How to make a contemporary weepie? That may not have been Charlotte Wells's intention, though it is a vital aspect of the result. It is also about her relationship with her father but, more importantly, it is a film about what makes a good father. Here we have a film that affectively moves us, is rooted in the biographical and is thematically about the idea of parenting. How autobiographical it is may have been a key component of the press the film has received, as if its truth and honesty can be found there. We see it evident in an interview Wells gave to Robert Daniels: "I just think over the course of writing and allowing memories and anecdotes from childhood to form the first skeleton outline of this script was a process of searching through my own past," she says, before adding, "and that process found its way onto the page, you know?" (RogerEbert.Com)
But far more interesting is what it means to be a father, and how one might be moved by the predicament the film offers. It is this predicament which can leave the viewer in tears despite a work that has very little to do with the traditional melodramatic invoking of emotion, even if we can think of various films that play up the relationship between a child and a parent to access the strongest of feelings. Like many a melodrama (Stella Dallas, Now Voyager, Imitation of Life and some films that aren't generically so, Bicycle Thieves, Paper Moon, El Bano del Papa), the film gains much of its feeling from asking what a parent happens to be; what constitutes a parental role and function? Stella Dallas provocatively proposes that the best thing a mother can do is create an enormous gap between herself and her daughter if the mother is vulgar and the daughter capable of moving in much more rarified social circles than her crude mum. There is a lot more to this Barbara Stanwyck vehicle than this; just as there is a lot more to Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life than a film about a daughter who reckons her mother should stay out of her business as she tries to make her way in a white world that her light coloured skin can help her navigate as long as her black mother remains invisible.
Yet what we can say of all these films (including Aftersun) is that they access a profoundly familial feeling that needn't at all be conservative, as though they seek in their examination of family a principle that can go beyond expectation. Aftersun complicates matters and makes itself a very contemporary film (though set in the 90s) by also making it about 'mental health', a catch-all term that manages to indicate both a diagnostic specificity and an encompassing breadth. Plenty classic films addressed this question too, but often within a term that could be narratively utilisable rather than psychiatrically ambiguous. Now Voyager tells us that Bette Davis is early in the film having a nervous breakdown, as the doctor tells Davis's mother that her daughter is seriously ill. But what matters is that Davis is deemed enough of a lost cause in the early stages so that everybody can be amazed at the metamorphosis which takes place as she becomes the swan hidden inside the duckling.
In this sense, unlike in Now Voyager, mental illness isn't narratively propulsive in Aftersun. It permeates the story but it doesn't propel it unless we read the film a particular way seeing the trip as part of father Calum's attempts to deal with his feelings of anguish. It is more though that the film explores a father/daughter relationship and where we might believe that the problem with depression is at least partly a consequence of financial limitations and unreliable employment. It seems a cafe venture has fallen through and at various stages we notice that Calum is worried about money, conspicuously so when he frets over the price of a rug, and after his daughter Sophie loses a scuba diving mask. Even their stay at the resort is being done on the cheap: other guests have opted for the all-inclusive; Calum has gone for the room-only deal. It appears too that his recent relationship has broken down and that the girlfriend has gone back to her former boyfriend. There are plenty of reasons why Calum might be unhappy, but the film is permeative in its use of mental health rather than propulsive. "We worked hard to keep Calum at arm's length," Wells says, "to keep more physical distance between him and the camera in order to create the feeling that he is in some sense unknowable. (AnOtherMagazine) If classic Hollywood often used psychological states categorically, all the better to move the story along, Wells wonders how it works if ambiguously deployed.
This leads us to the film's casting, with Paul Mescal playing a character perhaps more tortured than his persona allows. While his soft and gentle demeanour works well for the father/daughter relationship when the film wishes to register affection, it works less effectively when it wishes to show a distance Sophie cannot close. Wells believed that "Paul offered [as Calum] an innate warmth and stabilityboth in personality and in his physicalitythat felt essential to the character. It felt essential that the character struggle be surprising and that we have within our control the ability to disclose it over the course of the film." (RogerEbert.Com) Here though Aftersun may be at its weakest, with Mescal a fine actor of that warmth and stability as Wells proposes, but less plausible when showing crisis. In an important scene when Sophie and Calum have agreed to do a karaoke duo, he pulls out and leaves his daughter to go on stage alone. Narratively here is a scene clearly there to register the struggles Calum has with his moods, but it seems too close to insecurity and petulance rather than turbulence and despair. Equally, when he spits at the mirror in self-disgust, it insists on a level of aggression Mescal struggles to convey. Perhaps Wells saw in Mescal's casting the softness and decency that would leave us surprised by the steady revelation of his mental state; what happens though if the level of surprise is such that we don't quite believe in the torment?
One needn't ask of a performer that they have a history of psychological disturbance, of course, nor are we proposing that Mescal isn't a very good actor. It is a question of casting. "Directing is 90% casting, right?" Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss say. They are quoted in a piece by Sophie Elmhirst about the important casting director Nina Gold. Mike Leigh, interviewed in the same article, says of Gold: "'She has an uncanny ability to get it...to differentiate at the most subtle and refined level between one actor and the next." (Guardian) Mescal brings to the role a cuddly confidence without being a big or a heavy man and yet the edge of self-hatred the film needs is a demand too far. There are many British actors that have this quality, which allows a contrary combination of self-loathing with self-love; a caustic charisma that can be found in so many British and Irish actors that it can easily become a long list: Richard Burton, Stanley Baker, Albert Finney; and more recently Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Craig and Tom Hardy. Even that newer generation would be too old for Mescal's role here, but what about Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Barry Keoghan or Jamie Robson? The latter may be the least-known but he had already appeared in Wells's wonderful Blue Christmas, a fifteen-minute account of a debt collector for a bank working during the festive season and leaving at home a wife with mental health issues severe enough to give the denouement a dramatic force. Robson always seems as central character Alec to be in a state of frustration that could turn to anger, a compromised man aware that if he doesn't do his bosses' bidding will he be able to support a wife and child? If the theme of Aftersun is what makes a good father, it may also be the notion behind Blue Christmas, with Calum the nurturing dad without a job and Alec the father determined to go out there and make a crust even if it meets with the son's disdain. "Davey's pa says you're scum for calling in on people on Christmas," the boy says. However, winning the child's respect doesn't appear to much interest Alec; it is important to Calum, and we might wonder what tensions were involved in the casting of a role that had mutually incompatible demands without even taking into account the shrewdness of the film business, one that might insist on an actor who has already shown up in a Maggie Gyllenhaal film The Lost Daughter, from Elena Ferrante's book, and had a leading role in the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney's Normal People?
Much has been said about Frankie Corio's casting as Sophie: it "was a long process, like six months. Eventually we met 16 people in person in Glasgow, and one of them was Frankie..." (i.d) Wells says. Elsewhere she talks about Corio getting chosen over 800 applicants who were asked by Wells and her casting director, Lucy Pardee, to submit videos of themselves hanging out at home, doing typical family things. "Frankie just blew us away with her acting. I'd expected to find a kid who would be themselves and I'd capture that as best I could, but Frankie could really step outside of herself and tap into specific emotions when asked, and then shake that off quite quickly and move to something else. She's extremely special in that way." (AnOtherMagazine) Yet little is made of Mescal's casting, perhaps because it lacks the excitement of an unknown, or Wells wishes to be diplomatic about the importance of casting an actor who was already becoming a star, rather than someone much less well established.
What matters to us however is what the film is about, and what affect it wants to produce. Blue Christmas concerns a frustrated father who goes out and earns some money; Aftersun is interested in showing us a dad who is spending what little money he has. One could see that casting Robson may have given the film more pent-up aggression that appears to come more naturally to his persona than it does to Mescal's, no matter Robson's role in My Loneliness is Killing Me, where he plays a gay man trying to stay faithful but caught in various hook-ups too. Yet this is another self-hating Robson part, and at the same time shows he can play sensitive within harsh. If Aftersun wished to be more of a psychological examination of a man's psyche, he would have been ideal casting, but if Wells was looking for an emotional throughline that leaves the nature of mental illness in the background, and in some way the father in the background too, then Mescal's casting works. There are many roles in contemporary British cinema Mescal wouldn't be suited for, including, the male leads in Red Road, Fish Tank, Hunger, Bronson, Tyrannosaur, and This is England, as if so many of these British films demand a tension in the actor's demeanour that seems keen to capture a greater tension in the society of which they are a part.
However, if we accept that Wells wanted however subconsciously to create a weepie, we may have to accept a mild simplification in Calum for the affect she hoped to achieve. "For me, it's about grief", Wells says, and when asked to describe the feeling at the conclusion, she was terrified and then discovered that "my whole body flushed with warmth and I perfectly articulated the feeling I wanted at the end of the movie." (Sight and Sound) Wells also says that "there's room for slightly different takes on the ending" (Sight and Sound), and yet, if the exact nature of events at the end are vague, the feeling demanded is unequivocal. Nobody is likely to come out of Aftersun believing they have seen a happy ending, even if they couldn't quite explain the ending they have seen. It has to do with a parting between Calum and Sophie at the airport, a disco that he disappears into, and Sophie looking back years later with the aid of video footage. Was that day at the airport the last time she saw him, has he recently died and she is now looking over the footage; is he still alive but that incipient dark cloud now enveloping him entirely? We don't know but we do feel that all the available lines of interpretation are those of loss in one form or another. All we need to know is that here is a father who struggles with the role assigned to him as a father seen from a particular perspective, is redeemed by the perspective upon him that is his daughter's love, and struggles more generally with an illness the film is too discreet to delineate.
Instead, the film offers us the importance of touch, which we will have more to say about in a moment, but it also appears a very modern film in its desire for ambiguity meeting the unequivocal need for strong emotion. When we say modern, let us call this is a millennial arthouse aesthetic at odds with the sixties works of distanciation, where films by Antonioni, Godard, Bunuel and Bergman sought to create epistemological confusion all the better to create a questioning of affect. This was part of a long 20th-century tradition that would include Shklovsky's ostranenie, Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt and work by the Nouveau Roman novelists, with Alain Robbe-Grillet claiming: "to tell a story has become strictly impossible." (For a New Novel) And so too of course in painting and music, with the development of Abstract Expressionism and action painting, twelve-tone music and Cage's famous 4' 33. Let us not pretend to be saying anything at all fresh here, and if anything the conflation between such different movements and intentions may appear almost offensive. But the point is to note that while much in 20th-century art rested on the integrity of the form over the given affect it was expected to achieve, nevertheless feelings were produced; just in new ways. Godard's Le Mepris is a very moving film, its luxuriant Georges Delerue score, its Capri locations, its precise use of colour blocks, with white, blue, red and yellow all functioning as properties beyond the objects to which they are attached. Even Cage's silent work offers an awkward silence, evidenced in one BBC: Live at the Barbican recording of the piece where the audience takes a moment to cough and the conductor wipes his brow.
As though aware that representation can be reconfigured but feeling still evident, directors of the millennium including Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers and Pedro Almodovar wanted, out of representative ambiguity, dramatic eschewal, self-reflexivity and shock devices, to generate strong responses in viewers. Dancer in the Dark expects us to be moved by Selma's plight no matter how absurd and deliberate the melodramatic tropes; Haneke wants us terrified in Funny Games, though he makes us aware of the devices that create that terror. Rosetta limits our purview to a space around the central character and eschews non-diegetic music but still expects us to be moved by the central character's situation. Talk to Her can't but leave the viewer musing over the implausibilities and exaggerations in the plot but the viewer is still saddened by deaths and hopeful over love at the conclusion. In different ways, the filmmakers discovered that many of the problems directors of the sixties fretted over could be absorbed without audiences feeling emotionally lost.
Here, Wells allows us to view footage at the beginning and the end of the film, and during it, without the viewer having to locate it. The images remain vague and indeterminate, clearly of the trip the now grown-up daughter and the father made that summer, but far more indeterminately present than we often find in even intelligent, demanding films utilising home movie footage like Man of Flowers and Paris, Texas. At the beginning of Aftersun, we see Sophie filming her father before she takes what sounds like a polaroid, which leads to a freeze frame, with a shot too of a person reflected back in the image. The image then becomes digitally decomposed, moves to a black screen, and then to footage in a nightclub, with strobe effects, before giving us again a digitised disintegration. It isn't quite Bergman's Persona but close enough for us to see just how much the most radical of techniques adopted in the sixties can work in a film today. But if Bergman wanted to generate a dislocated aesthetic, Wells has us wondering how these images connect up, how they will contribute to the telling of her story. Even if by the end we aren't quite sure of the status of some of the images, when and where exactly they originated, the viewer is in little doubt that they are all contributing to an emotional resonance that isn't too far removed from those generated in a tear-jerker. But unlike a classic Hollywood melodrama, Wells's work has passed through radical self-reflexivity.
Yet perhaps we are too hastily assuming what Hollywood was, and we should recall that a number of these melodramas, often made by Douglas Sirk, were read retrospectively, in the wake of those sixties distanciated developments, as distanciating themselves, helped along by Sirk's own remarks. "In Imitation of Life, you don't believe the happy end, and you're not really supposed to. What remains in your memory is the funeral. The pomp of the dead, anyway the funeral. You sense it's hopeless, even though in a very bare and brief little scene afterwards the happy turn is being indicated. Everything seems to be OK, but you well know it isn't." (Sirk on Sirk) He knew as well though that there was only so much irony that could be absorbed into the material without it falling apart. When interviewer Jon Halliday says, "but Imitation is somehow like Magnificent Obsession: they both come from the same zone of what would be called 'the weepies', and have the sentimentality that goes with them", Sirk replies: "Exactly. And more or less I had the same tough time fighting this quality in Imitation of Life as in Magnificent Obsession, knowing also it couldn't be removed from the plot without the whole thing collapsing."
Yet the ironic is far away from the dislocative. In Sirk's films the sentimental is the expectation and the ironic the surprising elements one finds in the material if we look at it from a certain perspective. It was that perspective some of the seventies theorists saw in the work and partly why they elevated it above other melodramas. Laura Mulvey and Thomas Elsaesser for example weren't seeing smooth tales of complicated love amongst the bourgeoisie, but, in Mulvey's words, "contradictions, whether on the level of form or of narrative incident, [that] seem to save the films from belonging blindly to the bourgeois ideology which produced them." ('Notes on Sirk and Melodrama') Elsaesser reckoned, "similarly, when Robert Stack shows Lauren Bacall her hotel suite in Written on the Wind, where everything from flowers and pictures on the wall to underwear, nail polish, and handbag is provided, Sirk is not only characterizing a rich man wanting to take over the woman he fancies body and soul or showing the oppressive nature of an unwanted gift." "He is also making", Elsaesser adds, "a direct comment on the Hollywood stylistic technique that 'creates' a character out of the elements of the decor and that prefers actors who can provide as blank a facial surface and as little of a personality as possible." ('Tales of Sound and Fury') If in Mulvey's account, Sirk brings out ironic contradictions; in Elsaesser's, the director plays up the ironic similarities between the film that is being made and the characters who are products of a made universe too. Yet to watch Sirk's films without any interest in or understanding of these nuances wouldn't hamper the viewer's engagement or even understanding of the film. Such modes of irony are incorporative; they aren't dislocative. In other words, we don't have to see the film through this added texture (as we must in an Almodovar) nor do the films generate an ambiguity of event that still insists we arrive at concreteness of feeling. We know what we are crying over. When Elsaesser wonders "how to make stones weep", concreteness has often been central to doing so; by making sure the viewer is well aware of what is creating the emotion. Nobody doubts that one is grieving for the dead maid in Imitation of Life, and the mother's sacrifice in Stella Dallas.
But what exactly is the viewer crying over in Aftersun, as Wells dislocates the meaning from the affect? We don't know if the father is alive or dead; and if dead, when he died. We don't know whether in the intervening years his depression got worse or got better; whether the father remained alive but with Sophie and Calum becoming estranged. Was this the last time she spent quality time with her dad because he was no longer there, no longer wished to be there or no longer could be there? Is the footage we are watching from this trip the footage she views because that is all she has, or is this the last time she felt her father was there as himself and not a person in despair? Classic tearjerkers don't invoke such questions to this degree despite inevitable ambiguities of their own. (When for example in Stella Dallas does the mother start playing up her vulgarity so that her daughter will focus on life with her father who can give her a much more comfortable existence?)
Yet if Wells's film feels close to melodrama in the feelings it invokes, it can seem close to realism in the style it adopts. However, let's not run ahead of ourselves; we shouldn't yet leave melodrama behind. As Elsaesser and others have often noted: much of melodrama especially in the fifties emphasised the colours, with Elsaesser quoting Sirk saying "almost throughout the picture I used deep-focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colours. I wanted this to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can't break through." ('Tales of Sound and Fury') Wells's colour too is emphatic, with the director saying: cameraman (Gregory Oke) and I had a series of photos that we both collected from family photo albums...and we aimed to match the look of the photographs. We went with a magenta skin tone. We wanted the film to feel really bright and lush and colorful." (RogerEbert.Com) But it is as though she has no less absorbed the work of photographers like Martin Parr, someone whose frequent photos of holidaymakers offered highly saturated images of people looking to get some colour. The tanned bodies and bright clothing in his Benidorm series suggest an influence, though Wells is less given to caricature. We can think of the moment Calum and Sophie first sit by the pool and observe the family opposite, or when Sophie is playing a video game and, after, a game of pool, we note the brightness of the red, coin-operated bike her neighbour sits on, or the brilliant blue of the pool table. The personal directorial recollection using family photographs of the time, and the professional acuity of a photographer like Parr, seem combined in an image that is as rich as a work of fifties melodrama but with a greater reflective aspect as if Wells wanted to vitalise through the colour but enervate through the story, creating a sense that these really are the best of times; the worst of times. It is a moment of great closeness between the daughter and her father; and the burgeoning awareness that her father isn't a well man.
In this sense, the film's realism as a form meets with limited awareness as a state. Sophie is only eleven after all, and could not hope to understand her father's illness, and since, too, the film is partially viewed through her limited knowledge, the film adopts a narrow purview quite consistent with contemporary approaches to realism in British film: Lynne Ramsay, Andrea Arnold, Clio Barnard, and others. It feels more confidential than the realism of Ken Loach but with a similar sense of observation as if passing through the immediacy of the Dardennes and the intimacy of Claire Denis. When Sophie and Calum take turns speaking to Sophie's mum, Wells frames the shots from a perspective that feels limited, perhaps subjective. The shots are close and tight, and when we have a low angle on Calum, we aren't surprised when the next shot shows us Sophie beside the phone box, approximately the same height as the shot we have just seen. Hence the immediacy meeting intimacy, with Wells suggesting that the limitation of perspective isn't only a child-like view of the world but a necessary view of it. Sophie will inevitably be limited, and even more so as a young child, but the aesthetic works to emphasise Calum's inaccessibility, and also helps generate the tears the film accesses. It gives the impression that it isn't just Sophie's point of view that we are seeing in many of the shots but the film's acceptance that parents are mysterious beings who become a little less so when the child becomes the adult, perhaps the parent. Hence a form that is realistic in its use of limitation and reflectively reflexive in utilising the digital video to try and find a way back into a holiday past.
Aftersun is a film that absorbs the richness of colour in melodrama, and the tears the genre often demands, alongside a realism of perspective meeting the dislocating devices more common to sixties elements that insist on the foregrounding of the form. But what invokes those tears many people have shed? It rests surely on this question of fatherhood and not on the question of mental health. If the film keeps the details of Calum's illness vague it may rest on Wells being aware that the illness gets in the way of making Calum the father he wishes to be. We may not care if he is this father, and nor may Sophie, but that is part of the film's elliptical skill the ability to convey a father's wish to live up to himself and the daughter's dismay at witnessing a man who isn't always quite himself. If someone can say that they're not quite themselves some days then Calum might be feeling this all the time based on his expectations of what a father should be and some of the time given the condition he has. Whether the condition is a product of the failure he feels, or whether he becomes in his eyes a failed father because of the illness, we cannot say, and the eleven-year-old Sophie can't either, while her older self is just left with fragments of her father's life. Her recollections, if that is what we care to call them, are potentially as fragmentary as her father's personality on this holiday, and if we are right to assume the film is about 'fathering', then the film's form is more about 'remembering'.
It is partly why we have invoked those sixties filmmakers while acknowledging that the affect Wells achieves is antithetical to the distanciation many of those films demanded. It is also why we can see that from one perspective Mescal is wonderful casting and from another potentially too immediately sympathetic a presence. Wells wouldn't see it that way, saying "it was nice to play with an audience's expectation of Paul," but that is always a fascinating question when it comes to casting, and why we have the terms typecasting, miscasting and casting against type. Typecasting can often just seem like another word for persona: that John Wayne wasn't typecast in Westerns and war movies; it was what allowed him to be John Wayne. Casting him against type in romantic comedies and musicals would almost certainly have led instead to miscasting. Clearly, Mescal in Aftersun isn't the same as casting John Wayne in Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris, but often the problem of casting is a lot subtler than this. There are many famous examples: where we find it inexplicable that Ronald Reagan could have played Rick in Casablanca, and Jeff Bridges Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. But there are numerous others where the casting could have worked: Nicole Kidman wanted the role of Anna in Notting Hill, Meryl Streep would have liked to play Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams but the role went to Jessica Lange. Claire Danes could have been in Titanic; Lord of the Rings could have had Russell Crowe instead of Vigo Mortensen, and Roberts might have been Viola in Shakespeare in Love. "The movie had many iterations. Julia Roberts was going to do it for a long time, and then that version fell apart." Gwyneth Paltrow said "It ended up in Miramax, and I was the first person they offered it to." (People) As for Titanic: "...There was strong interest in her for the role of Rose, Danes said, "but honestly, I'd just made this romantic epic with Leo in Mexico City [Romeo + Juliet], which is where they were going to shoot Titanic, and I just didn't have it in me." (People)
Few of these instances would have suggested disaster, and sometimes we need to look more closely at a film and an actor's career to see how subtly casting can work or not. Jessica Lange seems a more earthy actress than Streep (who is more ethereal); Roberts a more assertive presence than Paltrow. But probably both Sweet Dreams and Shakespeare in Love wouldn't have been much changed by the difference. Neither would have been disastrous casting, but who would have wanted the mediocre Reagan as Rick, and the wonderful but hardly prehensile Bridges as Bickle? While there might be individual scenes one actor may have performed better than another, what matters is that the film's general psychological, emotional, narrational and thematic through-lines work with the actor cast. If one or two are stronger or weaker that is okay, and Mescal in Aftersun is a good example of this. We might not be convinced by his Tai Chi moves as we would have been with Robson in the role whose background is in Eastern meditation and philosophy, including Tai Chi martial arts nor in other aspects that we have pointed out. But if we are right to say the film is chiefly, emotionally, a weepie, and that its thematic purpose is to explore what it means to be a good father, then Mescal isn't so much perfectly cast as usefully cast for what most interests Wells: the warmth and stability Wells mentions. Other actors may have been better at capturing the periphery of the character, may have better caught the character's fear, anger and distress, but this would have made for a darker film than Wells may have wished to make. When near the end of the pivotal scene where Calum can no longer hide his profound moodiness from Sophie, and has left her to sing REM's Losing My Religion alone, he offers to pay for singing lessons. She replies: "stop doing that" and her dad asks stop doing what. Sophie says, "stop offering to pay for something when I know you don't have the money." It is the moment where the notion of being a good father meets with Calum's despair. Calum has failed her at this moment but it isn't because he doesn't have enough money but because he has left her alone to sing the song and she feels vulnerable. She attacks him materially but only after feeling abandoned. It is the emotion that counts but the materiality she can perhaps better understand. However, since this isn't only about an eleven-year-old and her thoughts about her dad, but a woman who is now roughly her father's age when the trip was taken, she can see that the hurt she felt as she righteously attacked her father for a financial claim he wouldn't have been able to meet, is also about, or more especially concerns, the pain he must have been in that night when he couldn't join her on stage. If the film is a work contained by the present that it all but ignores, it becomes apparent in a dislocated way rather than through the immediacy of categorial reflection. The film could have differentiated the present from the past by utilising voice-over. But instead, it is more indeterminate than that, as we have Calum, to mix our quotations, who observes through a glass darkly, being recalled in tranquillity.
It is this doubly registered perception that gives the film its visual density, as though Wells wished to find a visual field caught between the father's perceptions, the eleven-year-old Sophie, and Sophie's older self. It might be the moments where the film offers black leader, the cutaways to hang gliders, or the repetition of the beginning much later in the film where the polaroid sound we hear early on becomes manifest in an image Sophie takes. Those hang-gliding shots resemble just a little Joan Miro's dancing figures and create a reflective space that in another filmmaker's work could lead to quiet contemplation for the viewer (as most famously in Ozu). But here they can also be seen as if suggesting time has slowed down, with moments becoming retrospectively momentous even if they had been initially mundane. The sense of drift is also there in the soundtrack, with Catatonia's 'Road Rage' fading out as the film focuses on the hang-gliders in the earlier scene and Blur's 'Tender' later on, music very much of its moment, and that can give to the mundane the momentous when recalled in that tranquillity. Classical music or a jazz piece wouldn't quite have given the film this sense of the past in the present. The music isn't there just to capture the period as we frequently find in a film ushering in the hippie period with A Whiter Shade of Pale and White Rabbit; instead, it tenderises the period, making every aspect of it contain a retrospective melancholy.
Earlier we proposed that the film's meaning is ambiguous; that we can read the ending various ways though nobody is likely to assume that Calum is alive or, if alive, well. The film can't achieve its affect with such an assumption. However, while we wouldn't wish to close down its meaning, we wouldn't wish either to leave the conclusion more open than Wells would surely demand. Earlier in the film when speaking to the diving instructor, Calum says: I can't see myself at forty to be honest. Surprised I made it to thirty." Later, after we see him sobbing on his bed, seen from behind, the film cuts to a postcard he has written to Sophie, saying he loves her very much and that she should never forget this. At the end of the film, Sophie leaves Turkey alone and will presumably fly directly back to Edinburgh while Calum will return afterwards to London. But does he return and is this the postcard he will send before taking his life in a foreign country? It seems he doesn't wish to return to live in Edinburgh, saying he never really felt he belonged there, and there is little in London awaiting him now that he has split up with his girlfriend and the business venture isn't quite happening. It would be too emphatic to say that he takes his life after she leaves but hardly implausible a reading that he does, no matter if he also says on the vacation that when she is older he wants her still to confide in him. If she takes drugs; he wants to know. And if Sophie chooses this moment in her life to look back on her father and their trip together, this needn't be because of his recent demise but that she has made it perhaps to his age. The older Sophie awakens and her partner wishes her a happy birthday as a baby cries offscreen. Is it the presence of what we must assume is her own child, and that she is herself maybe thirty, that invokes such memories of a death that might have taken place years before?
However, just because we can't say something with certainty doesn't mean we must accept a greater ambiguity than the film warrants. Who knows exactly how our subconscious puts together material that allows us to arrive at a strong feeling even if the representation is vague? But Wells insists on putting it together solidly enough for her to claim: "as an adult, when she visits those memories, she realizes that her father was emotionally broken and needed a shoulder to cry on. She was too young then; she perhaps sensed that all was not well, but she was not capable of completely understanding her father." (Digital Mafia Talkies) Most would agree loosely with this but to disagree wouldn't be wrong. We might say that we can reach out but never hope to reach a person in so desperate a condition. All an eleven-year-old daughter can do is try and understand her own needs rather than try to comprehend her father's. If we might read it this way, it is partly because the film focuses clearly on her desires over the absence of her father's. She is excited to sing karaoke, play pool, have a mud bath and receive a yellow armband from a girl leaving the next day; one that allows her too to have an all-inclusive for the remainder of the vacation. She might understand better at thirty her father's despair but, for all the footage she has of the trip, that wouldn't include her father sobbing on the bed or spitting at the mirror.
The film formally acknowledges the limits of her world by trying to convey one that she can only project onto as an adult. A number of scenes are there for us to understand what neither Sophie at eleven nor Sophie at thirty will comprehend and at the same time, there are scenes that we witness but can't comprehend either. It is unlikely the footage shot will allow the adult Sophie much more of an understanding of her father than the information she had at eleven. What she may be able to comprehend is how impossible it is to help someone out of depression, and that her child self couldn't have expected to do so. This isn't a film about guilt, nor even about regret. It is about loss, and if there may have been something Calum could have done about how he perceives himself as a father, then maybe something could have been done about the sense of loss permeating the film. And yet when he says he is surprised he has made it to thirty, this indicates that whatever despair he feels is greater than the sense of inadequacy over being a poor parent even if the specific time period makes parenting a central question as it surely shows us Sophie now a mother
When the adult Sophie gets out of bed she steps on a rug that will be familiar to viewers from earlier in the film. It is the carpet the father sees near the film's beginning and buys later on. It isn't a cheap rug (850 in the 90s) but not especially expensive either, even if it looks like he has had to think long and hard about buying it. He does so and there it will be in his daughter's flat, an object she can walk on just as the digital footage is something she can watch. These aren't cheap items. The personal digital camera would have cost more than the rug, and here they are vital elements of a life remembered. It captures an aspect of the film's despair and an awareness that money matters, and the father's awareness of its importance not completely misplaced. Film remains an expensive medium, no matter if those digital cameras have replaced celluloid and made shooting costs much cheaper. But, finally, the emotions have no price, even if it is often pricey conjuring them up in film form. There is something beautiful about a film that is about a father who never quite had enough money to go around, becoming the subject of a film about a daughter who diegetically retrospectively sees there was enough of it for her to step on that beautiful rug and to watch images of her beautiful father. It may borrow from the difficult and dislocating films of the sixties, yet asks that such images can serve the most subdued of melodramatic forms.
© Tony McKibbin