‘Along Came Love’ Review: Shame Tarnishes Desire in Katell Quillévéré’s Thin, Tremulous Postwar Love Story

In her career to date, French director Katell Quillévéré has demonstrated an unusual talent for connecting to her characters so intensely that in some moments they seem less to be up on the screen in front of you, than sitting right next to you. Or even, as with the daydreams and interior musings that punctuated her wonderful last film “Heal the Living,” right inside you. But with her fourth feature, “Along Came Love,” that intimate connection appears to have been broken, as though this turbid post-war romantic saga is coming to us through the decades via a long-distance call that keeps dropping.

Perhaps to establish some authenticity early, the film opens with archival footage of the French liberation celebrations at the end of World War II. The jubilant scenes darken as “collaborator” Frenchwomen, accused of pursuing relationships with the occupying Germans, are lined up for ritual public humiliation. Last year, Alice Diop’s extraordinary “Saint Omer” also alluded to the practise of shame-shaving these women’s heads, then allowed the viewer to infer the connection to its seemingly unrelated story. By contrast, “Along Came Love” makes the link ploddingly literal — and also a little dubious considering the florid melodrama that is about to unfold — by morphing from archive to (admittedly well-matched) monochrome footage of thus-disgraced Madeleine (Anaïs Demoustier), fleeing the retributive mob and taking refuge in a barn, where she tries to scrub the painted swastika off her pregnant belly. 

A few years later, and in glossy, romanced color (Tom Harari’s photography will remain in this rich, airlessly polished register from now on), a self-exiled Maddy is working in a seaside restaurant in Brittany. Her little son Daniel (Hélios Karyo) is a quiet, unsmiling boy, who has been told that his father died in the war, and has learned to stay out of his busy, distant mother’s way. It’s an interesting note that Maddy raises Daniel (later played by Josse Capet, then by Paul Beaurepaire) with dutiful care rather than affection, as though blaming him for her ostracization. When Daniel blows out a candle, he tells her, “My wish is for you to love me” — despite her apparently accurate warning that telling someone your wish ensures it will never come true. 

Maddy has little time for romance, until on the beach one day, along comes love in the sensitive, pale form of François (Vincent Lacoste) the archetype of the bookish student, whose pale sensitivity has apparently estranged him from his wealthy family. She’s immediately smitten, as though shot by an arrow from his perfect cupid’s bow. But though he says all the right reciprocal things, Lacoste’s trademark pout is pursed against his character’s inflating inner shame like the tie on a balloon. His reserve ought to put her on alert. It does not, and their courtship proceeds courteously until their wedding night, when, faced with the prospect of consummation, François runs to the bathroom to throw up.

It’s not clear exactly when Maddy grasps the nature of her new husband’s repressed desires, but when his male ex-lover shows up to burn down the family’s apartment, she must wise up a bit. And by the time they’ve moved on, to run a bar in a town near a U.S. army base, they seem to have reached a fairly contented understanding. There is some charm in how Quillévéré, co-writing the screenplay with Gilles Taurand, emphasizes the sincerity of their mutual devotion, even if sexual compatibility is impossible.

But their stability is threatened when they befriend a regular, Jimmy (Morgan Bailey), a G.I. whose Blackness is objectified by the camera without ever really being referred to otherwise, except as a vague indicator of the white characters’ progressive values. Maddy and François are both attracted to Jimmy, which culminates in the film’s clumsiest scene, a threesome rendered as an awkward racial-mélange-à-trois, after which Jimmy vanishes from their lives and from the film, as abruptly as he appeared. 

There are a couple more leaps forward in time, first to a more settled period when Maddy and François have a young daughter, while François is having a doomed affair with one of his students. But largely these later stages simply emphasize the problems that pervade the whole movie. The air of costumey artificiality is heightened by some unconvincing aging make-up, under which both inherently fresh-faced actors play “old” like it’s a bit, as if at any moment they could shake the graying powder out of their hair and launch into a vigorous twist and shout. The decades-spanning sprawl Quillévéré attempts is ambitious, but absent her usual passionate attachment to her characters, it feels like they are skittering across the surface of history, rather than living, lying and loving within it.

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