Aftersun: Remember to Dance with Loved Ones
Memories are like strobe lights. Flashes of a moment, then gone. Appearing again, projected in your mind, perhaps in a different position, another millisecond later, black once more. What are you seeing? Is it how it was or how you remember it to be? Do you know the difference? Life, this short dance of death evasion, will never give you an answer. No matter how much distance and discernment adulthood provides for you. Check the home videos, they’ll show you how you saw it and how it was. They will also reveal how you see it now. How does he look? Your father. He looks like how you remember him. Though you see the sorrow as you saw it then. Like a strobe light, it flashed on his face every so often before disappearing. Though so quickly you couldn’t decipher the image. So subtle that you knew but you didn’t know. You were 11 years old. You were learning that you weren’t attracted to boys. That’s just your father, that’s how he is. A good father that you love, that’s all you can really see when your mind is too busy coming of age. Now, however, you see. And know that, yes, that is how he was. But it’s too late now. All that is left now is imagination. He’s dancing intensely in what you picture in your mind as a club, strobe lights in almost imperceivable intervals unveiling his movements. You need to get to him. Save him. Hold him. Let him know he doesn’t have to dance forever, that light can be lasting, not rapid; dance can be rapturous, not survival. You scream out to him. Tell him you love him, that you’re sorry life couldn’t let you see him and that he couldn’t see life how he wanted to see it. That he’s not alone and that life doesn't have to be endured. Don’t let him go. But he loved you. Remember that. That you knew and that you still know. You let him go.
Depression, true utter depression, is like sitting at a red light watching two cars collide and not reacting. Feeling nothing. Staring at the damage. Perhaps finding a specific spot- a door distorted, window glass glittering on the pavement, a tire off its axle- to fixate on and search for meaning. Scottish director Charlotte Well’s debut film is about depression. It is also about coming of age and memory and aching to be a better person for those you love. It also, through my terminal torrent of tears, made me feel less alone. A catharsis no other film has given me, not overwhelming me until midway through the credits. The most inimitable experience I’ve had with cinema yet. No film, and I mean absolutely not one film, has done what Aftersun did to me. I thought films such as The Apartment (1960), Paris, Texas (1984), Nights of Cabiria (1957) or Spielberg’s 2022 release, The Fabelmans (which I saw the day before Aftersun) were peak personal experiences with cinema (and many others of course).
Calum, 30ish years old, is on vacation (or holiday as they call it in the UK) in Turkey with his eleven-year-old daughter Sophie. We learn about them in small tidbits of dialogue and visuals along the way. Calum and Sophie’s mother are not together. Set in the 1990s, the film brilliantly uses camcorder footage interceding the story and father-daughter relationship unfolding on the holiday. The pixelated footage of the camcorder is the remembering, Well’s camera is the memory. One of the opening scenes of the film has Sophie asleep on the bed, the dark outline of her face breathing loudly, as her father smokes a cigarette on the balcony in the background. She’s enjoying a peace she will one day lose, he’s inhaling the only peace he has left. There are more shots lingering on scenes like this than actual fun in the sun, the beach, or pool. There’s no explanation as to why this is, only that Sophie, we eventually find out, is reminiscing about this trip, now an adult close to her father’s age when they were in Turkey. Other times the camera stays on or pans to reflections, the most striking one showing Calum reflected through the small TV in the hotel room. He’s telling Sophie about his 11th birthday, how his mom forgot about it (this is the most background we get on him). Next to the TV is a stack of meditation and yoga books; we see him doing yoga frequently throughout the film. Numerous parasails in the sky are also captured. Perhaps symbolism to go with the impressionistic filmmaking, though more like the prominent subject of the few images that Sophie can excavate from her memory. “Do you remember all the parasails flying around?” she could ask her father later as they look back on the trip together. Though we get the feeling she’ll never be able to ask that.
One shot has the vicious waves crashing against a white beach at night. At first the camera is looking up into the night sky before it pans down to reveal the back of Calum walking to the waves. He’s wearing all black, blending in with the dark sea. It’s not necessarily suspenseful, though it makes one uneasy, playing on both our anxiety and the lack of answers we have about Calum’s anxiety. The next morning we face his back again as he sits on the side of the bed. Sobbing, heaving inconsolably, one of those cries that only those who have felt such pure despair can cry. The camera never shows his face in these moments, because Sophie never did either. We knew this before but now his tears confirm it: Sophie’s father is not okay. We don’t know why, but what does it matter? There is no explanation for depression. It’s a disease that no one around you can solve, much less your eleven-year-old daughter.
We get the idea before the beach shot because of Calum’s behavior. When Sophie signs them up for karaoke one night, he refuses to join her on stage, because to him life itself is just as frivolous as singing. She doesn’t understand. Shopping one day, he shows Sophie a nice rug he can’t afford, his frustration evident. He longs for the sun to shine more often in Scotland. He plays with death crossing the street, getting too close to passing buses. At one point Sophie, as only a child can, articulates his exhaustion with life without even realizing it. He’s brushing his teeth, looking at himself in the mirror as Sophie describes feeling so weary that her “bones don’t work.” He says he knows what she means, but she doesn’t know what he means, what’s going on inside, what’s ailing his soul. And he can’t tell her. He’s her father, the strong adult man. They are on holiday to have fun. He spits on his reflection before they leave the room for dinner. The camera lingers a few seconds on the spit oozing down the mirror. Though we can’t always love ourselves, at least we can always love those around us. Especially a parent, as surely the responsibility and love for a child more powerfully belies the self-absorption of depression.
Sophie and her father at dinner. A man with a polaroid camera asks them if they want their picture taken. They take one, Calum shoots the bunny ears behind his daughter’s head. The man gives Calum the polaroid photo. The camera moves in, focusing in on it as Calum and Sophie chat outside of the frame. Another poignant shot, the image slowly and faintly fades into view on the polaroid photo before the film cuts away, never to complete the image. A memory without gratification because you could never see the full picture. And we never do. We can never truly know anyone, even the ones we love the most. And how difficult it is to be helpless when those loved ones are suffering. It’s only ever too late when you realize that while you were reckoning with the confusion of your budding sexuality and whether you even like boys, your father was simultaneously reckoning with life itself and whether it was worth living. And now hazy handheld camera footage and blurred, ghostly reflections in your memory are all that’s left of him.
The ending. Oh, that ending. Forever graffitied in my head. The editing of the film by Blair McClendon is masterful, though the end is when it really hits its stride. Or when it all comes crashing down. Freddie Mercury and David Bowie’s “Pressure” (perfectly used) plays as Calum tries to get an embarrassed Sophie to dance with him at a bar on the holiday, intercutting with the scene I described above: an adult Sophie sees her father dancing in what appears to be a club, Calum and other people are shrouded in a space of darkness, the only light is a strobe light. She struggles to get to him, pushing through the dancing crowd, meanwhile we’re intercutting back to their holiday as Calum fails to get Sophie to join him. “Pressure” crescendos- Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?- then it’s just on the dance floor of the club. Calum dances hopelessly, to feel, to escape, to live- This is our last dance. Sophie gets closer and screams at him, and though we can’t hear, it’s a guttural scream. She reaches him and pulls him in close. He falls into her arms and we see him break into sobs- Why can’t we give love that one more chance? Then they part again and he disappears into the darkness. She loses him.
Outro of “Pressure” sung by David Bowie:
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves.
Now we cut to camcorder footage seen at the opening of the film. Calum films his daughter at the airport about to board her plane. She’s messing around, Calum laughs and tells her he loves her. Then it freezes on Sophie waving goodbye. A track back out of the footage reveals a TV screen. Then a full rotating pan that reveals the adult Sophie’s living room, Sophie on the couch looking at the TV, and back to her father in his clothes from the airport, holding the camcorder and pointing it at Sophie. However, he’s in a brightly lit hallway. Behind him are double doors. He turns off the camcorder, turns around and walks down the hallway to the doors. He exits through them and the doors sway open and close, seen through them is the space of darkness and flashing strobe lights. Fade to a black screen in which we hear a child call out “mama.” Now Sophie can finally, truly see her father.
Somehow the emotional impact doesn’t really hit until right after this point or during the credits (at least for me). The subtle maneuvers Well’s does throughout the film, crafting it so meticulously into an incomplete memory that it’s almost cruel how deceiving it is. When the emotion hits, it’s overwhelming. Relentless and uncontrollable. Devastating. It’s nothing less than a masterstroke, the tools of cinema innovatively displaying the deep feelings of interiority and consciousness like no other film. Though excruciatingly sad, it’s beautiful and life-affirming and inspiring you to really look at the ones you love, because you’ll never know when it could be too late. Love can’t give us answers, nor can it always save us. And the remedy it can provide is dependent on time and place. And even when there’s nothing you can do, it’s there. But that’s something. Calum’s last words in the film to Sophie were “I love you.” She’ll never forget that. That’s a phrase that can never be fragmented in our memories. Hold onto that. Remember and know that it was true. Carry it always and pass it on.