Postcard from the edge: Charlotte Wells on Aftersun

Wells talks about Aftersun, her haunting debut feature about a father taking his young daughter on holiday to Turkey and a semi-autobiographical exploration of childhood, memory and depression.

Aftersun (2022)

This one goes out to the one she loves: rushing on stage to grab the mic on karaoke night, 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) attempts R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’ – a song well beyond her years, to say nothing of her vocal range. Seated in the audience, Sophie’s father Calum (Paul Mescal) can barely stand to watch her performance, not out of embarrassment or lack of interest, but because of some other, carefully submerged ache. Although widely misinterpreted on its release as a cry of spiritual crisis, ‘Losing My Religion’ takes its name from a Southern expression about being at the end of one’s rope. Calum, who’s been hiding something from his daughter for the duration of their Mediterrean holiday, is buckling under the pressure of keeping it all in; he’s said too much, he hasn’t said enough.

In a movie whose carefully chosen needle-drops pull double duty as a temporal marker and internal monologue, ‘Losing My Religion’ looms large. Elsewhere in Aftersun, Scottish writer-director Charlotte Wells mobilises hits by Blur, Aqua and Bran Van 3000 to capture the freefloating sonic ambience of an era before Spotify playlists – when the soundtrack of your life was as likely to have been overheard as curated. “There’s a period where your musical exposure is completely defined by your parents,” says the 35-year-old Wells, who attended New York University and the Sundance Institute while showing a number of shorts on the international festival circuit. “My dad put me on his shoulders when I was six and described the Blur versus Oasis wars to me. It’s something he wanted to share, but I wasn’t always interested.”

Seated in a restaurant in Toronto – where Aftersun made its North American premiere at the film festival after winning a Jury Prize at Cannes Critics’ Week and a splashy acquisition by A24 – Wells wears her R.E.M. T-shirt beneath her blazer like a heart on her sleeve. She got into the band through her father, and asserts that ‘Losing My Religion’ was always in her mind for her debut feature’s most pivotal musical scene. “I realised how well it fit when I was asked to come up with a list of alternatives,” she says. As for Aftersun ’s other biggest, shiniest tune – an 11th-hour deployment of Queen and David Bowie’s anthemic ‘Under Pressure’ – she laughs the selection off with practised self-deprecation. “It’s a huge swing,” she deadpans. “It was described to me when I shared it with somebody as a ‘choice with a capital C’.”

Aftersun (2022)

For the most part, Aftersun is a decidedly lower-case movie, with a few scenes unfolding in carefully applied italics, and punctuated, finally, by a series of question marks. In narrative terms, very little happens: after arriving in Turkey to find their chosen seaside resort less luxurious than advertised, Calum and Sophie – who are easily mistaken for brother and sister – laze around the hotel grounds in the sort of agreeable, sun cream-slathered fugue state that comes with all-inclusive vacationing. (Although, as Sophie quickly discovers, some guests’ packages are more inclusive than others.) Swift, judicious bits of exposition explain that Sophie lives with her mum and that Calum and his ex are on good if somewhat fragile terms. There are references to the end of summer and the impending school year and also to work opportunities that Calum, for all his charm and intelligence, can’t seem to make stick.

Calum’s soft-spoken, cool-dad act is earnest and persuasive. What’s more mysterious – and increasingly worrying – is the source of his underlying melancholy, which keeps unveiling itself in unnerving little increments: a distracted glassiness not relieved by meditation or tai chi; a bone-deep fatigue distinct from true relaxation; a series of grand, good-natured gestures beyond his obviously limited financial means. Sophie, who’s brought along a video camera, likes filming her dad during their mutual downtime, and while it’s hard to tell what she sees through the lens, the footage doesn’t lie to us.

“Kids are really smart,” says Wells, “and they perceive a lot. Adults can and do hide things, but their kids pick up on them nonetheless, even if it’s indirect. Kids are also self-interested, though. The world revolves around them, and it’s the same with [Sophie and Calum’s] relationship. The camera makes it into a game. [The camera] wasn’t always in the script, but I like that it offered a literal point of view. There’s another layer to it. Calum watches Sophie’s footage of him, and it gives him insight into her point of view.”

Charlotte Wells on the set of Aftersun (2022)

Corio, who was chosen from more than 800 applicants, is precocious without being precious, and benefits hugely from the generous slant of Mescal’s acting – a refusal to dominate which connects smartly to Calum’s polite self-effacement. What’s most extraordinary about Mescal’s performance, which surely ranks with the year’s best, is its evocation of a weakness that somehow exists in a place beyond judgement or understanding; his flaws are real and debilitating, but they accumulate into their own uneasy state of grace. “I think that aspect of Calum was a result of the confluence between what I wrote, how Gregory [Oke, the cinematographer] shoots, and the performance,” says Wells. “Greg has a very specific way of shooting bodies; he likes to shoot backs. It was important to us that Calum feels solid, physically, and that his unravelling, while private and concealed to Sophie, is visible to an audience. Those things are always playing off each other, his strength and his impairment.”

Since its Cannes premiere, a big part of the narrative around Aftersun is that Wells’ script is semi-autobiographical, and the director has had to talk ad nauseum about the levels of distance and invention both between her and Sophie and between Calum and her own father. “It’s tough, dancing between the degree to which this movie is inspired by my life and the degree to which it’s fictional,” she says. “I can try to control the message, which is that it’s fiction. At first it almost felt like fiction saying it was fiction. But it is fiction.”

Blurring the line further is the daring, carefully controlled device of including a stand-in for the older Sophie (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall, who resembles Wells) in present-tense cutaways that offer little closure for the story’s myriad ambiguities while deepening the theme of how, as people age, they’re compelled to re-evaluate their parents from a more worldly vantage. “You think about the audience a little, in terms of editing, and how you’re doling out information,” says Wells when the question of structural daring is raised. “There’s not a lot of footage to support a different version of the film. But my editor [Blair McClendon] never lost conviction in our version.”

Aftersun (2022)

Wells rightly has a lot of praise for McClendon, whose almost subliminally precise cutting gives Aftersun its synaptic sense of eloquence. A moment when the camera holds a few disturbing beats too long on gently rippling waters after Calum has gone diving in search of Sophie’s goggles was discovered in the edit and, in some abstract way, emerges as an emblem of the film’s halting, poetic sense of dread. “In the script, the intention was that [Calum] is diving down and down and Sophie’s floating serenely on the surface, but Frankie [Corio] could not float serenely,” she laughs. “I don’t know if there was an idea there, but we found the cut, and we found the feeling – this retroactive, searching feeling. I like the shots where we could be looking at something then, or now, or a thousand years ago.” She also points to another intricate, devastating moment that emerged naturally out of Mescal and Corio’s rapport: the conversation in which Sophie, perhaps innocently, or perhaps with some deeper, inchoate knowledge – or fear – of what her father’s going through or heading towards, asks why their vacation has to end at all.

“[That line] betrays the production in a way that I enjoyed,” says Wells. “Talking about staying in hotels forever was very much a kid who’s been living in hotels for two months. The line wasn’t on the page. I was thinking of ways to play the end of the scene. I think I just let it roll the first time and then directed it more the second time. We had talked about ADRing [additional dialogue replacement] something more interesting over it afterwards, but it’s perfect.” In this case, “perfect” is somehow an understatement: the juxtaposition of the dialogue – with all its love and anxieties left unspoken – with the slowly developing image of a Polaroid fixing Calum and Sophie in these bodies and roles forever is as overwhelming as anything I’ve seen in a movie in years. In the voiceover for Sans soleil (1983), Chris Marker writes that “a moment stopped would burn like a frame of film, blocked before the furnace of the projector” – the effect of Wells’ staging here gets at that incandescence while also playing suggestively with the visual syntax of memory, specifically the way that certain images can either exceed or fall short of what’s been preserved in our mind’s eye.

“There’s room for slightly different takes on the ending,” says Wells, who’s understandably hesitant to offer her own, but is content to acknowledge the interpretive frameworks around her debut. “For me, it’s about grief,” she adds, “and some paths to that are more obvious than others.” She recalls being asked by one of Aftersun’s funding partners to explain “the feeling at the end of the film”, and being terrified at having to try to address it so directly. “And then,” she says, “there was this surreal feeling, which has never happened before or since. My whole body flushed with warmth and I perfectly articulated the feeling I wanted at the end of the movie. I realised that I didn’t want any sense that somebody was unforgiven to erode the joy that was shared between them.” Mission accomplished: for all its evocations of struggling and undertow, the emotional power of Aftersun resides in its buoyancy, the catharsis of plunging into what R.E.M. once called “rivers of suggestion” and embracing whatever comes to the surface.

 Aftersun is available to stream on MUBI now.

More on Aftersun

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