Thursday, February 8, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Past Lives (2023)

Seven 2023 Best Picture nominees down, three to go....

Today it's the debut feature from director Celine Song, a romantic drama called Past Lives, about two childhood friends who were separated at age twelve just as they were developing feelings for each other, now reunited after 24 years.  Na Young (renamed Nora after her family immigrated to Canada and then the States) and Hae Sung find each other on social media in their twenties and develop a very close virtual courtship, but their respective situations preclude them from meeting in person.  Another twelve years pass, and they finally have a chance to see each other, but now Nora is happily married.  Thus the major theme of nostalgic romance vs. a practical, loving marriage is explored.

Past Lives stars Greta Lee in a delicate, understated performance (Lee has a particular gift for conveying so much character insight and emotion with just her eyes), Teo Yoo as her would-be forever partner, still so unsure of himself after two-plus decades he almost seems in a state of arrested emotional development, and John Magaro as Nora's husband Arthur, a successful writer who is self-aware to a fault, acknowledging that in a traditional rom-com he would be the villain in this love triangle.
The performances are all very credible in a real-world sort of way, at odds with the storybook premise, and that's sort of the point - what plays well as a cinematic romance rarely works out in real life, and there are always reasons, intended or not, that our lives turn out the way they do.  Arthur wonders aloud to Nora, what if he never went to the artists retreat where they met, and Nora ended up with someone else, would she be happier?  The answer is of course, but Arthur DID go, and they DID meet and fall in love, and she IS happy.  We are all a product of our circumstances and our responses to them.  

I had very mixed feelings about this film.  It's obviously very well-made, beautifully acted, and acutely contemplative about the nature of adult relationships and love.  But it almost struck me as perhaps TOO understated.  As we get to know Nora and Hae Sung and watch them exchange longing looks at each other, it feels like the script wants us to root for them to get together, as one would in a traditional romantic film.  But aside from those lingering glances I didn't sense all that much chemistry between them.  Their conversations are very superficial and bland, and the deep connection isn't there for me.  Maybe that's by design to illustrate why Nora instead married someone like Arthur, but if that's the case why so much conflict on her end?  She seems to want to be with Hae Sung more than the script gives her reason to, and conversely I feel like the script doesn't show us enough of the connection between her and Arthur.  We unfortunately don't get to see very much of their marriage, so focused is the film on the childhood sweethearts.

Several times Past Lives brought to mind Lost in Translation, also about a pair of lonely, old souls who find comfort in each other.  But where that film punctuated the quietly sophisticated drama with dry humor, that element was missing here and I feel it could've used a bit; Past Lives takes itself very seriously.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy the film, as I said it's somewhat captivating and Greta's performance is quite lovely.  I just felt it needed either a bit more heft or a bit more levity.

I give Past Lives *** out of ****.

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