Daniel Strathdee’s Best of 2022

Aftersun (dir. Charlotte Wells)

Drawing on the artistic modes of impressionism, Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun is a film where the broad strokes of construction are clearly visible. Much like artwork of the movement, if you focus in too closely, it’s easy to become lost within finite detail, for ideas to become blurred. Only when you zoom out do these markings and impressions suggest a much more affecting canvas.

It’s this approach to filmmaking that makes Aftersun’s unravelling layers – moments which feel deceivingly banal – much more poignant when placed within Well’s narratively simple but emotionally piercing mosaic. The film follows 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio) and her young dad, Calum (Paul Mescal), as they spend time together at a holiday resort in Turkey in the 90s. Scenarios of the two are stitched together from memory and camcorder footage, two mediums through which a now adult Sophie reflects on her relationship with her father at the time. 

Tinges of Lynne Ramsay’s work are also scattered throughout Aftersun. For both directors, emotional exploration is the convention by which narrative is unfurled and Wells draws upon Ramsay’s ability to capture the not-quite-palpable texture of memory on screen. Elements of Ramsay’s early features like Ratcatcher (1999) are reflected in the way that Well’s interweaves circumstance with deeply personal experience. Both directors also frame their subjects in ways that let the camera linger on disembodied limbs, allowing these to become focal points for words and language that could never be conveyed verbally, something which is articulated extraordinarily well by Wells as a method of capturing young Sophie’s perspective of her father.

As the film plays out, time itself seems to move in accordance with emotion, as if manipulated directly by Sophie’s increasing awareness of her father as a person. A person she was never able to know then and can now only piece together from fragments. Well’s plays with the uncertainty of memory, drawing only slight boundaries between the nostalgic and the ominous, the sentimental and the uncertain. At one moment encapsulated by naive warmth, only to turn into anxiety the next. But only just enough to have you question where and why those feelings arise.

In fact, Well’s does such a fantastic job of distilling the visual and emotive language of memory through her own vocabulary that Sophie’s own memory playback feels akin to a syphoning of our own recollections. Well’s never reveals the present-day circumstances of Sophie and her father’s relationship and nor should she, all we can do is echo Sophie’s own attempts and sieve through a collection of memories which now feel like our own. 

Significant praise must also be given to Blair McClendon’s edit. Images of reminiscence and video playback are fused seamlessly, the atmospheric shifts from taciturn to unease so gradually that it seems it could only have occurred completely naturally. In combination with Well’s filmic language they’re able to create an at once dreamlike and humanistic immediacy that alludes to so much more than it ever shows.

Aftersun paints a unique cinematic picture, one etched with the imprecision of memory and amorphous tones of our own forgotten emotions. Like a cinematic timepiece gradually focusing in, closer and closer on details that are never quite able to resurface. The moments on screen shared between young Sophie and her father, both through old DV camera footage and hazy memory appear benign yet there’s a nagging feeling at the back of your head that betrays that. Slow, meditative shots play out in apparent calm, but there’s a distant sense of disquiet which distorts their tranquillity. This all builds towards a slow climax which gradually reveals itself, taking you completely by surprise. It’s an emotionally devastating moment which is ingeniously driven not by any narrative sense or logic, but entirely by the film’s building sense of intense pathos. It’s a moment that etches itself deeply, and which can only exist in the emotional infrastructure that Wells’ has built. It transcends logical understanding and exists only as a complete visceral experience in the way that all the best cinematic moments do. It doesn’t need to be understood, it just needs to be felt.

Daniel Strathdee [he/him] @daniel_strathdee

[Image Credit: http://www.digit.in]


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