Aftersun – A Depiction of Complex Grief

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Content warning: References to suicide

Film is a powerful medium for its ability to give shape and expression to objects that are otherwise difficult to define. For this reason, I am drawn to it as a means of understanding grief, which entails such depth of feeling that words alone often seem inadequate.

In Aftersun, an extraordinary debut film from Charlotte Wells, I found a depiction of the grief process that I believe will resonate with anyone who has lost someone close to them.

Aftersun, at its heart, is a film about memory. Sophie, the central character, attempts to remember her father, Calum, through the lens of video camera footage that they shot together on holiday when she was 11 years old. The holiday is a treasured yet painful memory. As we watch Sophie relive it, we see what she has come to realise but could only partially understand as a child. Calum was suffering from a deep depression, but was careful to conceal his inner turmoil from Sophie,
whom he loved dearly.

Photo provided by Joss

The clear implication is that Calum has since died by suicide. Reliving the holiday through Sophie’s eyes, we share in her anguish at the haziness of memory. One of the most frustrating aspects of bereavement can be that sense of being unable to conjure a full and clear image of the person who has passed away. Wells depicts this blurred remembering process through an arresting strobe light metaphor, interspersed throughout the film, that I cannot begin to describe for fear of cheapening it.

This serves as a reminder that grief is so much more than just missing a person. It is also about that retrospective process of trying to understand them by piecing together fragments of memory; an impossible, perennial jigsaw puzzle.

Aftersun also resonates in its depiction of grief as a lifelong, rather than transient, process. Sophie’s life is testament to the hollowness of the instruction that grievers should simply ‘move on’. In the present day, twenty years on from the holiday, she has a loving partner, a child, and an apparently comfortable life. But this does not confer an immunity to grief. What Sophie is experiencing might be labelled as a ‘grief burst’.

Fundamentally, no matter how well set up in life one may feel, the intense feelings associated with grief can return with a vengeance at any moment. These bursts of grief are often, though not always, stimulated by a significant date, memory, or association.

During the film, Sophie turns 31 – the same birthday that Calum marked on their holiday together, and which for him served to intensify his self-loathing. She has also recently had a child of her own. These life events triggered an association with her father and thereby activated her dormant grief, bringing it bubbling up to the surface.

The film also touches on the theme of regret. Sophie, aged 11, blends perceptiveness and obliviousness in that manner very particular to children. Despite her young age, and Calum’s attempts to hide his depression, Sophie knows that something is not right with her father. But quite understandably, she does not know what to do with this knowledge or how to help him.

This weighs heavily on her adult self. Many bereaved people will recognise this depiction of the regret that one feels for not having behaved differently when they and their loved one still had time together.

Speaking personally, I found Aftersun to be an enormously cathartic experience that gave expression and validity to my own feelings regarding loss and bereavement. (Incidentally, after having watched this film, I will also never listen to David Bowie’s Under Pressure the same way again.)

I hope that if you watch this outstanding film – which is charming and devastating in equal measure – you will find it equally transcendent. Just don’t forget to bring a packet of tissues.


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