Aftersun Feature | grief, memories, and the fragile fabric of human life
Aftersun is a touching directorial debut by Charlotte Wells, set in the late 1990s. It follows 11-year-old Sophie and her young father, Calum to a Turkish resort. Calum and Sophie’s mother are divorced, and he does not live in his hometown Glasgow anymore, so Calum rarely gets to see Sophie.
“In the midst of life we are in death”
Bible Text: Isaiah 61:1-3 Ps. 130 John 14:1-6
”The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.”
As I Walked Out One Evening
W. H. Auden
Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch writes: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” When we allow ourselves to become intimate with another human being, be it our partner, our child, our friend, or even a stranger – when someone becomes real to us, we become vulnerable and exposed. In that space, we can’t numb ourselves of anger or dissociate from the pain, shame, or even joy anymore. We have no control, no predictable and safe route. In that space, anything could happen; we get transformed easily, and everything we feel hits harder.
Often, parents assume they understand their own children and rarely try to truly get to know them. But it is impossible to see someone, even your own child, until you make yourself vulnerable, too. Calum is not the poster child for perfect fatherhood, and he surely causes much pain and confusion in Sophie’s life, but he does make himself vulnerable for her. Because of this, they connect in the most intimate, real and deep ways. Calum sees Sophie not just as his own child, but as a changing and growing human being.
As the movie progresses, they often leave the all-inclusive, safe hotel space and go explore the city. Symbolically, the more intimate their relationship gets, the more they enter unpredictable but also beautiful uncharted territories.
In one of the scenes, a hotel employee takes a Polaroid photo of Calum and Sophie at the restaurant. As they eat ice cream, talk, and laugh – the photo is developing on the table. For a few seconds, the shot is focused solely on the photograph: the contours of the two of them gradually become sharper; they are both coming to life on the piece of plastic paper. At the same time, as soon as the photo develops, present versions of them get trapped in a particular moment in time.
This moment in time freezes on the tape and immediately becomes a memory, loses aliveness – especially considering how fast Sophie changes and grows. “Wish we could have stayed for longer. I mean, why can’t we? Why can’t we just stay here?” – Sophie asks. Calum seems uncomfortable and brushes off her questions. As much as they both want to hold on to that moment and not let it become past, reality and time keep leaking into their idyllic little life together, and the vacation finally comes to an end.
Calum says goodbye to Sophie at the airport and watches her walk away for her flight home. We see him standing alone, holding a video recorder, and then disappearing into the door with club/party lights. He walks back into Sophie’s memories, not into his own life, which could mean he killed himself soon after the trip.
As the audience sees the trip mostly through Sophie’s eyes and memories, Calum’s depression is never explicitly mentioned, but his self-destructive tendencies are clearly portrayed. We see him telling the diving instructor that he does not see himself reaching the age of 40 and is surprised that he is still alive at 30. In one of the scenes, Sophie tells him: “Don’t you ever feel like you’ve just done a whole amazing day, and then you come home and feel tired and down. Feels like your bones don’t work. They’re just tired and everything is tired. Like you’re sinking.” As she describes the depression-like state, we see Calum freeze and even get angry, as if fearing Sophie might have inherited his illness.
Calum does not seem to have found his place in the world; he seems to feel lost, lonely, and unaccomplished. Even when Sophie asks him whether he wants to return to Scotland, his home country, Calum answers that he does not feel like he belongs there or has ever belonged there.
Later in adulthood, Sophie seems to cherish the memories of her father and their trip together. These memories seem to have lasted for her precisely because the love they shared persisted, and because the love eclipsed everything else. Despite all the pain that Calum’s absence has caused Sophie, she still appears to define their relationship by love, not by absence.
By the end of the holiday, at the hotel party, Sophie and Calum dance to Queen & David Bowie’s music. Parallel to watching them dance, we are transported into the present, into the adult Sophie’s mind and memories, where her father is still dancing, only in the dark, disappearing and appearing again, as if in a fragmented, almost forgotten memory. We hear the lyrics: “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give love that one more chance? Why can’t we give love, give love, give love, give love?”
Sophie seems frustrated as she tries to stop Calum and make him notice her, but he continues to dance. It’s as if, even as an adult, in her mind, Sophie is trying to undo the finality of this last dance, prevent it from becoming a memory, and make Calum communicate with her, make him real.
Parallelly, we also see Sophie as a child hugging Calum and squeezing him tightly, as if trying to hold on to him as hard as she can. We see an adult Sophie doing the same in the dark. But then Sophie sees Calum falling into the darkness, perhaps both the darkness of her fading memories and his death. This scene demonstrates how much of Sophie’s mental life was defined by trying to hold onto her father and keep communicating with him, even though it was impossible.
In essence, Aftersun is a film about parenthood, grief, memories, time, and the delicate, fragile fabric of human life.
Aftersun is currently playing in Irish cinemas and on streaming platforms.