“Did you think you were making a French independent film?” rails literary agent Vincent (Mikaël Chirinian) in French independent film “The World After Us.” He’s angry with his callow young client, Labidi (Aurélien Gabrielli), because Labidi has abruptly changed tack on a novel that’s already been optioned, and has also changed its title to, inevitably, “The World After Us.” Louda Ben Salah-Cazanas’ directorial debut is sensitively made, well observed and beautifully performed, but as this rather desultory stab at reflexivity suggests, it doesn’t have many surprises in store.
Where it really works is as a character portrait of the young aspiring author, to great measure aided by Gabrielli’s soulful, faintly Charles Aznavour vibe and tamped-down, off-kilter charm. Labidi, whose doting and delightful working-class Muslim parents (Saadia Bentaïeb and Jacques Nolot) run a small café in Lyon, lives in Paris. Actually, he basically squats there, sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor of the tiny shoebox apartment of his big, sweet friend Aleksei (Léon Cunha Da Costa). He has published exactly one short story and is working on an important-sounding opus set during the Algerian War, presumably inspired by his own North African background.
Of course writing is mostly not-writing, and there Labidi excels, especially after he cutely meets Elisa (Louise Chevillotte, so great in “Synonyms” and soon to be seen in Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta”). Where up to this point he’s been a bit of a sadsack, his endearing pickup routine, which involves choking on a cigarette he doesn’t want and then writing his number on another and popping it in her mouth, reveals an unexpected, attractively offbeat confidence. Apparently he’s always been a hit with the ladies: On a visit back home his father reminisces about all the “knockouts” Labidi used to date, joking, “I don’t know how you managed, with that face of yours.”
Labidi and Elisa fall, quickly and believably, in love. And that’s where the trouble starts, inasmuch as Salah-Cazanas’ gentle screenplay, embellished with some literary narration contributed by noted Moroccan novelist Abdellah Taïa, deals in trouble at all. Perhaps the main issue with “The World After Us” is that it sketches characters we care for but never really worry about, and a certain amount of worry is useful in creating drama. Labidi gets into debt trying to have a coupled-up lifestyle with Elisa, complete with finding them an apartment that neither can afford. He starts to embark on get-rich-quick schemes, working as a Deliveroo driver, pilfering money from his glasses-store job and even indulging in some light insurance scamming, all of which leaves him little time or inclination to work on his book. Suddenly Labidi is a lover, not a writer.
When tragedy does strike, it’s the kind that most of us can be expected to suffer at some point, and it cues Labidi to get his relationships with Elisa, his bank balance and his muse into some sort of grown-up order. It’s a rite-of-passage story that might be cranked down just one key too low, but it does give Salah-Cazanas a neutral backdrop against which to develop an assured and promising directorial style. A low-lit, lightly scuffed palette lends Amine Berrada’s photography, which flexes easily between nervy juddering and dreamy smoothness, a warm yet realist feel. The soundtrack too is striking: Jean-Charles Bastion’s cello-heavy score ranges from harmony to fragility and contains all kinds of depths and colors, but it’s frequently nudged aside to make room for fun pop tracks and jazz cuts. One montage is set to Blue Boy’s ’90s club hit “Remember Me”; another is given a freewheeling energy by skittering jazz percussion.
The French independent film tradition to which Vincent refers is long and storied, and “The World After Us” is a solid entry into that canon, with an authentic contemporary feel and a calm perspective that subtly normalizes Labidi’s Muslim-Tunisian heritage, and his uncertain feelings about it, without making it the central subject. But the cinema of attractive young French people negotiating early-life crises wreathed in Gitanes smoke is also so familiar by now that mildly humorous insights into generational issues like the gig economy, lifestyle brands or the ludicrous cost of Parisian life are not enough to imbue any urgency. Such engaging, well-drawn characters are a pleasure to spend time with, and Salah-Cazanas has a bright future behind the camera, but so much of “The World After Us” feels like expertly crafted background for a drama that’s always about to start in the next scene, until there are no next scenes left.