Past Lives and the banality of love
You see what seems like a couple sitting across from you, they don’t look all that special, no grand acts of love on display. You don’t understand their language, but love always has a vocabulary all on its own, one only the couple knows to speak. But their eyes alone speak volumes, darting around like pinballs to steal secret glances. “Love is a code, and the cipher lies in each other’s heart,” you remember from somewhere, maybe your own troubled thoughts. The “couple” makes you remember your own odysseys in love, death throes and all.
From the early days of Romanticism back in the 18th century, love has always been associated with sacrifice; you sacrifice everything for love, your agency, even your life. Love is the Holy Grail, a fairytale fantasy one should all strive to reach and retrieve. Celine Song’s Past Lives reckons otherwise. Shot with all the intimacy of our childhood idea of love, this 2023 film shows in all its 35mm glory, what love really is, not just what it can be.
Her debut film shines a light on the every day of love, the silent longing and sorrowful understanding: looking at young couples cuddling on the train, looking out the window in heavy rain; a whole lot of looking really, with a lot of love hidden in the glint of pearly eyes. It isn’t afraid to share the banalities of love: waiting like an awkward teenager in broad daylight for your childhood sweetheart, triple-checking your hair and your tucked-in shirt. Love isn’t just kissing in the rain or sweaty nights in bed, love is also leaving. Love isn’t just I love you, it’s also see you or goodnight. Love isn’t killing yourself like Romeo and Juliet, it’s living and letting live in a happy marriage. It isn’t leaving your betrothed for a superhero, it’s learning each other’s mother tongue. Love is waiting for your long-distance call to connect, looking at dots spinning, hoping every second of the way.
All these past representations of romance — the love of Romanticism — of Shakespeare and comic books, are based on the fact of looking either in the future or the past, of love in our prospective dreams or retroactive memories, of wishful expectations or anxious fears. Philosopher Hannah Arendt in her thesis Love and St. Augustine said as such:
Memory, the storehouse of time, is the presence of the “no more” as expectation is the presence of the “not yet.” Therefore, I do not measure what is no more, but something in my memory that remains fixed in it. It is only by calling past and future into the present of remembrance and expectation that time exists at all. Hence the only valid tense is the present, the Now.
Arendt’s interpretation of love from St. Augustine’s body of work deals with three main concepts: love as craving or desire (which anticipates the future), love in the relationship between man and creator (which deals with the remembered past), and neighborly love (which the first two are oriented from). Apt that this film’s title taps into the collective consciousness of every romantic, thinking how everything in our past leads to love, how love is the loom that fate weaves threads of. In practice, however, this immaterial concept of love, a child’s idea of it, lives side by side with its fulfillment.
Past Lives shows us that our imaginative desire is stuck in a faraway time, forever out of hand, in our cribs and deathbeds; even as we make love, the love of our past lives lives alongside this one. Love coexists with longing, and the camera lingers to show that. Most of all, the film represents love as we grow up, accepting the existence of time, and the eternal beauty of regular acts of love, of loving, not only the storybook abstraction in our heads. True love happens in the present, of our own making, from kindness and understanding each other as independent human beings. On the other hand, Past Lives does a seminal job of showing the spaces in love, the line breaks between poetry rhymes, present in the slow stroll home after having your heart broken; reminding us that love also exists after someone leaves, like an especially good movie, it stays with you long after its runtime, echoing in your heart and thoughts, clinging to you like pillow talk on cold nights.