Memory and grief are at the heart of this year’s best cinema
One of the many benefits filmmaking offers is the opportunity to preserve the memory or idea of a loved one and their life, immortalizing them through images which then live on in the minds of others. Another benefit is – as with any artistic practice – the opportunity to explore difficult feelings such as grief. Three 2022 films stand out in their exploration of the death of a parent: Charlotte Wells’ debut feature Aftersun, Joanna Hogg’s haunting drama The Eternal Daughter, and Mia Hansen-Løve’s One Fine Morning.
All have a degree of autobiography specifically relating to the main character’s relationship with a parent, and all three directors made the film in some effort to process or articulate their feelings about the loss of that person. Together these films create a dialogue with each other about how death and memories are handled in film, as well as how audiences might participate in the healing process.
Aftersun is an intimate and personal debut feature from writer and director Charlotte Wells that chronicles the memories that Sophie (played by Frankie Corio as a child and Celia Rowlson-Hall as an adult), has of a holiday she took with her young father Calum (Paul Mescal) in the 90s as an 11-year-old. When she watches the DV footage they both captured of the trip, she reconciles with the disparities between what she saw as a kid and what she knows now that she is older. The film washes over you like a wave – mundane family vacation activities pass while the feelings of the sun and salty water, along with the tension in the father and daughter’s relationship, remain.
The idea for the film occurred when Wells saw pictures of her and her father on vacation, and was struck by how young he looked. The story of the film was built out with memories of that vacation, but also of her childhood as a whole. Though Calum doesn’t explicitly die in the film, Wells has mentioned that the film is mainly based on (though not an exact recreation of) a vacation that her and her dad took together shortly before he died, and that it’s sort of her expression of the grief she still feels as well as a recording of the memories they shared together. As an audience, we are invited to recall our own memories of our childhood and our family, and the film excels in creating emotion through that.
Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter also deals with the memories of a parent. Filmmaker Julie (Tilda Swinton, playing an older version of Honor Swinton Byrne’s character from The Souvenir) takes her mother (also played by Tilda Swinton) to a former family home, now a hotel, to celebrate the mother’s birthday while she is working on her next screenplay. As the only two guests of the eerie hotel, the pair have little to interact with aside from each other. Julie is haunted by her mother’s memories as well as her own.
On the genesis of the film, Hogg expressed: “The story completely came about because of my relationship with my mother, and because of a fear of my mother one day disappearing… it’s something that has haunted me since I was a child”. She was also exploring her feelings of how her identity is intertwined with her mother, and how she might survive once her mother passes.
Despite already creating two extremely personal and autobiographical films in The Souvenir Parts I and II, The Eternal Daughter may be the most intimate film Hogg has made yet. The whimsicality of it allows her to portray more abstract ideas and create an atmosphere where the audience is able to feel what she feels without her having to describe it.
One Fine Morning, directed by Mia Hansen-Løve, has less to do with memory and more to do with the present moment, and all the heartbreak and happiness it can hold simultaneously. The film follows Sandra (Léa Seydoux) as she takes care of her daughter, visits her father Georg (Pascal Greggory) who is suffering from a neurodegenerative disease, and begins a love affair with her old friend Clément (Melvil Poupaud), who is married.
The film is a whirlwind of emotions – one moment, Sandra is laughing and kissing Clément when they have a moment away from her daughter, and the next moment she’s speaking with her father in the hospital, trying to remind him who she is. No matter what happens, her life keeps moving forward as she grows and discovers what she needs out of these relationships.
Hansen-Løve is known for making films that are inspired by events in her life, but this one is particularly autobiographical. Like Georg, Hansen-Løve’s own father suffered from a neurodegenerative disease, and she was pregnant while she was dealing with that change and with his death from COVID-19 soon after. The film was also a way of preserving the memory of her father – she wanted the character of Georg to speak and behave as her father did, and she used her father’s actual books in the film to decorate his apartment. The books are of great importance in the film and in real life – in a scene where Sandra is storing her father’s books at the apartment of his former student, they discuss how the books are what’s left of the father she used to know.
Hansen-Løve feels the same – that objects can act as a place for one’s soul to pass through or stay. Films can act in a similar way. As she said in an interview with A Good Movie to Watch, “films are a lot about keeping track of my memories because people will vanish and disappear, and we want other people to remember them, who they were, and why they were loved. Making this film was a way of keeping the memory of my father before it was too late”. Hansen-Love is always happy to remind us that, although we may experience grief and loss, life will go on and there will be new beginnings.
Joanna Hogg brought up in her NYFF interview about The Eternal Daughter that during the pandemic we have all been faced with our own mortality and the mortality of parents, maybe in a more significant way than we previously felt. In The Eternal Daughter, Aftersun, and One Fine Morning, we might find pain and grief, but we also find catharsis in seeing this deeply personal experience as something universal.
Published 21 Nov 2022