A year after its premiere at the Cannes festival, Aftersun, one of the best-rated films of last year, was released in Czech cinemas. An intimate father-daughter drama takes place during a sunny summer vacation. But it mainly tells about grief.
The nineties of the last century are coming to an end. Sophie recently celebrated her 11th birthday. He is no longer a child, but he is not yet a teenager. For now, she is just curiously peeking into their world of lipstick, translucent T-shirts and gentle touches.
During a joint holiday in Turkey, where the film is set, she spends most of her time with her father Calum. Sometimes he annoys her with excessive care and moodiness, but she is happy for his closeness. For her, it represents one of those fixed points, the non-obviousness of which we usually only appreciate in adulthood.
Both are endearing in their ordinariness. Even the story that Scottish director Charlotte Wells tells in her mature autobiographical debut is nothing special on the outside. Just a mosaic of impressions and perceptively observed everyday situations. No dramatic events, no big revelations. Stopped time. The essentials happen below the surface or out of the picture. The true meaning of the captured fragments is completely revealed by the conclusion, which shows that even a few slowly passing days at the end of one summer can decide the rest of your life.
Today, the thirty-five-year-old filmmaker took similar vacations with her father in her childhood. However, when writing the script, she was not concerned with factual, but emotional truth. Similar to her short film Tuesday from 2015, she wanted to capture the feeling when something important ends, but we don’t want to give it up, we long to remain in a reality unmarked by irreversible change.
Calum falls out of the role
From the beginning, grief obscures even this summer idyll of father and daughter. As it follows from the clues that Aftersun thoughtfully layers upon itself, the touch of finality is not only related to the passing of childhood and the approaching turn of the millennium.
Sophie is at an age where little seems settled. In the following days, she will realize her own femininity, her first kiss and a big goodbye. Calum isn’t that much older. The other guests of the hotel resort mistake him for the girl’s brother.
The expression of the Irish actor Paul Mescal, known for the series Normal People and for his exceptional performance in Aftersun after earning an Oscar nomination, still has something heavy in it. As if at the age of thirty he had exhausted all the joy that had been given to him and didn’t know what to do next. She yearns for life, he has resigned himself to it.
When Calum talks about plans for the future, he doesn’t sound as convincing as when he confides to the diving instructor that he can’t imagine himself in his forties. Maybe that’s why she keeps asking her daughter if she’s okay. Because he is not alone. But he does what he can to prevent melancholy from disrupting their relationship. He wants Sophie to enjoy her vacation, and it bothers him that, due to lack of money, he cannot afford her better accommodation, more water and underwater fun.
Despite all the father’s efforts to mask his own vulnerability, the daughter senses that something is wrong. It is so closely connected to his movements, mood and sense of humor. That’s why he doesn’t know what to do when Calum falls out of the father role, he becomes less readable and present. Regular tai chi practice and the meditation book he brought aren’t helping him much. The inability to support the offspring drags him even deeper into dark thoughts.
From the caring eyes of naturally acting Frankie Corio, who was chosen from over 800 candidates for the role, it is clear that Sophie would love to help her dad. But Calum doesn’t want to burden her with his emotions. He says he’s just tired. Because of this, tension and uncertainty seep into the precisely captured relationship dynamics. Despite the shared space, the paths of the protagonists begin to diverge, they lose each other.
This distance and closedness is also expressed by Paul Mescal’s position in the shots where we cannot see his face. He often stands with his back to the camera or with his face hidden behind some object. Alternatively, we only see its reflection in the mirror or on the TV screen. He becomes a ghost.
The film Aftersun has been showing in cinemas since last Thursday. | Video: Aerofilms
Vacation after 20 years
Calum is near and far. Still here and at the same time already somewhere else. The surrounding palm trees, sun and sea, which create a holiday atmosphere and, like his daughter’s youth, are full of promise, do not concern him. When he teaches Sophia the basics of self-defense, he’s not just reacting to the fact that the girl is arousing the interest of her peers. He is preparing her for life, and he can’t be sure if he himself will be a part of it.
Apart from a few dream sequences and jumps into the future, the film is told linearly, as if in continuous time. But the very first minutes reveal a retrospective concept. Adult Sophie reshoots the video she recorded with her father on a digital camera. She looks back, tries to capture, at least in her memories, what she missed, to revive what she lost or displaced. Probably because she’s a mother herself now and has a better understanding of what Calum was going through.
The ambivalent tone of the narrative corresponds to how the protagonist perceives this holiday twenty years later. The immediate joy of sunbathing, swimming or clumsily curling up to the sounds of the rock hit Under Pressure clouds the awareness of what happens later. Even Sophie’s lament, “It’s a shame we can’t stay together,” which most of us have probably uttered a few times in our childhood, is steeped in existential sadness.
Although we have an inkling of what happened, it is never explicitly stated. Charlotte Wells, like her colleagues with a similar handwriting – directors Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay or Chantal Akerman – is content with hints. The moments that are most vividly imprinted on Sophia’s memory are specific enough to reinforce the authenticity of the characters and the fictional world, but at the same time create a vast emotional field that we can plant with our own memories and relive a piece of our own youth. Thanks to this, the film, despite its expressive economy, sounds more impressive than all the tearful milkmaids.
The director also subordinated the rhythm of the cut, evoking breathing, to the selectivity of the human mind. She spent seven months chiseling the composition of the shots. Nothing remains. Every detail is characterized by an emotional and meaningful richness that cannot be captured in one viewing. After slower sequences, patiently depicting, for example, waiting in a hotel reception or an embarrassing karaoke performance, a sharp cut spanning a longer period of time, an empty place in memory, repeatedly comes.
The number of these ellipses piques curiosity. What really happened and what is just a visualization of the heroine’s feelings? Why is Calum’s arm in a cast? Did he really accidentally break his wrist like he claims? What is his relationship with Sophie’s mother, who he clearly doesn’t live with but still tells her “I love you” on the phone? What traumatic events happened in his childhood that he does not like to talk about?
Frankie Corio v roli Sophie a Paul Mescal jako Calum. | Photo: Aerofilms
Aftersun doesn’t give the answers because even Sophie doesn’t know or remember all the pieces. Calum remains a mystery, just as the film is open to various interpretations.
But the most important thing Charlotte Wells conveys with an insight that other creators will only develop years later: however blurred, confusing and hurtful some of our memories are, we don’t want to lose them. They are often the main thing, sometimes even the only thing that we have left after the others.
Screenplay and direction: Charlotte Wells
Aerofilms, Czech premiere on May 18.
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