Obsessions Film

Was ‘Past Lives’ the Most Grown-Up Film of the Year? One Writer Investigates the Emotional Turmoil of the Oscar Contender

Photography by Ciera Dunbar. Image courtesy of J Wortham.

In this series, Obsessions, writers select a treasured cultural artifact and hold it up to the light, reflecting on the revelations it has sparked, the nostalgia it conjures, and the deep-seated urges it articulates.

2023 had me desperate for more expansive emotional landscapes that weren’t afraid to explore messy portrayals of love and codependency without being toxic or destructive. For a mirror that reflected my own peri-pandemic ambivalence about life and all its compartments.

I found that in Past Lives, Celine Song’s 2023 minefield of a movie about two childhood friends reuniting as adults, pressing up against the edges of their connection to each other. In the movie's final moments, we watch Nora (Greta Lee) embrace Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) before putting him into a cab back to their native Seoul. Nora watches the car pull away, then walks the length of an excruciatingly long city block, wading backward from longing into reality. As she falls into the arms of her husband, Arthur (John Magaro), she lets out an anguished sob that feels like it's been bottled up for the previous 100 minutes.

Greta Lee, John Magaro, and Teo Yoo in Past Lives. Image courtesy of A24.

That sound has worn a groove in my brain, a texture that I worry like a small rock. Her grief is the score of uncertainty, the ambivalence of adulthood, the terror of having to live with all of our choices, including the ones made for us. She releases it all into the body of her partner, a man who is implicated in her sadness, but not responsible for it. Nora’s anguish over her feelings of alienation is the tether that keeps the slow-moving movie taut, and its release is as cathartic as it is confusing.

Song doesn’t give us the long processing conversation that is sure to happen that night. The film refuses simplicity, choosing the murky gradients of love, fear, longing, belonging, and unknowing. Nora’s husband helps her into their home tenderly, holding it all with her, for her.

For more Obsessions, read this reflection on the strage allure of Groucho Marx by Nicolaia Rips.