Aftersun: Is This Our Last Dance?
February 10, 2023
This contains major spoilers for “Aftersun.”
Before I started writing this, I rewatched the ending of “Aftersun.” I’m shocked it was only five minutes that made me smile (again) and laugh at the brilliance of the artistry, of the command of the form, to see that here is a director (Charlotte Wells) who is moving the medium forward and will help keep film alive—only to then burst out into uncontrollable sobbing. I’ve never had such an instinctual reaction to a movie before. Literal sobs. I think it’ll be a while before I can pull myself together and discover what it is that makes me break.
This is a strange film to sell to people. I’ve been telling everyone I know, from professors to acquaintances, “You need to see ‘Aftersun,’” and they ask me, “What is it about?”—tagline: “A father and daughter have an awkward vacation at a Turkish beach resort.” Where’s the awe in that? I’d argue this is precisely the point: the best movies need to be watched, they simply can’t be explained by words. I will attempt to go halfway.
Frankie Corio and Paul Mescal as Sophie and Calum Paterson are simply … so sincere. This is a quality I find myself attracted to not only in films but in life. A willingness to speak in total vulnerability, to share without fear. It’s difficult because as people we always want to please, want to endear or entertain. It’s not like we go about our days lying all the time, but talking about the Truth (with a capital T) is not the way we live. What Corio and Mescal do in this representation of a family on the rocks, a girl who’s too young to understand and a man who’s too afraid to look ahead, is act so comfortably together. To be so comfortable, while at the same time dealing with the most uncomfortable Truth of them all: We can’t understand other people. Other people are inherently incomprehensible. You can believe you do, but that may be more like an act of faith than knowledge. The way in which we are constantly adapting, shifting our inner ideologies to make sense of the world, how we listen to the little voice inside our heads and try to understand how the person sitting right next to you, who you’ve known all your life, can still be a stranger. Can we know our families, our parents?
The film contains three strands of footage. (1) Home video of the Turkish vacation. (2) The “normal” world. This is how we expect movies to look. This includes most of the vacation, but also scenes of adult Sophie. (3) The rave scenes. In a dark room with strobe lights, an adult Sophie reaches for her father Calum.
We cut to and from each of these strands, the past to the present, from fact to memory to the subconscious. Although the main action of the film is this childhood vacation, the crux is adult Sophie rewatching the home videos in an attempt to come to terms with who her father was. We have to question whether these “normal” scenes are either reliable memories or an imagination trying to shore up black spaces—the things about the adult world that a child simply doesn’t understand, made all the more complicated by a figure who doesn’t like to share. The home video, something we think is an accurate representation of reality, is sometimes so glitchy and pixelated you don’t know what you’re seeing. We have to ask ourselves what is true and what isn’t. From this vacation, Sophie recalls bits of herself from the trip: hanging out with a group of teenagers, having her first kiss, teasing her dad on his birthday. But within that, she tries to imagine who her father was in the world when she wasn’t around. She imagines him drunk, walking to the beach and into the waves. Alone in bed, sobbing and heaving. Grappling with depression, out of her line of sight.
The rave scenes represent adult Sophie’s subconscious thoughts, a psychological realm that functions under its own cinematic rules. The rave feels like a party that’ll never stop, a place where you can give in and lose yourself. To what? I can only guess. Adult Sophie pushes past these jostling bodies, scanning the crowd, searching for her father. Calum hasn’t aged. Calum appears timeless, wearing the same clothes, still youthful Paul Mescal. Dancing away.
I feel personally susceptible to this idea of a last dance with a parent. My mom always tries to get me to dance with her, to try to teach me steps to a cumbia or a waltz. I find it a little embarrassing as I can never get the rhythm quite right. Everytime I go home we try again, but I blush and step on her feet and feel so embarrassed. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it right.
A month ago my mother had a surgery in which they discovered cysts in her breasts. Carcinoma in situ: essentially, Stage 0 cancer. My mother is being well-taken care of. It’s very early, and breast cancer is very preventable. I’m truly not afraid that this is it. That said, it placed an entirely new reality before me (certainly before my mom) of things that can take others away. I’m not dying of anxiety, but my view of the world has become limited. Finite.
In the rave Sophie Paterson finally reaches Calum Paterson. She screams at him. He looks more like he’s flailing than dancing. She reaches for him. She’s trying to hold him. (We cut to the vacation. Sophie Paterson is pulled onto the dance floor by Calum Paterson. “Under Pressure” is playing. He holds her close. They embrace.) She finally has him. They embrace. We see his face. Directly looking at us. Lights flash onto his face, putting him into the light, back into the darkness. Sophie wears a blue thread in her hair that her father braided. The two look happy. They let go. They drift away from each other. Arms up as if afloat. He looks at her. She looks back. She is old. She is an adult. She has a partner. She has a baby. The rave lights show her as an adult. She’s in the darkness. She is young. She is a child again—and she is smiling.
For me it’s grief. It’s pain. It’s this fear that love is just an old fashioned word. My biggest fear is that there’s still so much to say to each other. I’ve matured, and feel like I understand more now. I was a moody child, and she was a stressed and overworked adult. Things are different. The avenues to start talking more openly about the love and frustration between us have started to open up. I used to be a boy of secrets and silence, and I feel like I can’t afford that anymore. The time has passed. This is a new age. One of sincerity and vulnerability. Of being Truthful with the ones you love. Of dancing together.
Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
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