What Really Happens in Aftersun?

Really, spoilers! Look away now!

I’ll put my theory plainly: Calum is gay or bisexual, and he has AIDS. He knows this, and he believes he only a short amount of time to live. He hasn’t told anyone – not his ex-wife and certainly not his daughter, Sophie, because this is the 90s and there’s still a deep social stigma around AIDS in the UK. He dies not long after the holiday. 

There is nothing at all in the movie that absolutely confirms my theory, but every moment was written and directed to be freighted with suggestion, and I think those suggestions are congruent with my theory. But even if you aren’t watching with the intention of trying to puzzle out the movie’s meaning, as I did because that’s who I am, you can’t help but notice the sense of mystery and dread that surrounds Sophie and Calum’s relationship with each other and with the people they meet. All of that is to say, I won’t get mad if you or Charlotte Wells, the director, tells me I’m wrong. It’s just that the movie was obviously produced to allow for this speculation.

Why do I think Calum isn’t straight? Him being a father certainly doesn’t prove anything. We do hear about his various abortive relationships with women. We also hear about his plan to move down to London and get a house with a male friend. Calum’s only substantial conversations with people other than his daughter are with another handsome man his age, on the diving boat, and with the older male rug merchant; we don’t see any conversations with women. Sophie sees two men kissing towards the end of the movie, though neither of them are Calum. He talks about not feeling like he belongs. Queen’s Under Pressure is the final song of the movie. And of course, Sophie is in a relationship with another woman. 

None of this is conclusive, but it seemed pretty obvious to me, especially in a movie this deliberate.

Why do I think Calum has AIDS? I only came to think this when Sophie comments on his shoulder injury toward the end of the movie. He’s not sure where it came from. It could be a random accident, maybe a sign of his inattention toward himself, though we don’t see him being especially clumsy – the opposite, in fact. A random accident seems pointless to remark on. It could be self-harm, though we haven’t seen him do that before. Or it could be the result of immunodeficiency and AIDS, which can also weaken bones – hence his cast.

Calum clearly thinks he is a man with little time to live, and he wants to give his daughter as much as he can while he can. He’s spent a lot of money on what ultimately seems like a pretty nice holiday, even as Sophie knows he isn’t rich. He’s very serious about teaching her self-defence, and he keeps promising to spend money on singing lessons. Maybe he’s a spendthrift, but we’re not given to think that – it’s not like he spends a lot of money on drinks or other treats, the money he’s spending is for Sophie alone. 

Perhaps he’s depressed and suicidal – the shot of him walking into the sea suggests that. He’s certainly depressed, but I think it’s because he knows he has a terminal illness. Worse, it’s one that he’s ashamed of telling to anyone. So he can’t explain why Sophie’s remark about him always promising to spend money he doesn’t have is so cutting. He can’t explain why the question about what he thought he’d be like when he was 11 is so hard to answer.

Again – this is not conclusive. It’s just hard not to think this given the movie’s setting and its artistic choices.

I want to reiterate: I realise this is a weird way to talk about an incredibly beautiful and tragic movie, and I cannot explain why I approached it like a whodunit except for the fact that I think it was filmed in that way deliberately, to keep the audience always wondering what’s really going on, why Calum is acting in this way, and what the meaning of the modern day and strobe-lighting dance sequences are. I don’t mean to be reductive and certainly not offensive in writing this; what I want is to be respectful of the movie’s deeply cerebral nature.

But it’s also a story about…

The only “real” moments in Aftersun are the camcorder recordings, and anything with adult Sophie in it. Everything else is adult Sophie’s memory, and it is clearly imperfect. Not just that it’s hazy, but it’s informed by who she’s become – a woman in a same-sex relationship, with a newborn child. So this is all a story she’s telling to herself to explain her father’s presumed disappearance, such that my theory is really her theory.

What is crucial is that the recordings aren’t what give us these clues into Calum’s story. I don’t have a good way of rewatching the movie right now, but with the exception of the “11 year old” bit, I think the recordings were all pretty insubstantial. 

So: this isn’t just a movie about a dad taking his daughter on holiday. It’s not even a movie about a secretly gay man with a terminal illness. It’s a story about how our attempts to understand and remember our loved ones, even aided by documentary evidence, will always be a series of snapshots, flashes of light in the dark, always coloured by who we are today, and yet always worthwhile, being fuelled by loss, and by love.

3 Replies to “What Really Happens in Aftersun?”

  1. He’s definitely Gay – and it’s definitely why he dies – The evidence isn’t even that subtle. The information he delivers and the way he delivers it. The loving/friendship with Sophie’s mother… Sophie’s mother knows this about Calum the way my female friends I had a one time thing with in high school knew about me later that year.. when I learned that I was bi/gay.

    But the timing with the songs would have been 96 and 97 (especially if the songs are old enough to be on Karaoke) could be 98…when the cocktail treatments were going out. Not saying he would ever get those treatments.. but if that’s your take, I agree with you. But that specific part doesn’t have to be that far for me.

    Mental health is enough of a killer – especially back then.

    I think, he’s suicidal. He’s having a hard time coping with the forces in the world he can’t control. He’s made the decision.
    I don’t see this as a movie that is all about Sophie and her memories. I see that as a piece to the film but not the whole critics have made it out to be and certainly not what Paul Mescal has been saying in interviews. What you see with Calum is what happens – it’s real.

    I don’t agree with others that think this movie is about Sophie trying to figure her dad out after all these years. She knows her dad. She’s remembering the last time she had with him. Calum took his life probably 48-72 hours after they departed.
    So much of the movie is stuff she couldn’t know. In that way, this movie is as much about his perspective as hers. There is a lot of double-imagery and use of reflection to push certain things further home for the viewer and that is a wonderful technique for a first-time filmmaker.

    Suppose it was only mental illness. The evidence we have of Calum trying to deal with his anxieties and his depression. In late 90’s Scotland if you went to a hospital for mental health you’d lose your job, you’d lose sooo much. I have a small amount of family in Aberdeen. Mental health is just not something you could talk about like that back then. Mental health is barely accessible in certain places in the states.. for certain families having someone in therapy is like…. enough to make a person lose so much. Again.

    He’s had a hard childhood. He can’t cope with his adult life. He knows this is a last hoorah with his daughter. At times he makes subtle plans for the future. But it’s brief and even someone with a life sentence has moments of what if and maybe then… it’s human to try and think you might have a 5% chance after you’ve decided more than 90% what you’re doing.

  2. I agree with you 100%. Literally every word you say makes perfect sense to me and adds haunting beauty to the film. I think you’ve hit the nail right in the head with your theories. And don’t forget that moment where he’s in the disco dancing….”waiting for that feeling to come”…and those quick shots of him intimately (though without touching) dancing with another man. Then the next shot is him recklessly standing on a railing. If he’s not gay, then these moments make no sense.

  3. What a beautiful and accurate interpretation of the film –
    Exactly how I read it – though I think the film is about how on reflection we understand or come to see a reality we didn’t do before – in the case of the film, because Sophie was too young.
    I thought he was gay (those night club scenes?) but that the shoulder was a bite from a guy in the disco – not too clear about that but very evocative – thanks so much for taking the time to write this. You write beautifully

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