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Saturday, Nov. 20, 1999

In Montreal's 'Afterglow'

N.Y., L.A., Chicago -- at times it feels like too many stories have been told about these cities, too many characters have wandered their streets, too many shootouts have bloodied the sidewalks. As for the urbanite's neurotic/sexual problems, it certainly feels like a case of EA ("enough already"). Apparently, filmmaker Alan Rudolph thought so too. He had a story to tell, but to set it in Big City meant risking winding up with just another same old, same old. So he decided to stake out his own territory: Montreal. The result is "Afterglow" -- an old story perhaps, but lensed in an exotic new setting.

Rudolph and cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita take us through this tres worldly city, the closest thing in North America to a genuine European experience with spoken English. Here, it's customary to start the day off with white wine, everyone mixes un peu French into their sentences, the light is soft and fragile. No crime, drugs or thugs (at least not on this screen). Just women who wear satin chemises underneath little black dresses and snide men in cashmere who look as though they never heard of blue nylon Windbreakers.

Against such a setting, the elegant world of "Afterglow" unfolds with calculated grace. The story pivots back and forth between two married couples: Marianne (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Jeffrey (Johnny Lee Miller) are overprivileged yuppies living in a huge condo with a pool on the terrace. She's bored and yearning for a baby, he's too wrapped up in leveraged buyouts to pay much attention. Marianne's days are spent charting her ovulation cycles and buying one slinky slip dress after another in the hopes of interesting her totally uninterested hubbie. Actually, he's attracted to his secretary, a woman in her 50s with a beautiful French accent.

In the opposite camp are older couple Lucky (Nick Nolte) and Phyllis (Julie Christie). He's Montreal's most obliging handyman and she's a former B-movie actress who sits around watching old videos of herself. Due to some trauma in their marriage, Phyllis has put a ban on sex, leaving Lucky to seek diversion elsewhere. This is mainly with his middle-aged lady clients who invent plumbing disorders to have him over.

One day Marianne engages his services and is immediately attracted to his rumpled but powerful masculinity, a complete contrast to the overly groomed Jeffrey. Meanwhile, Jeffrey sees Phyllis in a hotel bar and is immediately drawn to her world weariness, something his bright-eyed wife is sorely lacking.

Thus begins a neat chamber quartet of deceit, regret, flouting and pouting that reaches its climax in the younger couples' sumptuous living room. I'll spare you the details, but let's just say there is a lot of breaking of expensive lamps. Yet it's all so sophisticated. You'll love the moment when Phyllis turns to Marianne and says in her blase way: "Tell me, is it true what they say about manual laborers being better for sex?"

Speaking of sophistication, "Afterglow" has the look and texture of a typical French movie -- the dialogue and situations surely, but also how the screenplay favors Phyllis over Marianne as the more desirable woman. Everything about her speaks of luxurious ennui and razor-sharp cynicism. Not to mention what she can do with a robe and slippers. If the Academy Awards ever decides to have a Best Actress For Just Lounging Around, Julie Christie would win hands down.

You would think that Nolte would stick out like a malevolent thumb beside her and in this swank city. Surprisingly, he fits right in. Twenty minutes into the movie and he starts to look like Gerard Depardieu's cousin -- a carpenter from Bretagne or something. Never mind that he pronounces oui as "wee," it's the feeling that counts. As for Boyle, she comes off as a naughty Sabrina (complete with black pants and matching turtle neck), who never made it to a Parisian cooking school but settled for Montreal and a filthy rich husband.

Johnny Lee Miller (from "Trainspotting") is handed the most thankless role: a frigid and pissed-off junior exec who deserves no sympathy (if Lara Flynn Boyle greeted a man in a slinky slip and the man didn't respond, would he deserve any sympathy?), but is seriously in need of help. Miller looks uncomfortable -- like he was wishing himself back in Glasgow, saying "shite" and stealing cars. Given the chance, he could whup Nolte any day of the week, but in "Afterglow" he endures having it the other way around. Hopefully, the sardonic and subtle elegance of this vehicle was worth it.

The title says it all: not the film to heat you up, but warm you slowly, and then subside.

"Afterglow" opens Nov. 27 as the late show at Cinema Qualite in Shinjuku.

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