Past Lives and Summer Hours
movies about love sometimes count as sports
The Angelika is a piece of shit and a terrible place to watch movies and we were all just so happy to be there. On a Saturday night at the very beginning of June, in a narrow basement full of old-fashioned uncomfortable seats, directly over top of a subway line that rattled the floors every time a train went by, the 7PM showing of Past Lives was sold out and the crowd was nearly feral. Kids, or people I understood as kids, piled in as though arriving at a house party. They carried snacks and drinks and huge bags and unfeasible jackets and extra shoes. They spilled popcorn, lost their phones in their seats, and tripped over themselves so lavishly it felt like it must be for show.
School was out, but summer wasn’t quite here yet. The previous week, college graduations had cascaded across the city’s parks and subways and mid-tier restaurants. New grads in glossy polyester robes had clutched diplomas and flowers and tried to outpace their visiting parents trailing behind them. Then they left, or some of them did, and graduation season evaporated into the uncertain hallway between summer and life. May turned the corner to June. The heat settled down on the days. Air conditioners dripped heavy splats onto pavement. The college kids who hadn’t left for new lives or vacation homes hung around downtown, done with one thing but not yet onto the next. Nobody knew what day it was; nobody knew if their life had started yet. Nobody knew what to do, so everybody went to the movies. By everybody, I mean every confused young person below 14th street, and by the movies I mean this one specific showing of Past Lives, at the Angelika at 7pm on Friday night. Or anyway that’s how it seemed, as the auditorium filled up with chaos around me before the movie started.
By the time the trailers began, I was convinced that not one other person in the whole room had ever been to a movie before. Couples had started making out before the lights even dimmed. Friends yelled gossip and concessions orders to one another down the whole length of the aisle. Large groups saved the furthest inward seat in a row for someone who arrived late carrying four or five enormous bags. At least one person had brought an entire multi-course meal in from outside and started passing containers along their row as though hosting a picnic. Maybe I should have been annoyed, but I felt tender toward all of it, the couples on dates embarrassing themselves, the groups confused about who should sit where, the teens accidentally turning their phones on at full brightness, everyone gossiping about one another, and laughing too loud, and trying too hard. It was Saturday night in America, and everyone wanted to see a movie about love.
I’ve been thinking about Past Lives for more than a month now; the simplest review I can offer of Past Lives is that I’ve been thinking about Past Lives ever since I walked out of the room where I saw Past Lives. I’ve thought a lot about this movie and movies like it, and about what movies have to do with summer, and what love has to do with big lit-up screens and late nights where the sky never quite gets all the way dark. The season’s sweat and permission and crisis suggests an easy parallel, in its heat and storms, in its cycles of stasis and urgency, to infatuation, longing, and lust.
Movies about love — not all of them, but a certain kind— take place in summer, in the same way sports games do, which is to say that both take place at every other time of year, but both perhaps locate their truest expression in the summer. In the park on long evenings, spontaneous games of softball break out from the nothing of the day. The simple triumphs of the body suggest themselves in hot weather. Families with no athletic ambition or skill between them kick a soccer ball around because it’s something to do. On the perimeter of those games, people lie on the grass and look up at the sky and fall in love, or wish they were in love, or think about someone they used to love. Everything glazes and blurs, the gas stations, the afternoons, the beading water on the surface of glass pitchers at tables on the street, the cars straining out of the city early on a Friday afternoon. Everything wants; everything from cars to streets to baseball games to air-conditioning becomes another body, all skin and sweat, all hope and demands.
Past Lives is about a lot of things, but like a certain type of movie about love, it’s about being awake all night in the summer. The only thing I knew about it going in, other than that it was supposed to be very good, was that people kept comparing it to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy. In particular, they cited Before Sunset, the second film of three, in which two people who haven’t seen each other in almost a decade reunite and walk around a city in the heart of June. All three of the Before movies take place on the same day in June, nine years apart. The long nights awake in each one are made possible by the summer.
Before Sunset is an extremely slutty movie; that’s what’s radical about it, and the best argument for its ongoing significance. It wants so badly, the characters and their bodies and their memories and the honey-blonde light pouring indiscriminate over the buildings and the sidewalks and the bridges. We spend the eighty minutes (a gorgeously compact film, aerodynamic the way poems are) walking around Paris with Jesse and Celine, the two characters we met in the first movie, listening to them almost but not quite get their feelings into words. What they spark in one another is electric; at times the space between their bodies seems to actually glow.
The whole fabric of Before Sunset is longing, which seems to make it a foregone conclusion that the two leads won’t get together in the end. Romance— in movies and in life— is often unsatisfying, but that very dissatisfaction is what generates the romance. Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Lack is the force that sustains yearning. Wanting, we’re told from before we know what any of this is, is about not having. I’d heard the phrase “people only want what they can’t have,” thousands of times before I ever even kissed anybody. It was a law of physics, a thing everybody knew. Romance means reaching, Tantalus-like, for fruit that always evades your grasp. The glow between two bodies is only possible because they’re holding themselves apart.
The narrative and stylistic tension of never quite having is hard to deny. But it’s also what makes me wary of almost every movie — or book, or TV show, or almost anything— about love. Nudge that equation a little more, and what it says is that long-term romance is not possible at all, and that we cease to be desirable when we allow ourselves to be known. Perhaps this is true, but it’s a profoundly bleak way to experience a life. When I watch a serious movie about love and longing, I assume nothing will work out for anyone, because both life and the movies have told me over and over that that’s the only way it ever goes.
At the end of Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine end up back at Celine’s apartment. He’s supposed to leave for the airport; his flight back home departs in an hour. We think—or I thought, anyway, the first time I watched it— we’re about to witness the classic end of a movie about love: Two people who missed their chance would long for each other but would ultimately tear themselves apart, and one of them would leave. This is how things end, and how things work. This is what keeps romance alive: the not having, the distance, the space between hand and fruit.
Except, then, that’s not what happens. “Baby,” she says, “you are gonna miss that plane.” “I know,” he says, and they stay in that apartment together, and the credits roll.
The end of Before Sunset gives me the same fist-pumping you did it you beautiful bastards you did it elation that I otherwise only get from watching sports. It’s the three-pointer from half-court a second before the buzzer in the fourth quarter of a tied game. It’s the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights, when an unlikely second-string replacement scores the winning touchdown. I wanted to stand up on a chair and cheer; I wanted to hug a stranger next to me like we were watching a championship game at a bar on a summer afternoon. Not all sports take place in summer, but sports is always about summer because it’s about ecstatic, sweaty permission, the thing you were told wasn’t possible happening anyway, against all the odds.
Against all the odds, at the end of Before Sunset, everybody gets what they want and the world doesn’t end1. The movie’s final minutes proclaim that we don’t live in some old Greek vision of hell, or in the wasteland just beyond the garden. We can bite into the fruit and let the juice run down our chin. We can take the impossible shot from too far away too late on the clock and at the last second hear the ball swish through the basket, nothing but net.
Love and sports are irrational, fleeting, and usually very stupid, and summer is the stupidest season, all our dopey, damp bodies panting like golden retrievers. When love works, when it’s good, when all the fireworks and the big parade bands come in with their explosions and trumpets and drums, it means we get to be stupid on purpose. Like sports, it’s an excuse to have outsize reactions to things that don’t really matter much. It’s a drug trip, a roller coaster ride, a day at the beach. It’s screaming in the stands at a big game, and buying drinks for the whole bar when your team wins.
The way sports and movies about love are one and the same couldn’t have been clearer than it was in that room full of at-loose-ends feral youth, on that Saturday night in the early summer heat, on the corner of Houston and Mercer directly over the subway tunnel, in a rotting, unkind city where at night at the intersection lights blur in an oily petroleum smear across the dark. We were here for sports; we were looking to get our hearts broken. I wasn’t good at sports as a teen, and if you’d asked me, I would have told you that I could think of few things about which I cared less. But when my high school’s basketball team went to State Championships, I was there in the stands, stomping my feet on the wooden bleachers in the same time signature as everybody else, so that the whole room echoed, caring so much about something precisely because it mattered not at all.
Everyone at the Angelika that night wanted so badly to care too much, to react to something. Everyone wanted a jump-scare, a reversal, a good joke, a reason to laugh, or gasp, or scream. If nobody quite yelled don’t go in there or he’s right behind you or get the ball get the ball get the ball or goooooooooooooaallllll, we came just about as close as an arthouse movie theater audience ever does to the home team’s section at a Knicks game. At one point someone actually did say NO!!! out loud, loudly. At another point, an on-screen character walked into an on-screen room and several people in our audience screamed as though a killer with a chainsaw had jumped out from behind a door. The currency of love is the same as that of sports and, in an inverted way, as that of horror movies: All three run on the reversal of expectations. A story about love, or a big triumphant game, or a movie where terrors lurk behind doorways, can jolt us out of numbness, into a nervy, lit-up, beautiful stupidity, where the least likely thing is always the one that happens.
Very few of us, I think, believe we are lovable at every moment, or even most of the time. Statistically, every romantic relationship is a bad bet, and there’s little reason to believe that a long shot will ever pay off, even as we buy in anyway. That’s one reason why stories about lost or thwarted love feel so comfortable. They arrive home at the likeliest conclusion, a place we’ve all been before.
Years ago, while working in London, I went to a friends’s place for a dinner party. Most of the other attendees were people he’d known at university, and when one mentioned there was a big cricket match on at that very moment, the room quickly agreed to delay dinner in favor of watching the game. I knew nothing about cricket and said so, and two or three people instantly began explaining to me that nothing ever happens in cricket. “I’m so sorry,” they each said, “it’s important to us but it’s incredibly boring, this is going to be the most boring thing you’ve ever seen.” “I cannot stress enough,” they continued, speaking to me but with their eyes glued to the game on the screen, “that nothing ever happens in cricket. I know we’re all acting like this is a big deal, but nothing is going to happen and it’s going to be so boring.”
And then, before these cricket fans could even finish explaining to me how boring the sport was and how nothing ever happens, something did happen, something so big and unlikely and triumphant that they all stopped talking about how boring their beloved sport was in favor of screaming and jumping up and down. Then something else happened, and then something even bigger happened, and then all of these polite middle-aged British men were weeping and embracing and lifting each other up in the air and kissing each other on the mouth. I know nothing about cricket; I knew nothing about cricket then. I can’t tell you what it was that happened, and happened next, and happened after that, beyond “they won the game.” Nevertheless, despite knowing nothing about why we all felt this way, I started yelling and jumping and embracing everybody, too, in the manner of a dog who starts barking because everyone else in the room is yelling. Partly it was about wanting to be included, but it was more than that, too. Not knowing a single thing about the sport in question or what had just happened in it didn’t stop me from enjoying the essential thing sports offers, which is the miracle of the unlikely. It’s the boring game that’s boring until it isn’t, the thing that happens despite the fact that nothing happens, and the big stupid celebration that that long-odds event allows.
There’s always a chance that things will go better than they’re supposed to; there’s always a hope that the thing that never happens happens anyway. Love doesn’t last, except that sometimes it does; the two people longing for each other never actually make it happen, except when they do. Romance always decays, except when it doesn’t. Nothing ever happens in this sport until everything happens, until one lucky shot undoes all the better wisdom about it. Love and sports are about being proven wrong, which is, in a world of bad outcomes and bleak realities, perhaps the thing we all hope for most, in all our hearts’ sweaty backrooms.
For the most part, I think the comparisons between Before Sunset and Past Lives are specious at best and lazy at worst. The two movies don’t really have much to do with each other, aside from both being about love and set in the summer. Each centers on a couple who reconnect after more than a decade, but beyond that, there’s not a whole lot they share. In their extremely different ways, however, both movies offer that sports-game thrill of subverted expectations, and both, despite being crafted of pure longing, specifically defy the old formula that says we only want what we can’t have.
Past Lives’ story is relatively simple: Two kids grow up in Seoul together and develop a grade school crush on one another, but one of them moves away before they’re old enough to act on it. Twelve years later, she’s living in New York, while he’s stayed in Seoul. They reconnect over Facebook, which leads to talking every day, which almost leads to a relationship until she ends it abruptly. They lapse out of touch again; they each fall in love with somebody else; she gets married. After another twelve years, he visits New York, where she lives with her husband, and they spend a day and a long evening together before he flies back home. That’s all. Nothing happens, not really, but the way that nothing happens made me want to jump out of my seat and and scream and embrace a stranger.
The title refers to In-Yeon, a Korean word that can be imperfectly translated as something to do with fate, a thing that builds between two people over the course of multiple lifetimes, so that their present-tense relationship is the result of layers and layers of unremembered collision and encounter. It’s a way to talk about the uncanny connection we feel with certain people, greater than the sum of our interactions in the here and now.
In-Yeon2 haunts and trouble the narrative, an enticingly vague idea that maybe means a great deal, and maybe means nothing at all (the first time Greta Lee’s character, Nora, explains the concept, she follows it up with a quick dismissal, “that’s just something Koreans say to seduce each other.”) In-Yeon is a question rather than an answer, the puzzle of two people’s connection and reconnection and what place they’re meant to have in one another’s lives. We’re never sure how much weight the movie gives its titular idea, or to whom it’s supposed to apply. Crucially, Past Lives is a three-hander, not a two-hander; Nora’s husband arrives as the third lead, in stark contrast to a movie like Before Sunset, in which everyone other than Jesse and Celine is a non-playable character. The movie questions whether any of these people believe what they’re saying when they talk about In-Yeon, or love, or their feelings for one another. Its alignment is beautifully and maddeningly unclear until the very end, when it executes a concluding sequence so small and so perfect that it gave me the same feeling as a cricket game about which I knew nothing once did.
In a clever harmony with its title, Past Lives’ ultimate romance is with the present tense. It’s a movie shot through with longing that can be read as a statement against it, using longing itself as the engine to move beyond longing. Our past and future lives may crowd our present existence, but we can’t live in any of them, here and now. The great romance is the one in front of us, two bodies that finally close the space between each other in the hour before the sun rises. In the end, this is another romance about wanting what you can have, about how romance continues after yearning and distance, and beyond them, and as more than them. Our future lives unfurl on the other side of longing. In this way, Past Lives employs the same twist ending as Before Sunset, and breaks the same rule that that movie does, telling a love story about getting what you want, and wanting what you already have.
If you haven’t seen Past Lives, I don’t want to spoil it for you; in fact, I’m worried that I’ve already said too much. This is an odd feeling to have about a movie where, functionally, very little happens. I normally couldn’t care less about spoilers; I frequently read Wikipedia summaries of movies, and recaps of TV episodes, before I watch them. Past Lives is an exception, though. It’s so startling in its clarity and its direct aim at the heart that it’s the rare case of a movie where I think it actually matters to go in knowing as little as possible.
What I can tell you, though, is that there’s this particular way 4am feels in the dead heart of summer, in this particular city in its particular downtown, when you’re outside after the bars close but when the sun hasn’t quite risen yet, and the one and only true breeze of the day comes down the city’s cast-iron grid into the small and unloved streets of the East Village, over chipped-paint front stoops and around spidery fire escapes, through the chain-link fences and the community gardens. When it’s hot and humid all day— like it has been the last few weeks— when impatience for rain builds and builds and builds and the rain never appears, when the day seems determined to fry its pedestrians like ants on a sidewalk, when the stagnant air has been unbearable for a week, sometimes, if you stay up all the way to 4am, the heat breaks for three or five minutes, and one long perfect breeze arrives. A small wind picks up your hair and dries the sweat underneath it at the back of your neck. It skims across fabric and turns clothing into flirtation, pressing it skintight against the outline of a body, or blowing a skirt briefly upward and then back down. All along the grid-lines and the sallow architecture, the lurking metal doors in the sidewalk, the exhausted endless windows, the bad smells outside of bars trying to close, everything softens and relents. The heat sets back in before the sun even rises, and by daylight the sticky, static, impatient day is just as unbearable as the previous one and the next one. But if you’re awake and outside at 4am, for a few minutes the weather gives up its attack and grows tender. Against the odds, everything feels good again, and easy, as though no problem could really be that difficult to solve, as though love, and bodies, and fate, and memory, all gave up easy answers.
The perfect ending of Past Lives — the three-pointer at the buzzer, the winning touchdown, the flawless penalty kick made by a second-string nobody—takes place in that 4am break in the weather, in that single breeze out of the whole day, in that green and merciful exhale just before the heat returns. Summer isn’t much to get poetic about, and neither is love; this weather is ugly and dangerous, and only getting worse. Both things— love, summer—boil down mostly to the logistical; irritation and sunburn, dehydration and errands, itchiness and budgets and fairness and chores. One reason a certain kind of movie about love, when it sticks the landing, feels like sports is the gift of an exception, a brief moment lifted out of the shuffling and repetitive likelihoods that make up the balance of our lives. The team with no odds to win pulls off a miracle; the day is hot and gross and useless, and love is bureaucratic and itchy and complicated, but, if you stay up late enough and step back outside into the small streets after the bars close, for just a few minutes there’s a breeze.
Past Lives is wonderful and I absolutely don’t do it justice here, please go see it, I believe it’s still on screens in several cities. xo
Arguably, of course, that’s eventually belied — or at least complicated — by Before Midnight, but that’s a different essay. (I wrote a version of that essay a couple years ago, but I’d probably write it differently now.)
Here’s a wonderful interview with the writer and director, Celine Song, that digs into In-Yeon much more deeply and accurately than I do here.