Aftersun Programme Notes


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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

‘Memory is a slippery thing; details are hazy, fickle. The more you strain, the less you see. A memory of a memory endlessly corrupting itself,’ said Scottish director Charlotte Wells in a brief statement upon the American release of Aftersun, her feature debut. Within the same statement, Wells shares two complimentary photos of her and her father, sitting opposite one another, tropical mocktails at hand, faces lit by the unmistakable hue of a camera flash — the kind that reveals certain details by obscuring others.

Wells is around 10 or 11 years old in the picture, she says, the same age as Sophie (Frankie Corio) in Aftersun. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Sophie similarly sits across from her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), as they share one last holiday meal, a few days by the beautiful Turkish coast reflected in the redness of their cheeks. ‘Wish we could have stayed for longer,’ she says, scooping the remainder of a sundae, ‘Me too,’ Calum nods as a polaroid picture of the two dries on top of the dinner table.

What a fickle thing indeed, memory. At once rigid and malleable, jailer and key, altered whenever recounted. Aftersun is a film about memory — Sophie’s memories about her dad and the summer holiday they spent together in Turkey when she was a kid; Wells’ own recollections of her father, a personal tie the director has spoken openly about, despite reinforcing time and time again that Aftersun is, still, very much a work of fiction.

As a child, memories are abstract, glimpses framed through the sensorial — the taste of your grandmother’s chocolate cake, the tingling feeling of fresh grass under bare feet, putting your entire head under the cascading water, a pressure so overwhelming it numbs all senses. As an adult, memory turns into a treacherous mistress, whispering singsongs of bygone days freed of trouble, as if only the present is capable of hosting sorrow.

It’s a survival mechanism to twist away at memories in search of self-preservation. It wasn’t always like this. It couldn’t have been this bad. If only I had known how happy I was back then. We tug away at heartstrings — ours and others' — to create a cocoon to which we can always return, warm, safe. Memories are home. In Aftersun, Wells contorts memory as if a wet towel, tugging and pulling until it drips the truth soaked deep within.

*

Aftersun arrived quietly at Cannes in May, a single photo of a slouched Paul Mescal with his broken arm around a young girl circulating to a fairly subdued hum of curiosity. The actor, who had the world in a collective swoon after his breakout role in the 2020 TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel Normal People, found himself with the upper hand following the show’s incendiary success. Instead of being swooped away by the manic hands of Hollywood, Mescal chose to focus on independent, female-directed films, following up Normal People by landing roles in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, Saela Davis and Anna Rose Holmer’s God’s Creatures, and Wells’ Aftersun.

In a swift two years, Mescal graduated from playing a high-schooler to playing a dad, cargo shorts and all. It was a daring career move made by an actor fuelled by a deep trust in — and a hungry interest for — his creative partners. ‘I wasn’t really aware of the politics of “you shouldn’t really be playing dads, you’re 26.” I just thought that this was a fantastic character and I was going to do everything I can to play Calum,’ he said of his immediate affinity to the script.

Frankie Corio, for her part, was found through a country-wide audition process. Wells, who saw hundreds of possible candidates for Sophie, cast the Livingston-based schoolgirl due to her seemingly effortless naturalism. Together, Mescal and Corio deliver one of the most striking paired performances of recent years, rooted not in showmanship but in soothing complicity. The two seesaw between goofy playfulness and pointed tension, their bodies moving from and towards one another as they navigate feelings that linger in loaded silence.

Mescal displays full command over the physicality required of Calum. Moments of elation and despair are conveyed through the folding of chlorine-dipped fingers, the violent jolting of naked shoulders, arms moving with the urgency of arrows to the throbbing beats of electronic music. Gregory Oke’s ethereal cinematography further amplifies Mescal’s inspired turn, moonlight drenching hotel rooms, the blue hues of skies and pools and oceans framing the face of a man whose inner battle feels too vast to fit into words. He exists in many forms: suspended on a dancefloor, inside the camcorder held by his daughter, in Sophie’s thoughts. Through each reframing he is reborn, rewritten. Perhaps Wells holds onto the physical because bodies, unlike memories, feel somewhat tangible.

A film imbued in such refined sensibility is a rarity. For it to be a feature debut feels akin to a small miracle. It is no wonder Aftersun has the film industry in a months-long state of awe, tales of cathartic post-screening sobs spreading like wildfire since that first Cannes showing back in May. The film’s executive producer, Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins, changed his Twitter bio to say he is a ‘Charlie Wells stan’ — his profile picture is currently a black and white portrait of the Scottish director. It is not often the industry reaches such a thunderous consensus. But then, it is not often you see a filmmaker like Charlotte Wells.

Rafa Sales Ross, Freelance film journalist


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