FILM, ESSAY, FLINTA
Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun: The Stroboscope Afterglow of a Once-in-a-Lifetime Kind of Film
by MERCY FERRARS
‘Don’t you ever feel like… you’ve just done a whole amazing day and then you come home and feel tired and down and… it feels like your bones don’t work, they’re just tired, and everything is tired. Like you’re sinking.’Aftersun, dir. Charlotte Wells
The following text contains mentions of depression and suicide as well as spoilers for Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun.
I have always spent my life in the aftersun. For as long as I can remember, days full of beauty were met by a dreadful heaviness that spread from my core as soon as the sun went down. I try my best not to anticipate this inexplicable feeling of heavy sadness when I am out in the sun during the day. As a child, I somehow managed to live in the sun until it disappeared, to only sink into my own bones after sunset, when my skin glowed red and I was alone. As an adult, the aftersun follows me into every adventure, every ecstatic moment of raw life energy and every ocean that encloses my toes in its cold embrace. The aftersun is a sobering feeling, a comedown, the darkness after the light, the silence after the connection, the slow fading of the feeling of fingertips on my skin. I dread the beauty of daylight—I dread the intimacy—I dread the feeling of being alive, knowing it will dissipate through my skin into thin air as the shadows continue to creep on and the sounds slowly die away. The aftersun is not night, but a deep fall into depression after euphoria. It is a feeling I could never articulate or name. But it consumes me completely.
Aftersun is a 2022 masterpiece and theatrical debut by Scottish filmmaker Charlotte Wells. It ranks among the films that immediately captivated me from the first moment I heard about them. Watching the trailer, the beauty and sorrow that ran through it spoke to a part of me that habitually spends its existence in unseen darkness. Aftersun is the kind of cinematic experience that cannot be condensed into a two-minute preview, the kind of story told through the imagery and subtle intricacies of skin touching and hearts aching that cannot be grasped in a synopsis. In a cinematic exploration of grief and depression, its depths set in gradually and subtly until you’re entrenched in the feeling without knowing how you got there. It resembles the rotten roots of depression that creep through perfectly good weeks, slow shifts that gradually drag down the days until all of a sudden you can’t move out of bed and you’re crying although there seems to be no cause. Aftersun latches onto a feeling that is hard to explain to those who have never felt it, that gradual instinct that alerts you that something is wrong, but you can’t put your finger on it until it’s fleshed out in all its severity.
For much of its running time, Aftersun chronicles thirty year old Sophie’s (Celia Rowlson-Hall) seemingly happy memories of her vacation in Turkey with her father at the age of eleven. Her memories, some of which are recorded on tape, seem almost trivial: unsatisfactory hotel rooms, diving lessons and karaoke at the hotel, playing in the pool, eating ice cream together, lying in the sun pondering life. A stillness runs through the film which dares to remain in moments of silence and passivity, to linger on the quivering of a shoulder under a towel or the deep breaths of child Sophie (Frankie Corio) falling asleep, and never rushing, nor forcing itself into sound, lots of dialogue or overbearing plot. But right at the beginning we find ourselves in a scene during which all sound fades away while Calum (Paul Mescal), Sophie’s father, smokes a cigarette on the balcony. Although there is nothing very alarming about a thirty year old man smoking a cigarette, the scene seems to warn us that something is not quite right. A gut feeling that doesn’t dissipate, not even in scenes full of blazing sunlight and royal blue sea water. Over the course of the film, we slowly piece together part of the question, and yet in the end it remains unanswered and can only be hinted at. Among these moments of just existing between the sun and the sea, Sophie occasionally engages her father Calum in a deeper conversation, but he seems to pull away every single time, unable to reconcile himself with his own illness. Aftersun is the story of Sophie, who grieves her father through her last memories with him, but it is also the story of Calum, who is trying to hide his depression from his daughter. Realising that he will not be able to withstand the weight of life for much longer, he tries to make Sophie’s holiday special, if only to make up for the fact that it will be their last memories together. Calum tries his best not to let on that there is something wrong with him. After all, how can you explain depression to a child? But wearing the happy mask is a feat of strength that uses up his last reserves. And when the mask falls, Sophie is confronted with a feeling she can’t place. Dwellers of the aftersun are able to spot the signs of a suicidal person holding on to life for long enough to give his daughter one last breath of normalcy before changing her life forever.
Some of these signs are enveloped in vulnerable moments hidden away from Sophie, sometimes just the sound of a single sob; fleeting, even, if your senses aren’t sharpened to the quiet bare articulations of the body. In one scene Calum is seen taking off his cast, cramped into a dimly lit bathroom, quietly sobbing as he is trying to fight off his pain, while divided by a wall on the other side of the bathroom waits Sophie in the warm toned, cosy bedroom, clueless as to what is happening in the room behind her. In another scene, he spits on the mirror after Sophie describes to him how heavy her body sometimes gets after a day in the sun, of how she’s ‘just sinking,’ and he is frustrated because he feels that he had passed his burden on to her. We see the heaviness in Calum whenever Sophie is not around. At the market he leans morosely against a pile of oriental rugs after spending money that he cannot afford on a gift for Sophie.
After Sophie gets other tourists to sing Happy Birthday to Calum, who so clearly grieves for when he ‘still had time’—which he no longer thinks he does at just thirty-one—the scene blends into him sobbing heavily on his hotel bed alone. After a fight with Sophie, he walks into a black ocean and is visually swallowed by diffuse darkness blurring the lines between sky and water. When Sophie asks him to sing karaoke with her, which is a tradition on their vacations, he just cannot get himself to do it, rejecting her in the process, unable to mask the insignificance all of it presents to him any longer. And lastly, when Sophie has to ask three times ‘When you were eleven, what did you think you would be doing now?’ and finally Calum answers that nobody remembered his birthday when he turned eleven before quickly snuffing the conversation. Aftersun narrates Calum through the eyes of Sophie, who simply dismisses much of his behaviour as him being a bit weird. But at the same time, the viewer knows more than she does and spends Calum’s most vulnerable moments with him, which brings the audience infinitely closer to what’s truly happening inside Calum. Despite being quite mature, child Sophie does not fully understand what is going on with Calum, but she experiences a deep emotional bond with him that makes her feel safe. Mescal and Corio, who worked with an intimacy coordinator on set, create a father-daughter bond that feels eternal and grounded, trusting and loving. While the title Aftersun might reflect Sophie’s description of that depressing feeling after a day out in the sun, it might also signify that Sophie sees her father as the sun in her life. Upon his passing she must face a life after the sun—a sobering, saddening feeling of heaviness after the beauty of their last days together being filled to the brim with his love for her.
In the movie theatre, the slowly emerging heaviness is transferred to the viewers. The moment in which it becomes explicit that Calum is severely depressed and intends to commit suicide is a scene shortly after his argument with Sophie. At night, he dashes to the sea and continues on, into nothingness, where the sky blends into the water, until he is swallowed up both by the water around his feet and by his barely perceptible surroundings. A feeling of panic and disbelief builds among the crowd of moviegoers, who are drawn into the intimacy of a dying person facing their end. The sea is now aggressive and untamed, the waves crash in on top of each other, and the sound in the otherwise quiet film becomes loud and menacing. Minutes pass after Calum disappears into the darkness before the screen peels to black for the duration of three gasps of breath. When Sophie returns to the hotel room, she finds Calum lying on the hotel bed, passed out and buttnaked. At that moment, each of us wonders if it can really be the same Calum who ran into the abyssal sea to drown himself. The question shifts: Calum’s depression stands out clear as day. But did he die in the water? Did the rest of Sophie’s memories past this scene really happen?
Shortly after Calum’s attempt, Calum and Sophie dance together on the hotel terrace while Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie is being played. For this scene, Charlotte Wells had arranged her very own version of Under Pressure, which fades into heavy orchestral strings as Sophie sinks into Calum’s embrace. Freddy Mercury’s voice distorts into a long, high-pitched ‘Why—?!’ and finally merges with the strings. ‘Why can’t we give love another chance? Why can’t we… give love, give love, give love?’ an agonised Freddie repeats over and over until finally ending with ‘This is our last dance.’ In the flickering strobe light of a rave, we see adult and child Sophie alternating in a desperate attempt to connect with her father Calum, whose face keeps flashing dimly in the shadows, briefly interrupting the stream of Sophie’s memories again and again. In the strobe light, we see Sophie reach for Calum and try to hold him up, to hug him tightly, to reconnect, to make him stay. The scene cuts back to child Sophie in a tight embrace with Calum, her eyes closed almost fearfully, holding on as if she senses she will never get the chance again, as if this really is their last dance.
In the final scene of Aftersun, a jolly Sophie is on her way to the gate, being filmed by Calum while she pulls goofy faces and waves at him. As she is gone, the scene blends into adult Sophie sitting on her couch in a dark New York apartment, watching her childhood memories on the TV as she grieves for her father on his birthday. Calum is left behind in a sterile, empty corridor, wearing the same shirt he first wore upon their arrival in Turkey, smiling at his tape recorder and his last memories of Sophie, before walking through a door behind which we see flashes of stroboscope light. In the silence and blackness which follows, the title flickers onto the screen.
Aftersun pulls its momentum from showing rather than narrating. It’s a film that gets by without many words and yet strikes exactly the right nuances in its few dialogues. A film that lingers under the skin even after it ends, inducing an afterglow that hurts in just the right way. Parallel to Sophie, whose world remains sunless post her father’s suicide, we also experience a reverberating sobriety after parting with Sophie’s memories. Aftersun does not recount a solitary anecdote with an eventual epiphany. Instead, it tells of the heaviness in oneself and the lightness in each other, of safety and refuge, of sun and shade and the happiness and pain in between. Very rarely does a film manage to depict the progression of a depression and its disengagement from context and the external without prejudice, without judgement, without imposing itself. Charlotte Wells has created a film of a lifetime. You won’t walk out the same person.
Aftersun comes with an afterglow on the soul.
Aftersun, Drama/Coming-of-Age, 2022
United Kingdom, USA
Director: Charlotte Wells
Cast: Paul Mescal, Frankie Corio, Celia Rowlson-Hall
Camera: Gregory Oke
Music: Oliver Coates
Film Runtime: 102mins
Feature BBFC Cert: 12A [infrequent strong language, moderate sex references, upsetting scenes]
Feature IFCO Cert: 15A [Use of strong bad language. Strong sexual reference]
Warnings: This film AFTERSUN contains a sequence of flashing lights which might affect customers who are susceptible to photosensitive epilepsy.
Winner of the French Touch Jury Prize at the Cannes 2022 Critics’ Week.
Streams on MUBI.com
We express our gratitude for the permission granted by MUBI / mubi.com to use the visual material of Aftersun.
EDITED By LARA HELENA.
Mercy Ferrars is a MA graduate in philosophy and writes fiction, poetry and non-fiction essays. She is madly in love with Scotland, dogs and Bojack Horseman.