Stärke queerfeministische Perspektiven: Jetzt spenden für unseren jährlichen WordPress-Tarif!


Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun: The Stroboscope Afterglow of a Once-in-a-Lifetime Kind of Film


We express our grat­i­tude for the per­mis­sion grant­ed by MUBI / mubi.com to use the visu­al mate­r­i­al of After­sun.


‘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.

We express our grat­i­tude for the per­mis­sion grant­ed by MUBI / mubi.com to use the visu­al mate­r­i­al of After­sun.

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. 

We express our grat­i­tude for the per­mis­sion grant­ed by MUBI / mubi.com to use the visu­al mate­r­i­al of After­sun.

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. 

We express our grat­i­tude for the per­mis­sion grant­ed by MUBI / mubi.com to use the visu­al mate­r­i­al of After­sun.

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. 

We express our grat­i­tude for the per­mis­sion grant­ed by MUBI / mubi.com to use the visu­al mate­r­i­al of After­sun.

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.


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.