How the emotional power of ‘Aftersun’ is felt

Towards the end of the bright drama “Aftersun”, there is a striking and at the same time mysterious image. It features Calum, a young single father on vacation with his daughter Sophie — he sits alone on his hotel bed, his back to the camera, seemingly naked, bent over and sobbing. It’s unclear why he’s crying – nothing in the film so far has suggested a reason – but the uncontrolled outpouring hints at something purifying within him, an ineffable anguish that neither his child nor the audience can relate to. absolutely records.

Loosely inspired by events in her own life, writer-director Charlotte Wells’ feature debut is filled with such intimate glimpses of a late 1990s Turkish escapade that adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) now looks back while reflecting on his unknowable father, portrayed with contained melancholy by Paul Mescal.

Speaking on a video call from London, Mescal recalled shooting that pivotal, wordless scene. The secret was to let its mystery speak for itself.

“One of the biggest discoveries I made was deciding not to diagnose Calum,” he says. “Don’t impose a set of symptoms on him. I feel a lot of empathy for Calum, his confusion and his fear. Making that decision gave me the ability to generate how big of a feeling this scene is. I find that when you see a character solving something – or not understanding something – it’s interesting. I tapped into a feeling he has no control over.

Wells, based in New York but also in London on that early November call, listens and nods. His film is very much about memory – how certain moments stay with us forever, but also how our interpretation of events can differ from what actually happened. After a string of standout shorts, Wells spent years developing “Aftersun,” but the story’s beautiful elusiveness — its accumulation of seemingly inconsequential fragments that gradually increase in emotional potency — makes it a difficult film to sum up, even for its creator.

“Articulating in words is always a challenge,” Wells says softly, laughing shyly, “that’s why I love movies.” During the early stages of the project, she was meeting Oscar-winning “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski, in which Wells “probably groped a vague impression of what it was like. It was certainly very hard to describe — and it still is. , in some ways, to concisely get to the heart of what it is.

Mescal, acclaimed for his sensitive work in “Normal People”, was quoted for Calum, the affectionate but recessive father who adores 11-year-old Sophie (newcomer Frankie Corio). But after being initially unavailable, the film’s production schedule changed, giving him time to read the script. “It may be a competitive streak,” he says, “but I read it on a Friday and said to my agents before the close of business, ‘We have to set up a meeting with Charlotte.’ And then I read the script another couple of times over that weekend, and if I’m speaking honestly, I was trying to get my foot in the door early because I figured any actor worth their salt would immediately interested.

“I never doubted the integrity of the emotion I was trying to convey,” says ‘Aftersun’ screenwriter and director Charlotte Wells.

Both the filmmaker and the actor exude a soft air — and perhaps a certain reluctance to potentially break their film’s dreamlike charm by explaining it too much. But if Mescal resisted identifying what plagues Calum, Wells did his due diligence while shaping the character.

“I have to write with specificity, even if the character doesn’t understand what’s happening to them,” she says. “This specificity is not necessarily noticeable. Mental health issues are messy, symptoms overlap, and diagnoses are often [incorrect]. Many mental illnesses are incredibly difficult to identify. I did a lot of research on this over several years while writing the script, and some of the most satisfying responses I’ve received to the film have come from people who have explained that it expresses something close of what they have experienced in a way they have never seen before. I feel that this work has been very valuable.

Due to the design of the film’s memory room, Wells and Mescal were essentially constructing an idea of ​​Calum built from Sophie’s fragile memories. Mescal focused on playing it with complete immediacy, which caused Wells problems when he turned to her for advice. “The idea of ​​it being a memory gave me a way out,” she notes. “If Paul [asked] a question about the motivation, sometimes I would simply answer: “It’s a memory, I don’t know.” But Paul inhabits a person, not a memory – it was an interesting thing to negotiate. I was forced to find a presence there too.

In this process, they were aided and abetted by Corio, whom Mescal bonded with simply by being a friend of his inexperienced co-star. “When you’re working with someone who’s never worked as an actor before,” he says, “the easiest way was the easiest, which is to enjoy the person’s company first, and then move on.” worry about the game later.” But fittingly for a film so sensitive to the bittersweet imperfection of memory, Mescal would occasionally preface his remarks by saying, “I don’t know if I remember this wrong,” suggesting that even the experience of doing “Aftersun” is likely to be subtly altered by the narrative. “I realize that I don’t remember certain moments that people want to talk about,” he admits. “It’s by hearing other people talk about it that I remember.”

Its confusion is understandable: the way “Aftersun” drifts deceptively from scene to scene – punctuated by meditative cuts of a person’s hand or a random passerby yelling at their child – the individual parts can be as fleeting as half-forgotten anecdotes. This apparent looseness has been painstakingly engineered.

“A part of [those shots] were entire scenes reduced to one frame,” says Wells. “Some were details in the script, and some were discovered on set based on months, if not years, of conversations with my cinematographer.” When it is suggested that the skillful execution of “Aftersun” resembles a magic trick, she takes issue with it. “I don’t have an answer as to what it is,” she said. “We didn’t intend to pull off an emotional heist.”

Yet “Aftersun” operates on a subliminal wavelength that leaves viewers unprepared for its slowly building emotion, which is as haunting as the mysteries Sophie will never unravel about her troubled father.

“I never doubted the integrity of the emotion I was trying to express,” says Wells. “If I imitate something, it’s the intimate films that mean something to me. I had the experience of doing [short] movies that very few people understood, but the few that seemed to connect with it in a meaningful enough way. And that was my hope for that – for a few people to connect in a deep way.

She laughs. “It still doesn’t work for everyone. But it certainly works for a lot more people than expected. »

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