Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Nov 05, 2022 8:45 am 
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FRANKIE CORIO AND PAUL MESCAL IN AFTERSUN

An ephemeral, sad, and somewhat indigestible little masterpiece

A.O. Scott of the New York Times writes in his review of Wells' debut feature that she is "very nearly reinventing the language of film." Yes, as all the critics say, this is a recreation of an eleven-year-old Scottish girl named Sophie's summer vacation with her young father twenty years earlier at a bargain Turkish seacoast resort, framed by brief images of the adult version of this girl, who glimpses video images they shot then. (The adult Sophie is Celia Rowlson-Hall; the much more lively and often-seen young Sophie is Frankie Corio. Her young dad, Calum, is Paul Mescal.) Yes, Mescal and Corio are fresh and amazing together. But the strongest impression Aftersun produces is its different, startlingly vivid, abrupt, staccato cinematic language (of most of the footage). Gregory Oke's close, intimate, angular camera is akin to Agnès Godard's for Claire Denis, but AFtersun has its own way of visiting moments, then cutting away from them. Wells has her own way of telling a story.

AS Mike D'Angelo wrote in a private subscriber review that's positive, yet lukewarm, the film is "hyper-specific in detail but largely uneventful." He goes on to say Wells is "seeking to evoke rather than to dramatize," which is curiously imprecise - though "evoke" and "dramatize" don't do justice here. The effect is of vividly recalled instinctive memories, so close to the unconscious workings of the brain words like "story," "evoke," or "dramatize" are irrelevant. We can now quote the other half of A.O. Scott's sentence, "unlocking the medium’s often dormant potential to disclose inner worlds of consciousness and feeling."

At the same time, as we watch we subconsciously form in our mind a conventional movie about that familiar theme, a preteen's summer vacation, and scenes of a father and daughter. Thus we also have to come to terms with an idea expressed by Elena Lazic in Playlist: "Bold acrobatics in editing and ambitious creative choices," she says, "feel all the more superfluous next to Mescal's effortless charisma." One can understand how someone would say this. Corio and Mescal play wonderfully together, and they might easily impress in a flatter, more conventional film. But the style of the film and the performances are not at odds with - they enhance one another, producing a kind of double whammy.

Still, at first you may like me be fighting what you're seeing on screen. Editing styles are staccato these days, but Wells seems much of the time to refuse to follow through on anything. One may see this as memory's revisiting of sense impressions, with no need for logic or narrative connections. Aftersun, whose title refers to some skin product, threads through dozens and dozens of details, a sauna, a mud bath, a lonely karaoke singalong by the girl, her many interactions with other kids, scuba diving, pool playing (Sophie is good at pool, and she is a bold, adventurous girl, ready to plunge into adolescence) a swimming pool, drinks, dinners, a rug shop, the bedroom with one big and one tiny bed (because twin beds were not provided), and on and on and on and on, and lots of precisely remembered late-nineties ephemera, including multiple half-forgotten or dearly remembered pop songs (Justin Chang says Aftersun has "an unerring musical ear for its moment") for viewers for whom this was the most intense of remembered eras.

But this is quintessentially the kind of film one only puts together later. Its vividness almost chokes you and doesn't let you think. It glimpses Calum's unhappiness. (Some say Mescal isn't up to the subtlety required to convey this mysteriously though if so, why does everybody get it? However having him alone, from behind, in a long miserable wail, seems perhaps a tad obvious: not everything in this youthful, personal, "emotionally autobiographical" first film is perfect nor need it be.) It's only later, if the film works right for you, that the sadness, the "overwhelming emotional force" (as Justin Chang puts it) starts to sink in. See Jesse Hassenger in Paste Magazine: "In its gentle, modest way, Aftersun might well break your heart." Details are left mysterious, but a final sequence, one of a number of imaginary or imaginatively embroidered moments, is a shocker, telegraphing the finality, the awareness that this dad whom his young daughter didn't see very often, because she lived with her mother in Scotland and he lived in London, may never have been seen again. Probably the strongest emotion we take away from a movie is sadness, and that sadness at its best and most effective is a gathering of emotion that builds in the memory on the way home or hours later. Aftersun is a somewhat indigestible and also ephemeral little masterpiece, and one of the best and saddest films of the year.

Aftersun, 96 mins., debuted in International Critics' Week at Cannes May 21, 2022. It showed at many subsequent international festivals; 32 are listed on IMDb, including Edinburgh, Telluride, Toronto, and New York. US limited release from Oct. 21, 2022. Metacritic rating 95%.

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