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Aftersun: Charlotte Wells captures the fragmentation of memory and loss

Charlotte Wells’ directorial debut Aftersun is a tender exploration of parent-child relationships and the fleeting nature of memory

There is a scene that Charlotte Wells keeps returning to from her film Aftersun. In it, father and daughter Callum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio) are immersed in a mud bath towards the end of the holiday in Turkey that is the focus of the film.

They’d had a strange, unspoken fight the night before, Callum disappearing for hours and passing out drunk on Sophie’s bed, Sophie locked out of the room and quietly exploring the ramshackle resort.

In this scene, Callum is trying to apologise to Sophie as he smears mud, hand flat and wide, over his arm. Sophie shrugs it off, smiling, barely seeming to hear him. She takes a fistful of mud and, more precisely and attentively, paints it on his other side.

It is a scene that came both from Wells – and her “own inability and inadequacy to self-express” – and from the film’s young star Corio. “Frankie doesn’t really like sitting in sadness,” Wells explains. “It [became] a product of different people and their different struggles to communicate.”

It also perfectly encapsulates the heart of Aftersun, Wells’ bruised, tender autofictional debut about a young woman looking back at her complicated relationship with her father during a childhood holiday. In the silent application of mud and the resisting of difficult emotions are families in microcosm: the inarticulate tensions, the intimacy of care, the regret that so often bridges the divide between childhood and adulthood.

In Aftersun, memory, much like language, is a fractured and elusive thing. The adult Sophie is barely anchored to her present, caught in relentless tides of recollection and grief – some kind of tragedy seems to have occurred between past and present, although we’re not quite sure what.

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She imagines herself at a rave, her young father dancing always out of reach as she wrestles through the crowd towards him. The soft, muted heartache of Aftersun – gaining the brightness and clarity of a Polaroid as the film unravels – comes not from any singular event, but from the very nature of looking back on a life that has since slipped away.

“I think the sadness comes from the joy, in a way,” Wells says, “which is to say that it is joy experienced as memory. It inherently creates distance between it and the present.”

Wells drew inspiration, she explains, from Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, fascinated by how they use cinematic language to give shape to something so amorphous as memory. The comparison with The Souvenir, in which a young film student tries to creatively process and capture a tragic relation- ship, seems particularly apt: in Aftersun, too, memory is both tactile and obscure, contained in ’90s camcorder footage and analogue snapshots that offer an incomplete transliteration of the past into the present.

“It’s hard to articulate,” Wells hesitates. “There are photographs that exist of me from when I’m very young that I feel I have a memory of being in that place and time, but I know I’m too young to remember that moment. I remember the sensation of seeing that photograph and over time have conjured some image of myself in that place.”

Memory is both passive and active: it washes over you and is sought after and rehearsed. So much of it unfolds on the edges, just beyond the corner of your eye – a moment you wish you had paid attention to but didn’t. In Aftersun, the visuals are overlaid with sounds from another shot, conversations and moments that are taking place beyond the screen, or reflected in surfaces.

“Greg [Oke, Aftersun’s cinematographer] and I spoke extensively about how we were going to shoot,” Wells says (she always speaks of herself in collaboration with others, which is lovely), “and we’re both interested in many of the same things, which is not seeing. We wanted to allow things to be outside.”

Wells keeps returning to the scene in the mud bath, but I cannot stop thinking of the adult Sophie looking for her father in the rave, as he dances and strobe lights cut him in and out of sight. It captures the fragmentation of memory and loss, cutting to the quick of what grief really is – an act of frustrated searching, of thwarted retrieval.

“I guess I made this film because I wasn’t really able to articulate that,” Wells says. “But absolutely. It comes in waves. It is complicated by many other emotions. And yeah, by an endless and impossible searching.”

Aftersun is out now in cinemas

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