FILM: Aftersun (dir. Charlotte Wells)

Cinema is full of troubled father figures, but Aftersun is special in its empathy and love. In fact, for a film that is so desperately, even unbearably sad, Aftersun feels in many ways ultimately a positive film. For even if this little girl’s father is no longer in the world, what she remembers, years later, are the happy times, the joy, the love, the closeness, with her dad. Charlotte Wells’s debut feature film captures, like no film I’ve ever seen, the expression of pure love between father and daughter on film, while also framing that love as a memory that both endures and is also emphatically past.

A little girl holds onto her dad on a dancefloor.
Tender is the night

Nine-year-old Edinburgh girl Sophie (the amazing Frankie Corio) is on holiday in Turkey with her dad, Calum (Paul Mescal). They’re at a British-oriented holiday resort, c.1999 (the soundtrack – Lightning Seeds, Catatonia, Bran Van 3000, Blur – is perfect), doing all of the crappy things Brits do at this kind of resort, killing time on arcade games, pool tables, dancing, karaoke, etc. The hotel across the road is a construction site; the teenagers are focused on groping each other and getting pissed; the activities are pretty crap. But despite all this, the two seem to be having a great time.

It’s hard to overstate how perfect Corio and Mescal are together. The relationship between this very young father and his daughter (at one point they’re mistaken for siblings) is achingly genuine. It helps that Corio is so expressive, so full of life, so sneaky and intelligent and funny; she makes her father laugh and he comes to life in her presence. The warmth between them is physical (the titular aftersun at least in part refers to the constant rubbing onto each others’ bodies of suncream, as well as mud and other substances), emotional (they can lie together quietly for seemingly hours), and intellectual (they reach out to one another, joke, tease, play). It’s a beautiful friendship.

And Calum needs it. He has his arm in a plaster cast at the start of the film, following a ‘fall’. He has an injury on his shoulder too. When in rooms by himself, glimpsed by the camera, his head hangs low; later in the film, he sobs brutally on the bed. All smiles when chatting to a local scuba-diving instructor, he remarks that he never thought he’d make it to thirty. He is clearly deeply, devastatingly depressed. The film gives hints from his daughter’s eye-view – a brief snippet of Calum telling Sophie’s mother on the phone that he’s happy for her, the sight of him scraping off his cast, his impulse buy of an £850 rug despite having no money, his sudden clamping down when Sophie asks him about a childhood birthday – but there’s no simplistic explanation. He’s just a young man who has lived a lot of life and who is intent on giving his daughter the best holiday of her life, even if he can’t really afford it.

Throughout the film there are surreal shots of Calum dancing at a rave, and a young woman looking at him. This young woman, the film reveals halfway through, is an older Sophie, with a wife and kid of her own, who has her father’s rug in her apartment. The older Sophie is identified at a point in the film of a rupture. At the resort, Sophie signs them up for karaoke, but Calum doesn’t want to do it. Sophie sings ‘Losing My Religion’ very badly, by herself, and increasingly sadly; when she goes back to sit by her dad, he tells her that she could take singing lessons if she wants to sing. She’s insulted, and lashes back at him, and refuses to go up to the room with him. A distraught Calum is then seen walking through the resort and heading down into the waves of the sea. The reality of this scene is questionable, but it marks the rupture that begins to make clear that the film is about memory. The older Sophie is remembering her last days with her father, the implication being that he died by suicide shortly after. But as Sophie sits with the camera footage that her younger self shot, what stands out is the love, the playfulness, the connection between the two.

Sophie’s holiday experience is full. She makes friends with older kids, snogs a boy, has the most amazing experience of her life diving, and spends time with her dad; and what happens after has cemented this for her as a turning point in her life. In Wells’s stunning craft, the past and the present collide alongside several different media, from Polaroids fading into existence to grainy camcorder footage. It’s an assemblage, a collage of memories, trying to recapture something of a transcendent moment of love and connection. It succeeds.


THEATRE: Cupid & Psyche by Emily C. A. Snyder (dir. Kelsey Harrison for Mary Baldwin University Theatre Department)

Cupid & Psyche is a dense, rich play. A finalist in the American Shakespeare Center’s ‘Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries’ competition, this long verse drama aligns with many of the current feminist retellings of Greek mythology in its refusal to shy away from the horrors of violence, sexual aggression, abuses of consent, while also embracing the absurdist humor created by the pettiness of the gods. Performed by a young cast under Kelsey Harrison’s direction for MBU’s theatre department, further, this production specifically resonated with ongoing occurrences of young male violence. If the word ‘incel’ denotes the figure of the young man denied sex to which he assumes entitlement, then what happens when Love himself becomes an incel? The answer: violence that consumes the world.

Poster for Cupid & Psyche
Arrows of love and death

Staged in a versatile in-the-round-cum-traverse space that placed the actors in often deliberately uncomfortable intimacy with the audience, the production introduced a rotating pantheon of desirable figures. Brooke Crittenden’s mortal Psyche was the literal centre of attention, to the point of upstaging her sister Dareia (Anna Taylor) on her wedding day. Amid the wedding, the goddesses Aphrodite (Maria Sarri) and Persephone (Kijah Wilburn) wandered, sipping from goblets and sniping bitterly at one another. The allegorical figures of Love and Death established a combative binary that forced the play’s participants to one extreme or another, emblematic of an absolutist and possessive model of love that must either have or have not (it was no accident that when Cupid and Psyche had their meet-cute, it was Romeo and Juliet’s lines that emerged amid the verse).

Desire, in this play, must be satisfied or destroyed. Aphrodite ordered Cupid to kill Psyche, but he instead fell for her, and the play turned on the switch of Cupid from Love to the ‘beast’ of Passion. The sinister work of this came out most powerfully in the production’s treatment of invisibility. The gods were largely invisible, allowing Austin Cox’s initially quiet Cupid to develop a disquieting, creepy association with Psyche, whispering in her ear, touching her from behind, often in ways that were overtly comic or playful, but which demonstrated precisely the entitlement with her body that anticipated his rage when refused. Crittenden presented a defiant, powerful Psyche – this was a woman who had no difficulty standing up to her sisters, her father, to those around her, but faced with an invisible tormentor, became increasingly distressed and exposed as the world collapsed around her and her sisters in particular turned against her.

The production’s violence was all the more disquieting for its cruelty and abruptness. This was a play in which almost no love relationships were requited: Aphrodite and Persephone were aloof, sarcastic, dispassionate; pretty Adonis (Louis Altman) mooned after Cupid, who lusted after Psyche, and everyone expressed their unrequited love – or obsession – through cruelty, culminating in the shocking moment of Cupid not only killing Adonis by snapping his neck, but then instituting a cycle of violence in which Altman’s body was repeatedly resurrected and killed again, the company gathering to sing as Cupid transformed into the beast and wreaked havoc on Adonis’s body – ostensibly as revenge for Adonis’s role in keeping him and Psyche apart, but more generally as a transformation of entitled and possessive love into the act of ultimate possession: the taking of another’s life for oneself (with particular credit here to Rosemary Richards and JP Scheidler’s intimacy and fight choreography, which beautifully captured the intimacy of the acts of killing suffused with something which may have been love). And from here the play devolved into murder as a result of Psyche’s curse of Cupid, condemning all who love to death, and thus de-peopling the world.

The cast found humour to break up the relentless bleakness: Libby Mrechant’s Brontes and Quinn Yuka’s Chrysos, as the lovers/husbands of Psyche’s sisters, had some nice light moments of absurdity before the murders began, and Cox’s Cupid was often endearingly clumsy in his attempts to approach someone whose heart he could not simply take. But that humor served to throw into relief the simmering rage that exploded into monstrosity, and Cox came into their own as Cupid stalked the stage, a silent and deadly killer. The production’s choice to keep many people present in the playing space furthered the cruelty of the slaughter, with powers watching on and allowing it to happen. And this affected the human characters. Taylor was especially magnificent as Dareia, beginning the play with joy at her own wedding but quickly shifting to resentment of the attention Psyche drew, then to outright hostility as she – in conjunction with Ashlea Stone’s Livia, Psyche’s other sister – identified Psyche as the cause of the deaths. In one of the darkest sequences, the two sisters went to the Oracle, a menacing Cupid in disguise, to get guidance, and were commissioned to murder their father, Thanos (Sage Mocko). The sequence in which Dareia and Livia debated who would wield the knife was stunningly measured; Taylor and Stone’s flashing eyes veered between almost tearful and piercingly resolved, and while Livia wavered, Dareia drew her resolve from touching her pregnant belly, deploying and perverting motherhood as the rationale for her bloody deed in the culmination of an arc that insisted on the self as the overriding priority. And this, to me, was what this production in particular understood – that for all this is a play about love and death, it is suffused by a narcissism that comes from a misunderstanding of what love is, that understood love as being about one’s own feelings rather than about someone else. And by committing to the selfish, violent choices made in the name – and really only in the name – of love, the company beautifully showed how ‘love’ itself becomes deadly.

Perhaps because this is what I took so strongly from the first half, I found the play’s second half – in which Psyche has agreed to be with Cupid in order to take him out of the world, and in which the play invests more in their connection despite the circumstances in which it began – more difficult. The production had so effectively communicated Cupid’s violence that questions of love and healing felt, to me, far away. But Cox and Crittenden made the relationship work, both finding the nuances in the negotiation of their unique and lonely connection to one another, separated from all the world, and then indulging in self-sacrifice as Cupid effectively sacrificed himself to follow Psyche to hell after Aphrodite, Persephone, and Adonis united to kill her. And this allegorical self-sacrifice felt key to what hope the production managed to find – the discovered ability to locate love in the other person rather than in one’s self, the development of empathy. That the production’s turn to healing happened in almost entire darkness (lit initially only by Johnny Williams III’s beautiful chiaroscuro effects from a handheld lantern) helped focus that healing separated from a broken world, while also not erasing the fact that the violence caused by obsession had caused perhaps irreparable damage to that world. And by rejecting the dichotomy of Love and Death, by refusing the impulse to either Have or Destroy and instead embracing something in one another, the production and play offered the map for another way of being – and of being with one another.

TELEVISION: The Last of Us, ‘Long, Long Time’ (dir. Peter Hoar)

Apocalypse narratives – looking especially at you, The Walking Dead – struggle to find meaningful hope. There are often flashes of individual connection, or brief moments of reprieve, but the idea of actually finding lasting happiness during the end of the world is, almost by definition, off the table. And so, ‘Long, Long Time’ feels like it’s, if not breaking new ground, at least acknowledging that its world can be more than despair, as it takes time out in only its third episode to introduce a new character and a whole life and love found amid the rubble.

Bill, with long hair and beard, holds a rifle in front of an electrified fence.
In an apocalypse, the only person you want around is Ron Swanson.

Bill (Nick Offerman, brilliantly building on his most beloved character, Ron Swanson) is a survivalist, who hides out during the evacuations at the start of the pandemic (when the government are rounding up people and often just killing them). Alone in his tiny town, he sets about creating a one-man settlement: he breaks into hardware stores, he sets up a generator, and most crucially, he hits the wine stores. A few years later, he’s got a whole compound with electrified fence set up, and is really living his best life. The survivalist, it turns out, wasn’t crazy to be paranoid, and he’s surviving.

Merely surviving, however, is just static. And so, when Frank (Murray Bartlett) falls into one of Bill’s traps, Bill doesn’t immediately kill him. He takes time vetting the guy, and then invites him in for dinner. Frank’s pure exhilaration on tasting rabbit paired with a good wine is intoxicating, and it’s intoxicating for Bill too. Frank has realised that Bill is gay, and the two bond tentatively over Bill’s piano, before Frank leans in for a kiss. It’s Bill’s first sexual experience with another man, and Frank is gentle, caring, full of love. And thus begins a new happiness.

Some online reviews have suggested this is ‘Gay Up‘, and it’s not an entirely unfair comparison. As the years pass, Frank and Bill build a life together. Frank is positive, looking to spruce up the neighbourhood and tidy up the shops, ahead of inviting friends around (which he does, to Bill’s hilarious horror, by talking to Tess and Joel on the radio and inviting them over). Bill, who hates people who aren’t Frank, concentrates on defense, including during one fantastically shot night-time raid where a group of gun-toting would-be robbers find themselves at the business end of Bill’s flamethrowers and electrical fence. Through it all, the two live together, and in some ways it’s the bits we don’t see, the years of peace and love in between the incidents, that stand out most powerfully.

Finally, just before the episode catches up with the present and Joel and Ellie come calling, Bill and Frank get to the end of their journey together. Frank is slowly dying, and Bill is pushing him around in a wheelchair. One morning, Bill wakes up to find Frank sitting watching him. Frank has decided that he wants one final perfect day, and for Bill to pour an overdose of pills into his wine to finish the day. The man to whom Bill once said ‘I wasn’t afraid until I met you’ cries, then agrees. But then, when Frank finishes his wine, he downs his own. ‘You were my purpose’ he says, in a heartbreaking embrace of free choice, before the two go to their final sleep together.

There’s a few minutes still for Ellie and Joel to arrive at the compound, to find a note from Bill telling Joel to protect those he loves (he names Tess, crushingly), and for Ellie and Joel to take advantage of Bill passing on his love by telling Joel to take whatever he needs. For our two main characters, it’s only a rest point as they prepare to go to their next potential stopping point. But by taking the time to flesh out Bill and Frank’s story, the episode expands the emotional scope of The Last of Us far beyond anything it had implied thus far. It shows us that there are stakes in this world, because there remains not only the possibility of happiness, but also of long and fulfilled lives that end on their own terms. And it shows that love still exists in this world.

FILM: The Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier)

For all that The Worst Person in the World has any number of talking-point scenes – a woman on magic mushrooms smears menstrual blood on her face! A cartoon animal loses his anus! A city grinds to a magical halt! Lots of sex! – the film that underpins all of the ‘shocking’ moments is thoughtful, even melancholic, and mature. This is a millennial coming-of-age story, deeply caught up in the social mores and expectations of being a thirty-year-old in the world today, emerging into adulthood and reckoning with the future. Anchored by a truly outstanding central performance, The Worst Person in the World reflects on what it means to be responsible in an age where responsibility is ill-defined at best.

A woman, Julie, looks at a man, Eivind, peeing in a urinal.
Erm are you sure you’re in the right bathroom?

Julie (Renate Reinsve) is trying to work out who she is and what she wants to do with her life. She’s under pressure by the older generation to do the traditional things – find a man, get married and have kids, hold down a job – but she’s somewhat aimless, bouncing between medical school, psychology, photography, writing. She follows her impulses, often literally – in one early sequence, she walks out of a party where she’s feeling secondary to her graphic novelist boyfriend, and wanders until she comes upon a wedding which she crashes and where she strikes up a fun conversation with another guy. Her impulses lead her to fun, to excitement, to new opportunities. But because she doesn’t know where she’s going, she also struggles to know if she’s gone the right way.

None of the men in her life are perfect, which is as it should be. At the film’s start she is bouncing between guys, including her psych professor, but soon the film settles down into a pattern with two men. One, Aksel, the graphic novelist, is older than her, and has spent his career writing edgy underground art that is being reappraised today for its misogyny, while at the same time the comic’s characters are being turned into a sanitised kids’ film. Aksel and Julie move in together, but even from the start, Julie is having to negotiate for bookshelf and closet space, and he’s telling her what to do (or not do) with the windows. And she herself settles into being adjunct to his life.

Eivind is younger, with a similar irresponsible tendency. They meet at the wedding she has crashed, and while they are both dating other people, they play with what they can do with one another without technically cheating. Eivind represents escape for her, as most beautifully portrayed in the stand-out sequence where suddenly the whole of Oslo grinds to a halt apart from the two of them, and they enjoy a passionate, out-of-time fling. He himself is escaping from a girlfriend who has learned that she is 3% Indigenous and who has fully embraced climate activism, and Julie’s more carefree nature allows him to regress; the two of them have a bizarre evening doing magic mushrooms with two friends. But as Julie’s own sensibilities become more serious, he may be too much of a child for her.

The problem for Julie is that time can’t stand still. As much as she resists Aksel asking her about children, or the expectations placed on her by family, the truth is that time moves forward. Her parents are getting older. She thinks about her career, especially after writing a short story. She suddenly finds she is pregnant. And, in a shift that changes everything for her, she hears that Aksel is dying of cancer after she has left him, and she reconnects with her dismissive, misogynist ex at a point in his life where he is vulnerable and reflective. The empathy the film finds for Aksel is a neat surprise, but also creates a complex turning point for Julie, as she reckons with what she is looking for from life.

Part of why The Worst Person in the World works is that everyone, really, is the worst person, because there’s no true yardstick for a person’s goodness. People are bouncing through the world, making connections, making choices, some of which are good, some of which are bad, and there are no right or neat answers. But in finding empathy for a generation who are trying to work out how to live in a changing world, the film seeks resolution precisely in the contradictions. It is important that Julie’s happy ending (or at least, happy point-at-which-we-leave-her) is in her work, and in a job where she becomes relatively invisible herself, taking set photographs and putting them together in her own room by herself. For all that community or relationships are so often posited as the route to happiness, the film also finds peace in a moment of quiet, productive independence.

THEATRE: As You Like It (dir. Kimberly Skyes for the Royal Shakespeare Company)

‘All the world’s a stage’ say Jaques, famously in As You Like It. In Kimberly Skyes’s 2019 production for the RSC, though, the design team (led by Stephen Brimson Lewis and Bretta Gerecke) take this literally, by turning the Forest of Arden into a theatre. The magical redemption of this world is the redemption that theatrical magic offers, and the result is a joyful celebration of different kinds of love and the community that fosters it.

The actors dance on stage in front of the god Hymen.
Riotous celebrations

Duke Frederick’s (Antony Byrne) court is an oppressive place. Before the wrestling match, Celia (Sophie Khan Levy) leads a hymn to her father, which everyone sings, their hands clasped to their chests. This is a world where Le Beau (Emily Johnstone) wears a headset that she moves away from her mouth if she wants to speak furtively, where Charles the wrestler (Graeme Brookes) dangles Oliver (Leo Wan) from a balcony while integrating him, and where the Duke angrily rips the victor’s belt away from Orlando (David Ajao) rather than allow the son of his rival to enjoy his victory. While the Duke is happy to project a genial atmosphere when in control, as soon as he is challenged, his fury emerges.

But there’s always a safe space within the court. A green grassy circle dominates the stage. This is where Orlando is hanging out on a swing, refusing the spade held out to him by Adam (Richard Clews) with which he should be digging. This space marks the safe retreat of Rosalind (Lucy Phelps) and Celia, where they can whisper intimately alone. The Duke sometimes steps into this space, especially when invading their private area to accuse Rosalind of treachery, but he sticks to the edges; the good-natured Le Beau steps into it, but stumbles in her high heels in the thick plush. The circle of green seems to resist the control of the Duke; it’s in this circle that Orlando overthrows Charles, for instance. It is jeopardised when Rosalind, after being banished by the Duke, angrily folds it up, seemingly rejecting her safe haven – but that’s what occasions their plan to flee.

And then, the shift to Arden itself. All of the scenes in the court are reorganised to come together before the shift to Arden, which then takes the shape of a theatrical set change. Sophie Stone, playing Jaques, is called to the stage by the sounds of a stage manager doing backstage calls. The drapes fall from the back of the stage to reveal a more open space. Costume rails come onto the stage, the cast take off their oppressive court clothes and begin re-dressing themselves for the forest. The overt embrace of the theatre becomes the freedom from the stifling court, and the actors begin using the tools of the theatre to craft the potential of a freer, more utopic space.

This control is sometimes overt, as when both Touchstone and Celia gesture to the tech box to have lighting state changes and musical cues to accompany their songs, or when Orlando and Celia bring on audience members to be the trees on which Orlando’s verses hang. But the theatricality is also embedded in the text: in Rosalind’s ability to become Ganymede, or in the different kinds of show that the foresters create in community with one another. Not all of the shows are happy, though: an angry Jaques draws the forester who killed the deer into a brutal display of bondage in punishment, and Touchstone’s abuse of William (Tom Dawze) – who in this production is the interpreter for Charlotte Arrowsmith’s BSL-speaking Audrey – leads to a sad moment when William runs from the stage, rejected by the woman for whom he interprets.

But overall, theatrical magic is a pathway to joy here. It is the dynamism and enthusiasm of Phelps’s Rosalind that makes her flirtation with Orlando convincing, and she pulls everyone into the commitment to the show which is then paid off with the theatrical coup of an enormous puppet Hymen. Hymen’s status as god may be unclear, but the important thing is that this is a visible theatrical prop, a device which makes all well as part of the call into performance, the invocation into the circle of this stage, the commitment to theatre itself.

THEATRE: The Silo, by Dais Johnston and Thomas Kent (dir. Thomas K. Prater for Queen City Theatre Co.)

Queen City Theatre Co.’s debut production is nothing if not ambitious. Beginning with a young couple sneaking into an abandoned grain silo, it veers from contemporary bars to piratical romance on the high seas to the truly cosmic. At the play’s heart, though, is a recurrent interest in what it means to change and what it means to stay the same; why might we choose to stick with what feels safe; why might we want to transform ourselves; what happens when change is inevitable?

Orbiting one another like planets

The play is a series of narratively disconnected two-handers, reminiscent in some ways of works like The Blue Room, in which continuities are less important than thematic reflections and repetitions. Here, there is ambiguity; some of these characters could be the same figures, the couple who fall asleep in the silo remembering their first meeting and past encounters. But there are ghosts in the silo, as the man in the couple (Michael Blackwood) jokingly tries to persuade his partner (Devlin Ford). Their bodies are haunted by memories of different encounters, different attempts to reconcile a moment of change. In a lovely pastiche of an early modern epilogue, placed a few scenes before the end, Conduit (Ford) moves among the audience and apologises for the play’s rough verse, while drawing attention to the template-like quality of the bodies who have become the vessels for these words.

The recurrent interest is in the pressure of change – whether pressure to change, or the pressure of change. In one of the most straightforward and tense scenes, a woman visits a hairdresser to get the same cut as always, the cut that she had asked to be her ‘forever hair’ some years ago. But the hairdresser has been reading philosophy, and freaks her out with his admission that he never gives the same haircut, partly because the hair itself has changed, and partly because he believes his clients don’t really want to go backwards – they are always delighted when he gives them something slightly different. The creepiness of the hairdresser in this scene is nicely complex; he clearly thinks he’s doing his clients a favour, but the woman’s discomfort with his violation of consent and his refusal to listen to what she is telling him she wants means she walks out of the appointment.

There is often a gendered element to the scenes here. Blackwood’s characters are often overly pushy and often fail to listen to what Ford’s characters are saying. The highlight of the production is a beautifully performed scene of a director (Blackwood) drilling an actor (Ford) on a faux-Shakespearean speech. The fact that both actors and writer-director Thomas K. Prater are enrolled in or graduates of Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare & Performance program perhaps unsurprisingly means that this is a particularly authentic scene in its working through of actor exercises, its parody of banalities and unhelpful ‘advice’, and its use of the format to contest power. Here, Ford’s character is desperate to get through her speech and to let the language speak; Blackwood’s character refuses to let her finish the thought. But she turns it around on him, calling him out on his wish to fix the speech’s meaning, and asking him to listen to her and to allow the scene to live in the live moment of performance – to risk change and discovery. In another vignette of a couple meeting in a bar, Blackwood’s character spends much of his time ‘splaining to Ford’s, explaining her experience of being told she was special by an IQ test as an attempt to indoctrinate her into a cult, a trick he would never fall for. And in the opening frame narrative, it’s Blackwood’s character who thoughtlessly locks the two of them into a silo.

But the play also resists an easily gendered narrative about pressure to change, especially as change itself is sometimes a positive and sometimes a negative. The play’s centre-piece is a beautifully staged conversation between Earth and Moon. Blackwood stands in the middle of the stage, turning slowly, holding a globe in front of him; around the perimeter of the stage, holding a moon sphere, Ford orbits him. In a clever bit of pacing, their orbits are slightly out of time with one another, and they’re also both slowly rotating on their own axis, meaning that they begin with the Moon facing an Earth that is looking in the opposite direction; rotate into a position where neither can see the other, and eventually move to a place where the Earth can see the Moon and finally both can see one another. The dialogue in this sequence is superb, evocative, mournful, and often funny, as Earth and Moon exchange profound insights into their ability to see and understand one another. The two are in a constant but always changing relationship to one another, and neither can understand themselves without the other’s perspective. And when some cosmic event happens which throws the two of them off their axis, they can do nothing but yield to the change.

Change is inevitable, says the unpleasant hairdresser to his client, but he’s right. Change comes for everyone, and while some of the characters in The Silo are right to resist it, there’s also an understanding that change will come and that perhaps the best we can do is meet it on its own terms. While the play ends on a surprisingly sentimental note – a re-statement of heteronormative love that seems oddly conservative in the wake of the fascinatingly different kinds of relationship envisioned by the different scenes – what resounds is the potential that emerges from many of these vignettes to learn to understand change, to learn to listen, to learn to understand the drivers of change and the factors that lead to resistance. It’s a play that insists that we need to know others in order to know ourselves, and that if we can develop true orbits – the play’s spatial manifestation of perfect love – then we may be able to finally see and know ourselves.

FILM: Blue is the Warmest Color (dir. Abdellatif Kechiche)

For a film that came out so recently, the Criterion edition of Blue is the Warmest Color (the film joined the collection in the same year it premiered) seems surprisingly slight on extras. At least until one learns about the controversy around the film, with actors Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos complaining about the exploitative treatment of the stars during the filming of the sex scenes (this is not a film which had an intimacy coordinator). The very public and very fallout of the two actresses with director Abdellatif Kechiche, just after the three had received an unprecedented Palme d’Or split between the three of them, colors everything about the film in retrospect.

Two women sit on a bench next to a path, surrounded by trees and greenery
The film is far more erotic when they’re not touching.

What’s most disappointing is that the only bit of framing the film gets from Criterion, beyond a couple of trailers, is an essay by B. Ruby Rich which is basically an apologia for the director. What erotic film doesn’t have bad sex films, what great director doesn’t have actors complaining about his or her handling of them, was the criticism really to do with racism at a time of acute xenophobia in France? The essay has dated extraordinarily badly in its dismissal of the two young actresses’ attempts to articulate the harm they felt the experience had on them, and particularly with the resurgence of the #MeToo movement only a couple of years later, this feels like an immediately dated attempt to privilege art no matter what the cost. The essay literally includes the line ‘But wait. First consider the work’.

The work is good, though weakest in its much-trumpeted explicit sex scenes, criticised by the creator of the original source comic as an affront to lesbian love-making, an idea of gay love between women filtered through a voyeuristic male gaze. The scenes serve an important structural function in terms of establishing the freedom the two women at the film’s heart, Adèle and Emma, have with one another in their own private space. But the scenes do feel disconnected from the rest of the film, not least because they are montages when most of the rest of the film dwells on continuous, near-real-time encounters. And the camera, both in the sex scenes and elsewhere, spends a lot of its time dwelling on women’s bodies in ways that might mimic Adèle’s sexual awakening, but also feel external to Adèle (especially when it’s her body being looked at). The most important of the sex scenes is, in fact, the one which takes place at a cafe while the two are fully clothed, when Adèle’s desire for her ex-girlfriend overcomes her and the impulse emerges from the dramatic action, rather than divorced from it.

It’s a patient film, and frankly at times a little dull. Adèle is a teenager at high school, finding herself between readings of erotic French literature and playground conversations about boys. She starts dating, but as she confides to a male friend, there’s something missing. When a female classmate kisses her, she seems to find that missing thing, but is immediately rebuffed by the same classmate, who didn’t think she would take it so seriously. But when she meets blue-haired art student Emma, she finds the awakening she has been waiting for. A long affair later, she ends up cheating on Emma with a dude, gets thrown out, and then the two have a couple of further encounters before the film glides to an end.

The camera barely leaves Adèle throughout, acting as a close-up portrait of a coming-of-age. But the film feels self-consciously torn between its own artistic sentiments and its more political purpose. That is, the film is actually most interesting when it locates Adèle within a larger society. Images of her joining a march for funding public education bring together different generations of French protesters, and Adèle’s commitment to her teaching (which also aligns her with a more multicultural society than the more middle-class Emma) is the strongest element of individual characterization. The homophobia Adèle experiences early on from the supposedly liberal-minded but horribly catty girls in the schoolyard speaks of an ugly undercurrent to this faux progressive society, and the sequence in which Adèle serves simple Bolognese to Emma’s friends while they pontificate on the nature of art and existence implies a subtle class commentary. As a snapshot of French society in the early twenty-first century, there’s a lot going on here.

But this is unabashedly a film about love and growing up, and the two actors are phenomenal. The sequence in which Emma confronts Adèle about her affair is riveting; Adèle begins – as she has repeatedly throughout the film – by lying bare-faced, giving away the truth with her tears, but absolutely refusing to own the truth. But where her friend was able to take her away from the homophobes in the playground, here there is no safety net; the moment where Adèle suddenly clocks that she really is being thrown out and suddenly lets all of her fear show is brutal and heartfelt. And the depiction of the love between the two women is lush and romantic. While the taint of exploitation makes it hard to separate things out, Seydoux and Exarchopoulos are at their best when acting rather than posing, creating complex, warm, messy, deeply watchable human beings, and their work, at least, is exceptional.

FICTION: Roddy Doyle, ‘Worms’ (Jonathan Cape)

There will doubtless be a whole cottage industry of fictional recreations of pandemic life in due course, but there’s something immediate, affecting, and authentic about Roddy Doyle’s Life Without Children. Of the many excellent stories in the collection, ‘Worms’ is perhaps the most nostalgic for the lockdown and simultaneously the most poignant in its recreation of the fear and loss that accompanied it.

Cover of Roddy Doyle, 'Life Without Children', featuring silhouettes of two people behind curtains.
Curtains do not make sufficient PPE

The ‘worms’ of the title are earworms; though, as Joe himself notes, they’re not really earworms. Rather, as he pootles about his quiet house during the early days of the lockdown, he finds himself prompted by particular activities – shaving, for instance – to remember specific songs. He starts actively looking for other prompts, and when his wife Thelma catches him mucking around, she joins in the game. Soon they’re compiling playlists based on their ‘worms’, comparing notes, and exploring the histories of songs.

It couldn’t be any more Doyle, from the deep musical cuts to the bathetic dialogue. But as a depiction of a relationship during lockdown, it’s both funny and moving. Joe and Thelma have barely talked for years; Doyle says instead they’ve had ‘exchanges of information as they passed each other in the kitchen’. But cooped up together, and with the worms as a focus, they begin talking again, rediscovering their connection, falling in love afresh. It’s subtle and light – there’s teasing and mockery, excited discoveries, sharing and explaining, creating. And they’re suddenly enough for one another again.

And this is where one of the unspeakable truths of lockdown for many comes in – that, for some, the lockdown was quietly wonderful. This surely only applied to people with a particular kind of privilege, people with comfortable homes and particular ways of living. But for Thelma and Joe, the rediscovery of their own connection leads them to cut themselves off. They use Thelma’s asthma as an excuse to keep their family away even when restrictions are lifted, working to preserve for as long as possible their isolation from others. Their games, their conversations, are enough for them, and their attempts to preserve the lockdown and their own bubble are moving for both positive and negative reasons.

Doyle’s capturing of the nostalgia for the lockdown feels honest, almost dangerously so. The emphasis on returning to ‘normal’ has been so strong, that admitting that lockdown might have been preferable to ‘normal’ life is almost perverse. But Doyle isn’t just nostalgic; indeed, one reading of this story could be that there is judgement which comes with illicit desire. For when Thelma does eventually come down with COVID, it’s devastating. Suddenly, the story shifts from the rosy bubble of games and connections to the brutal separation of hospitalisation. Joe has to communicate with the unresponsive Thelma via Zoom, the camera held up by a cheery nurse. The contrast is stark, and a reminder that underpinning the lockdown was a genuine danger; the story doesn’t explicitly judge the two of them for using the fear of the virus as an excuse to enjoy their time together, but it does still hurt.

There is hope, as Thelma begins coming to and shares her latest ‘worm’ with Joe over Zoom: ‘I Will Survive’, the convenience of which makes Joe realise that Thelma has been making up the worms all along. And it’s this that is the story’s real kicker: not that the two of them had some mystical connection where they were both hearing songs, but that Thelma loves Joe so much that she used his quirk to restart their relationship. There may be something more cynical underpinning this, but all I see is love: love manifesting as play, as teasing, as a desire to share something with your partner, the content of which is entirely irrelevant. COVID creates both renewed intimacy and unbearable distance; this story will be a powerful reminder of that contradiction.

FILM: The Worst Person in the World (dir. Joachim Trier)

Interestingly, when the title of The Worst Person in the World finally crops up in Joachim Trier’s film, it’s applied not to the main character, Julie, but to Eivind, one of the guys she spends time in a relationship with, at the point just before he gets together with her. But it’s a term which is less a diagnosis, and more a state of feeling. The three main characters in this film at different points all feel like they’re the worst person in the world, but that’s a condition foisted on them by a world that wants them to live in certain ways that jar with their own needs and desires. This is a brilliant film about millennial aimlessness that is empathetic rather than judgemental, and in which everyone gets to be the asshole and the hero.

A woman runs down a road.
Yes, I’m last in the marathon, but I’m LOVING it.

Julie’s story – and she’s rarely off-screen – is broken into twelve chapters plus a prologue and epilogue. Each chapter has a contained focus: a trip to her boyfriend’s friends’ home, watching her ex bomb in a media interview, a magic mushrooms trip. But these chapters are all windows into a larger narrative about the experience of young adulthood and having to make major decisions about the way your life is going to go. Julie’s problem – if indeed it is a problem – is that there are so many potential things she could be doing with her life, but all of them involve a degree of commitment and of choice that precludes other options, and the promise that modern women can have it all is a lie.

At the start of the film, Julie’s attention keeps being taken by the next thing that presents itself. She’s in a lecture for her medical degree, but when a lecturer shows an interest in her drawing a lecture, she finds herself in his bed. Then, looking through photos she’s taken of him, she suddenly sees a striking shot she’s taken, and decides to change career to photography. When shooting a subject, she falls for him; then when he takes her to a party, she spots another guy and immediately ditches the guy she came with. This whirlwind of quick changes introduces us to someone who describes herself as a flake, but it’s much more nuanced than that. She’s trying to define who she is, and each of these new opportunities tells her something about herself. Once she enters into a relationship with comic book artist Aksel, however, the stakes become much higher.

For all of the outstanding compositions and bravura sequences, perhaps the single most important part of the film is the long drift Julie takes down a hill in Oslo after she gets bored at a function she’s attending with Aksel. While watching fanboys go gaga over her boyfriend, Julie becomes disaffected and begins wandering down the hill. It’s a long sequence, but the time it takes is important. She’s following a road that only goes in one direction, with an air of inevitability about it. But she’s also pausing along the way, distracted by parties and the colour of the sky. It’s a metaphor for Julie’s experience of turning 30; there’s an inevitability to aging, along with the expectations of how to behave as one gets older, but she’s looking for ways to resist that, ways to feel alive. In this particular instance, she gatecrashes a wedding and strikes up a conversation with Eivind that hilariously plays fast and loose with the idea of not cheating – which extends, in their definition, to watching one another pee, smelling each other’s sweat, and blowing smoke into one another’s mouths. It’s grim and funny, and deliberately immature.

Maturity itself is up for debate here. The film’s central dilemmas revolve around what Julie is ready for. Aksel, who is fifteen years older than Julie, wants kids; she’s not sure if she ever will. In one of several perfectly written conversations, Aksel presses her on what specifically she needs to happen before she’ll be ready for children; she can’t answer him because she doesn’t know. The film is rare in offering this as a fact, rather than a judgement; society wants to judge her for not having a clear plan, but she’s simply not ready to have that plan yet, to know what she wants. Their eventual break-up follows one of the film’s stunning bits of magical realism – Julie flips a switch while in the kitchen with Aksel and the switch freezes time, leaving her free to go and have a magical La La Land-referencing romantic interlude with Eivind, before returning to break up with Aksel. Their fight is brutal and honest and loving, even including some moving sex, but the outcome is set. But the younger, similarly aimless Eivind only offers temporary satisfaction for Julie, who comes to realise that she needs something more – by which time, Aksel is dying of cancer, and Julie is pregnant with a child she isn’t sure she wants. Life is messy, but again, crucially, there’s no judgement here. One of the chapters is called ‘Bad Timing’, and the film argues that life isn’t neat and there aren’t absolutes – just the choices that are true to ourselves.

The film is devastating at its most serious, especially in Aksel’s plaintive cries to Julie in one of their last conversations together, that he just wants to leave the hospital and go back to his flat and be living there with her; it’s a moment of fragility that is beautifully observed (and Anders Danielsen Lie really should win all the awards for his performance). But it’s also hilarious in its honesty about bodily functions and its acerbically observed characters. From Aksel’s awful friends to Julie’s awful disengaged father (who Julie throws her own bloodied tampon at in the trippy mushroom sequence), from the angry feminist interviewer who eviscerates Aksel on the radio to Eivind’s yoga-loving wife who discovers she’s 13% First Nations and embraces her culture, the film is full of witty supporting roles. But at its heart is the amazing Renate Reinsve as the impulsive, fun-loving, capricious, honest Julie. It’s a brave, exposing performance, that also resonates deeply with a world that isn’t fair, that isn’t clear-cut, and that gives us impossible choices and presents us with joy and sorrow.

TELEVISION: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, ‘Josh Just Happens To Live Here!’ (dir. Marc Webb)

‘Don’t talk to my friend like that’. There’s a lovely moment towards the end of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend‘s pilot episode where suspicious Paula, who’s been trying to work out for the whole episode what Rebecca Bunch’s deal is, finally embraces her new co-worker as a friend. And that sudden switch, from suspicion to embrace, is at the heart of what makes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend work. This is a defiantly silly, self-indulgent show, with a massive heart, that understands the power of musicals to transcend the everyday and find deep connections.

A woman in a blue dress dances between a marching band.
Before the budget cuts

The premise is simple. Rebecca falls in love at summer camp one year with Josh, a laid-back dude who seems more or less disinterested in her, and breaks up with her at the end of summer. Ten years later, Rebecca is a successful attorney in New York, on the verge of being made partner, but is miserable. She has a chance encounter with Josh on the street, who tells her that he’s moving to a small town in the middle of California and, in a moment of sudden clarity, quits her job and moves to the same town, with the hope of, you know, just happening to meet up with him.

The premise is, of course, also terrifying. Throughout the episode, Rebecca tries to pass herself off as only casually interested in how and whether she might run into Josh, but she is an absolute trainwreck. She can’t hold down a conversation for anything more than a few minutes without checking her phone to see if he’s texted her, or looking for him at a party, even keeping one eye trained elsewhere while snogging her date. But it’s not until the end of the episode that she finally hears herself and realises how crazy she seems – that she’s thrown away a whole career and moved somewhere completely in the middle of nowhere simply to possibly hook up with a teenage crush, who has a girlfriend. She’s not stable.

But she’s in love. And this is the heightened world of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, in which people do bizarre things because it seems like the right thing. And this is why it’s so important that this is a musical. The central song, ‘Sexy Getting Ready Song’, is a brilliant bit of satire on mundanity, as Rebecca goes through a tortuous getting-ready routine, satirising just how much time and effort goes into appearing effortless. Rachel Bloom is a phenomenal singer, and the choreography and design of the set-pieces is brilliant. But ‘Sexy Getting Ready Song’ stands out because it’s got something so specific to say. The best moment comes as Nipsey Hussle joins the song for a rap break, then sees what she’s going through, and has an immediate feminist awakening, leading to him writing up a list of ‘Bitches I need to apologise to’ and phoning up his old flames and video models asking if they can have chats about Simone de Bouvoir.

The pilot does the important thing of getting all the pieces into place. The law firm Rebecca joins is suitably yikes, going there immediately with insensitive comments about Jewish people and Native Americans, which are pleasingly called out within the show. There’s the friendly barkeep (a kind of bargain basement Paul Rudd, though that’s not fair as Santino Fontana is very charming) who has a very winsome crush, even noting that the fact Rebecca is ignoring him makes her absolutely his type. There are friends, quirky sidekicks, and Josh is already taking on a semi-mythical status.

But perhaps most winningly, it’s a convincing narrative about restarting your life. The Pedlar is going through some potential major life-changes at the moment, and seeing the breathlessness in this episode about new starts, the fears and the rushes, the recklessness and the regrets, the loneliness and the sudden connections, all rang powerfully. It’s a heightened situation, and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend shows that it knows what it’s doing in handling it.