“The film is hardly without its pleasures, most of which derive from the cinematography, which is what keeps Afterwater from being a total misfire. Hopefully in the future Komljen is able to use his keen eye for imagery in service of a more worthy story.”
Directed by Dane Komljen, Afterwater is part nature documentary and part experimental film, broken up into three distinct sections, each more abstract than the last. In the first section we follow two unnamed college students, presumably boyfriend and girlfriend, as they study the ecology of lakes and rivers. At times it feels like an ultra-minimalist version of a Terrence Malick film as they interact with nature. But where Malick’s films bend towards the rapturous, this film barely rises above a whisper. Outside of the occasional voiceover they’re almost entirely silent. Komljen is less concerned with narrative than with building a sort of mood piece, asking the viewer to reorient themselves and slow down in Afterwater’s world.
This works best in the second section of the film which is poetic, beautiful, and has the feel of a folk tale. Centered around a man who is a quasi-religious figure, a woman, and another man, we watch as they luxuriate in nature. They sunbathe in the water, their trim bodies bobbing on the surface. They nap on the shore, their bodies twisted together. Their thoughts are expressed only in voiceovers that are layered over one another. There isn’t much story to hold onto, but thankfully the imagery in this section is full of beautifully composed shots. A field full of white cottonwood blooms that resembles a snowy vista is particularly vivid.
Unfortunately, the third section of the film is even more elusive than the first two. It is easily the most experimental part of the film and also the least enjoyable. While there is still beautiful imagery, there is even less of a story to grasp and whereas the second section made up for that with its lyricism, this section goes too far. When a film is this devoid of narrative, it leaves most everything in the eye of the beholder. This can be enjoyable with some films where you can essentially project your own thoughts and conclusions onto a film, but in this case I just found my attention waning. Komljen seems to be asking the viewer to slow down and return to nature, but whatever points it is trying to make are so ambiguous and fragmented as to be almost non-existent.
In the end, this triptych structure both helps and hinders Afterwater as a whole. There aren’t enough through lines to connect the parts together, and its glacial pacing, especially in the last third, does it no favors either. I’m all for a slow and experimental art film, but there needs to be a bit more meat on the bones, something to grasp onto, and increasingly as the film goes on there just isn’t. Still, the film is hardly without its pleasures, most of which derive from the cinematography, which is what keeps Afterwater from being a total misfire. Hopefully in the future Komljen is able to use his keen eye for imagery in service of a more worthy story.