By Rahul Desai
I first watched Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun at the 2022 International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). It was my fourth film of the day. The adrenalin was strong. The queues were long. The hype was palpable. Aftersun was already topping year-end lists everywhere. Personally, it was my most anticipated title of the festival. I entered the cinema hall hoping – nay, expecting – to be moved to tears by a father-daughter story. I needed a good, indie-fuelled cry. The audience mostly featured young and bright cinephiles, the sort who audibly gasp at visual transitions and director credits. Once the lights dimmed, I braced for impact.
Except, the impact never came. I kept looking, kept searching, kept willing myself to feel conscious emotions. But Aftersun played out in strange stream-of-consciousness ways. An 11-year-old girl spends a week with her troubled 30-year-old father at a Turkish resort. Resorts are where things happen, right? Not just White Lotus things, but even dysfunctional middle-class things. Nothing happens in the film. There’s no hook, no narrative, no beginning or end. To say I was underwhelmed is an understatement. At the end of the festival, Aftersun didn’t feature in any of my Kerala memories. I phased it out of my experience.
But for some reason, I stopped short of tweeting this. Critics usually like to be public and provocative when they don’t like an acclaimed film. They like to be contrarian because they often have the words and reasoning to back it. Yet, something felt off about my own reaction to Aftersun. I didn’t trust myself as much. I felt like I had not encountered the film in the right spirit. Maybe I was disappointed because the movie wasn’t what I wanted it to be. Maybe I checked out when it wasn’t giving me what I wanted; in film festivals, the previous movie often determines what you need from the next. Maybe I suspected that my opinion about Aftersun wasn’t absolute. It’s not the film that deserved another chance; I deserved it. Which is the equivalent of breaking up by using the “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse.
After reading a few raves – and noticing the lens they used to admire the film – I was prepared to give myself another shot. That’s what good film criticism does; it sheds new light on not just the art but also on the viewer’s desire to see – and unsee – their own biases. The Mubi release felt like the perfect opportunity. And sure enough, my second viewing released me. It made me feel like food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, at the precise moment he takes the first bite in a restaurant he’s prepared to trash. The food instantly becomes a feeling for him, taking him back to a time defined by taste, love, innocence and smell. Now I get it. Now I remember Aftersun differently. Now I see all the nothingness that I was too tired, too stunted, to grasp that night.
It’s only fitting. Aftersun is about memories after all. It’s about the dull afterglow of time. It’s about plain sight flirting with hindsight. It’s about an adult mind that’s both tracing and filling the contours of a child’s mind. 11-year-old Sophie, who now lives with her mom, is holidaying with her dad, Calum, on the eve of his 31st birthday. While their week together plays out as a kid’s real-time experience – where they lounge around by the pool, sleep, chat, film each other, dance, eat – it simultaneously plays out as a 31-year-old Sophie’s shape-shifting and melancholic reminiscence of that vacation. The primary narrative of the older Sophie, which appears in hallucinatory spurts, is the one that looks like the flashback. It’s as if Sophie is starting to see that week for what it was, not what she wanted it to be.
She’s adding new dimensions – sounds, mundanity, quiet, peripheral activity, stifled sobs, subtext, sights that she had once willed herself to forget – to her perception of that week. You can tell, for instance, that a scene in which she convinces her fellow tour guests to sing along with her for Calum’s birthday is something she always remembered; it’s a happy memory. But the next scene shows Calum weeping uncontrollably in his room; this unfurls like an image Sophie might have remembered much later in life, once she became mature enough to figure out that he was struggling – psychologically, financially, deeply – on that trip. It’s something she might have phased out of her head as a teenager holding onto the vacation as a private coming-of-age event. The moments where she hangs out with an older gang, or shares her first kiss with a boy, are the posters and trailers of her childhood home-video film; these are the memories she cherished for years. Until, of course, she grew up and decided to un-edit their time at the resort. A sadness bleeds into her director’s cut two decades on, and she’s letting it be that way.
It’s like Sophie’s memory is evolving while in motion, summoning the darkness that was concealed by the light – and, most of all, the finality hidden behind their fun. Charlotte Wells somehow turns this disorienting effect – of being in the moment while also looking back at it; of being a child and then growing up to understand everything that the child couldn’t – into a narrative language. No gimmicks, no visual effects; just a passing comment here, a tender gesture there. She manages to un-tell a story about the lastness of an experience. The holiday seems like the last of Sophie’s time with her father. The picture is fading; she’s starting to forget how that week felt and looked, because it’s been tainted by years of resentment. Which is why she’s now injecting it with the ambience of life: sounds of breathing at night, sounds of the camcorder she used, sounds of the unsaid words, the distant closeness and the unresolved emotions. It’s her way of reclaiming her impression of her father – long after he’s gone – as a fragile person in a place, not a lost parent in the middle of nowhere. He was depressed, and unprepared for the love she represented, and all of it reflects in 31-year-old Sophie’s own haunted birthday. Now she gets him. Now she remembers him differently.
Aftersun speaks in the sort of voice that impacts the viewer like a good investment might. We don’t realize we’re giving a little of ourselves to the film every minute. We depart with just the right amount of emotional currency, one that allows us to live under the illusion of comfort. Until a massive windfall – rich in the interest of feeling, closure, regret, longing – arrives later at one go, when we least expect it. It’s only now that I’m thinking of just how great young Frankie Corio is as Sophie. She has a sparkling movie face, but also a sparkling life face; she is wise beyond her years but she also doesn’t aspire to be so. She’s doing normal 11-year-old things, and yet it feels like she’s negotiating with her future self, revealing and opening moments that only she has access to.
I’m also thinking of how heartbreaking and life-affirming Paul Mescal is, as a tragedy posing as a man. He radiates a warm hopelessness that I’ve rarely seen on screen before. With every smile, every question and soft instruction, every tormented puff of a cigarette, every action that looks like a secret war against inner turmoil, Mescal’s Calum moves closer to the peace of shattering. His pain is ambiguous and scary, because it always seems like he wants to be both forgotten and remembered at once. Especially by Sophie, a girl whose intuition he is proud of but also wounded by. He’s almost too ashamed to admit that he’s the kind of character who hijacks a story; he wants her to nurture him out of their shared narrative.
My investment in Aftersun is now reaping the kind of dividends I don’t know what to do with. It’s pouring in there. I’m suddenly imagining my own father – who’s more or less an older version of Calum – even though he’s still around. He lives separately and I visit him. We don’t do vacations, but the few weeks we spend together every year feel like days defying the dusk. My time with him is getting shorter. When I’m there, I often feel like we are in my own future memories. I dwell on the most inconspicuous moments. Like his laboured breathing when he falls asleep while pretending to stay awake. His insomnia-induced departures from the bedroom in the middle of the night, which he refers to as “early morning”. His introspective smokes on the balcony every evening. The scent of his aftershave, which he dabs onto his cheeks every morning despite having nowhere to go and nobody to meet. His four-hour-long sunset naps, almost like he can’t stand the idea of being awake when everyone else is busy and thriving, but enjoys the power of being alert when the world is asleep.
I absorb his mundanity while I’m with him, because I know that this is precisely what I’ll miss when I visit his empty home in the future. I’ll miss the snoring and the covert brooding, and I’ll wonder if we could have had better conversations during those seemingly detached visits. I’ll long for the ordinariness of seeing his life pass by, of watching him wait for a final hurrah that never came. These visits only resemble actual activity – the lunches at his favourite restaurant, the movies, the open-air concerts he enjoys – after I leave and reminisce about the tranquil week. I’m already in my thirties, so it’s a different tracing and filling I do. I’m afraid to create new memories with him because they might dilute the old ones. I’m reluctant to have fresh experiences with him, for they might override the regrets we share about not rescuing each other enough.
Sophie assumes she’s getting to know her father better, or perhaps even cheering him up a bit. But what she’s really doing is knowing him enough to be nostalgic – and not bitter – about him. I suppose we all deal with this paradox of memory: Do we confront the stark fullness, warts and all, of how we choose to grieve for our parents? Or do we preserve their carefully calibrated personalities? Aftersun shows that this conflict is not really a conflict; it’s only a relationship between truth and reality, between love and immortality. One cannot exist without the other. Perhaps it’s why I write about my father so much. I’m trying to complete my memories and perception of him – and sculpt all those hidden fragments into my idol – before it’s too late. The only thing more painful than missing a parent is not knowing what you miss. And I want to know. Every piece brings me closer to that inevitable peace. It brings me closer to a strobe-lit dance with him in which I’m confused about whether to hold or push him. But I’m also under no illusion about what lies ahead. Aftersun is brave enough to suggest that it’s rarely as cinematic as healing. Closure is an invented word; it’s an act of permission to bleed beyond the past. It lends personal syllables the permanence of language. There is, ultimately, no medicine for being shaped by the shadow of our parents.
Overcome by this emotion of writing about Aftersun, I had a nice dinner sent over to my father’s apartment 433 kilometers away. I expected to bolster my memory bank with his pleasantly surprised phone call. I framed a mental picture of how he’d devour the meal, barely chewing as usual, and then complain about an upset stomach. The phone call came, but it was from the delivery agent. Nobody was answering the doorbell. The romanticism of my guilt was punctured. I told him to leave the food with the security guard downstairs. He seemed a little uneasy that I didn’t sound concerned about my 69-year-old father not opening the door. This is a post-pandemic planet, and my father isn’t the most agile man. But I wasn’t worried. I’m not worried. I know he’s breathing loudly, as he normally does in the thick of the evening. I can hear him sleep, oblivious to the noise outside his door. I open the curtains a little, letting in a sliver of the winter aftersun. He stirs. His pillow is a bit moist. I’m sure he’s drooling again. I roll my eyes, before leaving for the airport.