I think I thought I saw you try: Aftersun, and the reflective property of memory
Chama Al Houari (f. 2002) is an aspiring filmmaker from Morocco. She is currently studying at NSKI in Oslo, and is passionate about film history and how movies reflects the world.
I walk into the theater not knowing what to expect, something about a father and a daughter. Something about a critically acclaimed directorial debut. Aftersun. The film starts, and I brace myself for another conventionally unconventional A24 flick. But before I know it, without warning, I’m looking at the broken picture frame buried in the bottom of my drawer.
I’m drowning in the worn fabric of my mother’s orange sundress. Distant echoes of a broken fourth birthday party cassette ring in my ears. The indescribable colors of forgotten sunsets materialize, the familiar taste of a quiet tear rolls over me as a sudden wave of nostalgia emerges from the depths of my soul and hits me like a gentle avalanche of shattering melancholy.
I am here and there. It’s strange. I know I’ve seen the film, but I also know that I haven’t been in the room. Unable to collect myself, I desperately attempt to catch my breath in between flashes of Sophie and Calum intruding as they dance their way across my own scrambled memories, Calum’s books littering that one hotel room inundated with my own father’s laughter, a mess. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for this. It hurts. Like looking into a kaleidoscope of dissipated colors, and watching it shatter upon the realization of their ephemerality.
Aftersun doesn’t ask for your permission before it breaks you.
A camera, an old television screen, a vast ocean, the unwashed window of a telephone booth. A mirror, the nauseating surface of a swimming pool, your nostalgia. Reflective surfaces. Aftersun is a universally resonating monument built upon intricate layers of reflection, begging the fundamental question of what it means to be human. To have lived, and to have lost. To witness the treachery of time, and to have time witness your own betrayals. Gracious grief and convoluted loss, the beauty of memory and the curse of remembering.
A young father, Calum (Paul Mescal), takes his 11 year old daughter, Sophie (Frankie Corio), on summer vacation in Turkey on the eve of his 31st birthday. The story is partly told through moments recorded on Calum’s DV camcorder.
Vague. A canvas of familiar places, moments, people, and words with enough room to be filled with the colors of your own emotions, of your own life. A vague tableau of arbitrary yet intentionally assembled vignettes, building up towards one specific emotional experience. Charlotte Wells’ assemblage of sequences reveals a masterful push and pull of tension creating contrasts with emotional nuance.
The silence of an uncomfortable dinner, an open field. Unanswered questions, and nameless faces. Close ups and horizons, like the distance between what is meant and left unsaid. Aftersun affectionately offers you the space to wander into your own mind, before forcefully grabbing your hand and sending you on a splintered journey through time.
The absolute serenity of the surface is anchored by a heavy sense of looming sorrow. A child’s quiet frustration at a father unable to provide, softened by a summer-esque atmosphere visually evocative of Rohmer, or Varda. A mature sense of nostalgic dread taints Wells’ beautiful 35mm imagery, as if the images themselves were the result of an adult retrospective gaze. A series of liminal sequences featuring Calum and a grown up Sophie appear out of nowhere, as Aftersun holds within it’s many layers of reflection.
The viewer’s emotional projection, an adult Sophie’s gaze upon the past, and of course literal images of reflections that serve to convey the illusive thematic nature of the film. Memories and their liminal existences are depicted as emotional fragments removed from spatial temporality. Like a room we can always walk into, they are perpetually happening as they shape who we become. A space where a fragment of our consciousness will always remain, where a fragment of those we lose will always stay alive.
Aftersun is an attempt to make sense of one’s own tragedy, Sophie’s story told through images reflected onto our lives.
In unison we search for an overarching meaning.
If you listen close enough, Aftersun’s soundtrack can be an essential key to understanding its core. An eager Sophie is abandoned by an exhausted Calum to sing karaoke by herself in one of the film’s most tense sequences. «Losing My Religion» by R.E.M. starts to plays, and the lyrics flash on the screen:
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try
But that was just a dream
How much of a reflection is distortion? How much truth is lost in between? And how much of a fading memory have we conveniently distorted? Do you remember how it happened or do you remember how it felt? Does it matter? Through brief stolen moments that Charlotte Wells carefully allows us, Calum reveals his sorrow, his disappointment and failed expectations, regret, and shame surrounding financial struggle.
The pain that he desperately attempts to shield his daughter from briefly seeps through while he remains unaware that his child’s only yearning is for the simple affection of a loving father. Heart shattering scenes of uncontrollable sobbing, quiet reservations, meditation, books, and Tai Chi. Despite the film’s ambiguous ending, his love and desire to be better prove themselves not to have been enough, as implicated by a grown Sophie’s similarly melancholic state. The ripple effect of his loss against despair crashes into the one he loves the most, passing down his mental health issues and perpetuating the cycle of pain.
Where does this leave her? How do you grieve someone you resent? How can you resent someone who tried? And how can you blame them for breaking under pressure? How can our grief be gracious when the losses we grieve are so incredibly convoluted? All these questions arise as Sophie’s imperfect grief is a reflection in the image of her imperfect loss.
At the core of Aftersun lies Wells’ personal yet terribly universal truth: At 11 years old we start to unlearn the magic of moments in their simplicity, and we instead begin to search for the greater narratives of who we are and where we belong. And it’s at 31 years old that we seek to relearn fulfillment in the purity of simple moments. Only when we recover the fascination for what we’ll never fully grasp, what we’ll never know for certain, can we begin to piece jumbled moments together to find meaning.
IV: Water, Sophie
Aftersun’s central visual element is undoubtedly water. Used as a transition tool to enhance the film’s flawless editing, water also holds a hefty symbolic meaning for both of the characters. The world is an ocean, yet to be navigated, yet to be conquered.
From the pool table to the swimming pool, the beach side resort becomes a place of discovery for Sophie as she encounters older teenagers, and experiments with glimpses of what lies ahead towards adulthood.
For Sophie water represents the transition from the total innocence of childhood to the turbulent world of adolescence. A first kiss shared by an indoor swimming pool. A first conversation with her father about growing, experimenting, and becoming who you are on a raft in the sea. Water is fluid, water is in motion, water is a curious place where Sophie witnesses the changes to come filled with both excitement and uncertainty as she navigates coming of age.
V: Water, Calum
Under the surface of Calum’s cool and collected exterior, that of a man who is wise and affectionate, lies a deeper well. Water can also be a dark and abysmal place of suffocation. While Calum fights to maintain a still surface in the face of his daughter, we the viewers are allowed a look underneath into the troubled waters. In one of the most devastating moments of the entire piece, Calum in what seems to be a depressive episode, walks straight into the ocean before the scene abruptly ends, leaving the young father literally drowning the undefeated ocean of his sorrow.
Calum is at an age where the river of growing up has largely been crossed, and where once open paths seem to have become more narrow. The weight of life decisions. Regret and responsibility. An upside down frame cuts to a tired Sophie laying on her bed as she innocently asks her father if he ever feels like he’s sinking.
VI: Water, memory
Memory is also a fluid element in Aftersun, as we find out the film is a remembered pastiche of a grown Sophie’s distant past. From the small seemingly meaningless moments of silence to the tense sequences of unsolved frustration, time seems to flow in an unruly manner. There is no structure to the way events are remembered as emotions become jumbled with reality in our minds by way of time. Perhaps we remember the illusive surface of moments but how far down the deep well of our own minds can we go in order to piece together the truth?
The DV camcorder recording then serves as an objective lens towards the search for a clearer vision, like a pair of goggles in muddied waters.
What makes Aftersun a quiet explosion that delivers a deep emotional resonance is the masterful exercise of restraint. Subtlety envelops every aspect of this piece, from a script so thoughtfully layered, to the symbolism of the shots and the touching realism skillfully portrayed by the actors, rendering Frankie Corio a revelation and propelling Paul Mescal to stardom.
Charlotte Wells delicately crafts a story so starkly powerful yet so resounding in its affection towards the characters, and towards the audience. A director who not only shares a vulnerable and intimate auto fictional work, but also trusts the audience to understand it’s emotional core without ever explicitly telling us how to feel.
She paints an impressionistic painting of early teenagehood with astounding accuracy, one that all can look at and find familiar strokes on. We, the audience, similar to a young Sophie, are never truly made aware what went wrong and where, as we understand the story to the limits of her own capacity; it’s enough to simply know it did.
What lingers after Aftersun is the overarching feeling of love it intricately captures, and the impossibly haunting desire to capture time itself.