dowdy as any stay-at-home wife. But hitting the bars, to spy on her husband, have an affair, or who knows what, Phyllis becomes a woman in contrast. And it's here that Christie shines. Alone at a corner table, wearing her Hermes scarf, a cashmere coat slung loosely over her shoulders, her eyes are cast down but ever alert. She emanates an aura of sweetness and melancholy, as rare and alluring as one of those dawdling but emotive sax solos at last call. Every guy in the audience wants to walk over. "Hi, buy you a drink?"