Pretentious ’90s sex farce Afterglow was shot at Habitat 67 and the Ritz

The streamable Alan Rudolph film stars Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Jonny Lee Miller and Lara Flynn Boyle.

The film: Afterglow (1997)

Does Montreal play itself? Yes, indeed, it does. Everyone speaks at least a little French in the film, though Nick Nolte barely manages to eke out a “oui” in its 110-minute running time.

Notable local talent: The most prominently featured supporting actor has to be forever-truckin’ game show host Yves Corbeil as high-powered executive Bernard Ornay, whom one of the main characters derisively calls “Horny” throughout. Speaking of horny, France Castel has a couple of scenes as a scantily clad client of Nick Nolte’s whom he trades sophomoric double entendres with and Michèle-Barbara Pelletier has the thankless best-friend sounding-board role. 

Most egregious local landmarks: Though the film is set in Montreal and the city is often referred to by name, almost all of the scenes take place in or around Habitat 67 or the Ritz-Carlton. The outside of the apartment occupied by Jonny Lee Miller and Lara Flynn Boyle is played by Habitat 67, but the enormous high-ceilinged interiors are most likely a set. Miller’s character works in an office at the corner of de la Gauchetière and Beaver Hall.

Nick Nolte just chuggin’ Geritol in the bath in Afterglow

Alan Rudolph has become, in the course of even just my relatively short life as a film buff, an almost complete non-entity in the discourse. There are few filmmakers like him in the history of film: acclaimed and relatively well-funded, producing a varied body of work with big stars, yet apparently incapable of producing a single work that even remotely makes it into the vicinity of the canon. That, in itself, is not really an issue — the canon is not really an indicator of quality — but few filmmakers with bodies of work as robust as Rudolph are as under-discussed. It might have to do with the fact that Rudolph has only made two movies in the last 20 years, which effectively has made him an almost exclusively pre-Internet filmmaker. It might also have to do with the fact that his style hasn’t aged particularly well.

I haven’t seen every Alan Rudolph film, and some of the ones I’ve seen I’ve actually quite liked, but I was under the impression that Afterglow was supposed to be one of his best films. If that’s the case, perhaps we have severely misjudged this entire situation from the beginning. “They don’t make movies like this anymore” is usually meant as a positive, but here it can only begin to describe this stilted romantic drama that admittedly has a lot of ideas but seems patently incapable of making them seem like they could conceivably happen to real people. Constructed like a sex farce but delivered like a daytime soap opera, Afterglow is definitely not the worst movie to have garnered an Oscar nomination in the ’90s, but it may be the most perplexing.

Lucky Mann (Nick Nolte) is a handyman living in Montreal with his wife Phyllis (Julie Christie), a former B-movie actress who has turned almost all the way inward since her teenage daughter went missing. Lucky runs around bedding all the women who ask for his services, something that Phyllis “allows” but doesn’t seem particularly chill about. Lucky is hired by Marianne Byron (Lara Flynn Boyle), the frustrated wife of a frigid finance bro named Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller), who treats his wife like shit and seems uninterested in nearly everything human. Marianne falls heads over heels for Lucky and they begin an affair, not knowing that at that very same time, Jeffrey and Phyllis are meeting in a hotel bar and bonding over their partners’ infidelities. 

Nick Nolte and Lara Flynn Boyle in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton in Afterglow

Afterglow is actually the third Alan Rudolph film to be made in Montreal after The Moderns (which I have yet to see) and Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (which I saw for this column and canned because it was something like 98 per cent interiors). Evidently, Rudolph and Robert Altman (who produced and whom Rudolph worked with, first as an AD and subsequently as a writer) had a thing for Montreal. Rudolph employs almost entirely local below-the-line talent here, which Altman also did for years after shooting Quintet here — but their perspective remains extremely limited to what I can only describe as FFM-core: a bourgeois, beige version of the city that assumes handymen who wear Big Bill coveralls everywhere will drink at the Ritz-Carlton bar.

It must be said that, on paper, Rudolph’s screenplay is filled with bourgeois witticisms and bon mots that work in an abstract way. Looking back on the quotes featured on IMDb, I find myself at least appreciative of their drawing-room wit in a theoretical way. It’s easy to read these quotes and imagine a zippy rom-com — something that Afterglow pointedly is not, instead coming across as a dead-eyed, soapy comedy of manners in which characters say they’re a certain way in a flat, unblinking monotone. So much of what grates about Afterglow is a problem with casting. Only Christie (who won several major festival awards and was nominated for an Oscar, losing to Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets) cuts a reasonably convincing figure. Nolte seems tired and irascible, a far cry from the irresistible lothario he is immediately depicted as, but even that could conceivably be intentional. It’s a film about people who are fundamentally unhappy and seeking solace in others, which often comes in the form of delusion and heightened perception of said other.

There is, however, little to explain how dead-eyed and mealy-mouthed Boyle and Miller are throughout. Leaden line readings abound. Their loft apartment, designed to be used like an elaborate theatre stage, is the setting of many a chunky argument. Rudolph often uses the confines of the set for deliberately stagey mise-en-scène (Boyle, under a spotlight in the stairs on one side of the screen while Miller is on the other side, bisected by a half wall that puts into perspective, in no uncertain visual terms, the distance between them) which might work as a stylistic choice were it not for the fact that the characters then have to go out into the world and interact with other characters.

Yves Corbeil as “Horny” Ornay in Afterglow

Granted, the more I write about it, the more I am becoming convinced that none of this is accidental. I don’t think that Alan Rudolph is trying to make a naturalistic, likeable romantic comedy wherein you could easily swap in Tom Hanks for either of the leads. There’s something deliberately intellectual and heightened about much of Rudolph’s work, which often seems to be giving itself the mission of “transcending genre” from minute one. In that sense, I think I understand what Rudolph was going for here: he’s trying to keep the pain and sadness at the surface of a sex farce like this one by intellectualizing it. There’s such an enormous disconnect between the ideas and the final product, however, that it becomes difficult to rationalize that Rudolph just failed. There are parts of this movie that suggest Rudolph has never met a human before.

I know this sounds like hyperbole, and I know that I tend to give most Made in MTL movies a bad rap because I seem to explicitly steer away from the actual good movies that were made here, but Afterglow is so thoroughly charmless, stolid and laborious that what it brings to mind is not, as some surmised upon release, the films of Robert Altman (who produced) but rather the films of Tommy Wiseau. This is not to say that Afterglow even approaches the depths of incompetence of The Room; it looks pretty good and both Nolte and Christie give convincingly humanoid performances, for one. But Afterglow seems to me like an attempt to make exactly the kind of film The Room wanted to be — a witty, urbane, grown-up comedy of manners. Both have failed miserably, though to varying degrees of misery. ■

Afterglow is available to stream on Tubi

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