Last week I was lucky enough to catch a preview of Past Lives, the quietly devastating forthcoming debut film from director Celine Song. Some critics are already proclaiming it the film of the year, making Past Lives the tortoise to Barbenheimer’s hare. It’s a very modern, wonderfully restrained, kind-of love story, crossing continents between Seoul and New York, tracing the surging affections of childhood sweethearts Nora and Hae Sung.
The major triumph of Past Lives is not in its beautifully dour, Sofia Coppola-ish cinematography, the tinkering ambience of a Grizzly Bear soundtrack or the two peerless central performances. The best thing about this film is that it carefully unpicks, then categorically takes a sledgehammer to, one of the worst romantic fallacies that can haunt adult lives: ‘the one that got away.’
Everyone has one. The one that got away is that person you met or dreamt about when you were at your most innocent, charming, pretty and unspoilt. When your hair fell correctly and your wardrobe popped. Before the belt loosened and cynicism crept in. The one that got away can be fleetingly recalled in the spritz of a department store perfumier’s bottle, or in that song you once shared which magically appears on shuffle, igniting a whole Catherine wheel memory loop of mixtapes, first kisses and philosophical arguments about a book you read one another in the bath.
As Past Live so poignantly points out, the one that got away is usually a fabrication built up in our heads, mostly around imaginary personal myths and misunderstandings of our past, that disastrous urge to storify experience. He/she/they are reimagined to activate versions of the person we once were, as opposed to the bluff reality of the body that we currently live in. The one that got away is a minor infraction of the you that got away. Like most common romantic myths, it all swings back to narcissism in the end.
‘The one that got away’ is the Brexit of relationship tropes. It’s sepia-tinted, blue-passported, wasn’t it great in the past
‘The one that got away’ is the Brexit of relationship tropes. It’s sepia-tinted, blue-passported, wasn’t it great in the past, when I didn’t have to worry about all this netherworld? Once a random from the past gets stuck in the head, the questions begin. Can I go back there? Dare I? Why not! Only to see a plethora of emotional tariffs appearing. Nobody countenances for the Northern Ireland problem in their wistful memories, a place you can file away in your head as so much better than today, precisely because it no longer exists.
The one that got away is an itch that is all the more impulsively scratched since the advent of social media, where all of our best lives twirl around on the carousel of public approval. Once you go down the rabbit warren of ones that got away in this regard, a whole new flight of fancy grows wings. OMG, am I X’s one who got away? Am I Y’s? The brutal truth. You are, in all likelihood, nobody’s, but most particularly not those who ran away fastest the first time around. Selective memory is a psychedelic space to fall back into with an idle hour to spare. You lose perspective on your present.
The morning after watching Past Lives, I was gripped by the sudden urge to turn to my partner for the first time in forever and make some insane declaratory about him being the one who stayed, forever. I kept those thoughts to myself, though.
That’s the thing about the one that didn’t get away. They just know.
I’m personally ambivalent on the merits of a therapised self. I’ve tried it twice, both times casually disastrous, though very much needed, and chalked the disasters up to speaking to the wrong person. Probably being the wrong person. At some point in the future, when time, inclination, wallet and connection allow, I’d like to get back in the chair and unravel the constants that need addressing, the trickier parts of being me.
It’s an easy thing to put off for another day when you master the art of just about coping. Which is why I found Mr Cowell’s public addressing of his psychology rather moving, particularly given his age.
If anyone understands judgment, it is the man who built a career — some might even say legend — out of it. To open out your own self-built omnipotence to scrutiny feels like a magnanimous touch.
I’ve only met him a couple of times, but even so, there feels like there’s an awful to unravel. If he gets trench-deep into it, I wonder who will emerge on the other side of this late-life foray into the examination of the self?
I may even think about dipping a toe in again.