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Aftersun (dir. Charlotte Wells, 2022)

Death in Our Hands

 
making sense of death isn’t a burden that anyone carries alone. discussing it might actually make it feel more bearable.

By Natalie Duerr 

11.30.2022


I feel like I’m running on borrowed time when it comes to death—I’ve only experienced that grief secondhand through news stories and the experiences of friends. But these past three years, I’ve felt death sink its claws into my reality. During 2020, no newscast was complete without a staggering statistic on how many had died from coronavirus. Once pandemic restrictions began to subside and people were ready to leave their homes, stories of crime and violence filled the airwaves, making the outside feel unsafe in a new way.

And just recently, a new threat to humanity has (re)emerged: “nuclear armageddon.” All the while, death has stalked my personal life. My 17-year-old cat recently had a seizure, and my grandmother discovered she has cancer. Death’s claws dig deeper and deeper into my consciousness as I try to process both the promised future of losing loved ones and the possibility of losing the future to humanity’s stupidity.

Yet I can’t feel alone as I see so many of my fears reflected on the screen. This year’s festival circuit is just as obsessed with death as I am—the fear of death, subsistence through death, and life post-death all play out in some of this year’s most talked-about films. In Noah Baumbach’s White Noise, a toxic cloud covers a small town, forcing a character to contend with his own mortality. In Luca Guadagnino’s Bones & All, cannibals come to terms with the fact that they must cause death to sustain themselves. And Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun explores the eroded memories you keep after someone you love is no longer with you. These films remind us that making sense of death isn’t a burden that anyone carries alone and that discussing it might actually make it feel more bearable.

White Noise (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2022)

While White Noise is a melting pot of genres and plot lines, the characters’ fears of death hold the story together. Specifically, Jack (Adam Driver) and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) are so death-obsessed that their pillow talk consists of debating who should die first. Their typical Americana life is upended when an accident releases a plume of toxic chemicals—monikered “the airborne toxic event.” It isn’t difficult to draw a connection between the experience the characters face during the fictional “airborne toxic event” to our prolonged pandemic.

The speculation and confusion at first sight of smoke clouding the sky feel much like the early days of COVID, where guidelines were conflicting and constantly changing. Jack’s family finds themselves in a situation they are utterly unprepared for, to no fault of their own. As the news reports on the signs of exposure, the children cycle through each new symptom. Sweaty palms? Check. Oh, now nausea? Forget the sweaty palms—now they’re nauseous. In the early days of the pandemic, no one knew what was going on; every cough or sneeze felt like a COVID diagnosis. Do I have a fever because I actually have a fever, or did I look up COVID-19 symptoms, and now am I giving myself a fever? In the face of a deadly pandemic, the government left us to our own devices to defend ourselves. I remember initially making masks out of Madewell bandanas with hair ties, trying scrappily to protect myself and the ones I love.

Unfortunately for Jack, a computer calculates that his prolonged exposure to the poisonous air and other determinants of health put him at a “higher risk.” Medical experts should know more in thirty years… if he makes it that long. The theoretical argument of who should die first becomes real—Jack feels his death approaching. His uncertain, yet still inevitable, fate feels much like our current understanding of the long-term complications of COVID. As a young twenty-something, death felt far off, but with this pandemic, death snuck up and reminded us it was always waiting. I think I handled my COVID diagnosis a bit better than Jack (he spirals and goes on a hunt for an untested drug to rid his confounded obsession with death), but I’ll never forget the moment the dreaded double lines appeared on a test and COVID became a permanent part of my medical record.

Unlike the sense of death that lingers throughout White Noise, Guadagnino’s Bones & All reeks of death. The film follows two young adults who begin to fall in love and bond over their mutual cannibalistic urges on a road trip across America. Maren (Taylor Russell) and Lee (Timothée Chalamet) spend their days marauding through the countryside, but they’re not just looking for cans of soup to steal—they’re also looking for people the world might be better off without. Their blossoming relationship forces Maren to see herself in a new way and contend with the part of herself she hates the most, which lives in Lee too.

In one scene, the two sit on a beam in a farmhouse, dangling their feet over cows waiting to be slaughtered. Maren comments that just like them, these cows have parents, grandparents, friends, children, and families of their own, yet they’re on their way to death and probably don’t even know it. The slight hypocrisy of this conversation is not lost, but in talking about it through a more objective lens, Maren and Lee can finally reckon with the pain they cause.

Their connection allows Maren to accept her role in the circle of life. Even cannibalism isn’t a cross meant to be carried alone. In Guadagnino’s world, finding someone who sees and understands you is the key to understanding yourself. Perhaps if we could all find a way to talk about death on our terms, whether honestly or in a roundabout sense, experiencing it would feel less isolating.

If Bones & All is about understanding death as a part of life, Aftersun explores trying to understand someone after they’ve died. Wells collapses the experience, physical evidence, and memories of a life lived into one. In this film, time is irrelevant; instead, emotion guides the narrative. The film begins with Calum (Paul Mescal) and Sophie (Frankie Corio), a father and daughter on vacation in Turkey. Between ordinary moments of buffets, arcade games, and sunny beaches, there’s a sense of finality at play—time is slipping away. The intimacy of camcorder-captured moments, worn rugs, and polaroids contrast with long shots and conversations only half-heard.

While a sense of sadness looms over this idyllic vacation, it’s not simply a perilous tale of love and loss. Wells focuses on the intricacies of parental relationships, crafting a delicate assemblage of facts and feelings. These experiences, both positive and negative, become memories, which become something to hang on to, something to help you weather the storm and continue forward when the person in them is no longer there.

This blend of living and remembering is Sophie’s journey through mourning. While the story ends in tears, they are yours, not hers. The tears shed are for yourself, either remembering your journey mourning a lost loved one or knowing that one day, you will be forced on this journey too. Even when our loved ones are still with us, we never have the time to ask all the questions we need to. In Aftersun, that’s okay. Adult Sophie doesn’t have all the answers she wishes she did, but she has memories to try to piece together the puzzle of who her father was.

White Noise, Bones & All, and Aftersun are held together by death, but each in its own form. Is it the collective reality we have all faced over the past three years that has turned these filmmakers inwards to try and make sense of death? Or perhaps this is nothing new to anyone else, and I’m finally waking up to the grim reality and trying to make sense of it through this essay. I’m not sure there is a correct answer here. Regardless, there is comfort in seeing your darkest fears play out on the silver screen in a crowded auditorium and remembering these are not fears you must process alone. Films like these open us up to discussing death in new ways—maybe even with a fresh perspective.

Bones & All (dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2022)