When Mise-En-Scène Is Metaphor: On Celine Song’s “Past Lives”
By Asher LubertoAugust 6, 2023
The statue is a regular motif in European cinema, placed in the background not only for aesthetic beauty but also for narrative depth. Famously, in Jules and Jim (1962), two friends stare at a projection of statues on a wall. They are astonished, dazzled even, by a marble outline of a woman’s face. “The tranquil smile on the crudely sculpted face mesmerized them,” intones the narrator. They set off immediately to see it. In matching white suits, they prance through a sunny courtyard to the sound of crickets and summer breezes, swaying grass and humming trees.
Jules and Jim spend an hour by the statue, as if catching up with an old friend. She greets them with a smile. They wonder if they will ever meet such an elusive, intangible grin again. They will. She presages the entrance of their soon-to-be love interest Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a flirt whose company is like a handful of golden sand; all you can do is try to hold on while she gently slips through your fingers. And by comparing her to a statue, beautiful and unyielding as stone, director François Truffaut sets us up for tragedy.
An even more solemn example can be found in another French New Wave classic, 1961’s Last Year at Marienbad, about a group of aristocrats spending a weekend in a garden full of statues. For director Alain Resnais, these humans might as well be statues themselves, so caught up trying to be posh that they forget to be people.
Celine Song builds on the art-house tradition that proceeds her, not only with her allusions to the French New Wave, but also through a deliberate, aesthetic hearkening back to the heady days of Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni. The foregrounding of these images suggests that Song wants to cite her influences, far more than she wants to invoke an image of doomed romance or drive home a sociological critique, before she pulls off her own auteurist invention.
Song’s use of sculpture is as pessimistic as Resnais’s, but far more human. When Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) meet again after she has immigrated with her family, first to Toronto and now New York, they stand next to another statue. This one portrays a man and woman facing opposite directions, their right arms stretched to the sky as if reaching for connection. It would be so much easier if they just turned around.
Nora and Hae Sung have spent decades searching for love when they could have just as easily turned to each other. They still have feelings for one another, which seems impossible since they haven’t seen each other in decades. But Song’s writing is so acute, the performances so attuned, that their unlikely connection feels inevitable. Lee shows the years of regret in Nora’s eyes, while Song plays with time, stretching, bending, and crafting it to her will. Her use of flashbacks and flash-forwards, devices so overplayed that they might otherwise warrant an eye roll, work because she ignores life-altering events (weddings, births, funerals) in favor of simpler moments, the everyday conversations that make up much of our existence.
In one of these flashbacks, Song introduces the Korean belief that connections between people are preordained, fated, as Nora explains to her husband Arthur (John Magaro) when they first meet. Whether it’s brushing against someone in the street or going on a date, “inyeon” is at play, bringing two people together who will either find love in this life or the next. This idea is something these characters talk about often, usually with their profiles overlapping in a mirror.
After Nora reconnects with Hae Sung, she returns home to tell Arthur how it went. Obviously, this is a touchy subject, and Song lets the tension ratchet up to a slow boil. The scene is framed in a wide shot, with Nora in the bathroom while Arthur listens nervously in the kitchen. She tells him how macho Hae Sung is, her face reflected in the bathroom mirror. “Are you attracted to him?” Arthur asks. “I don’t know … I mean, I don’t think so,” she replies. We see him wince in the hallway mirror. Later, in bed, he goes on to ask about inyeon, and whether they would even be together if they didn’t meet at a writer’s retreat. Probably not. But this, she insists, is where they are supposed to be.
Mirrors may seem to show things how they really are, but in Past Lives, they highlight the possibility of alternate futures, different outcomes. In a video essay for the Criterion Channel, film professor Jeff Smith muses on how such images “can express a character’s emotional state,” with Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000) as the prime example. In Yi Yi, we view a family’s life in Taipei, each character’s desire to break free visualized in mirrors and windows, plays of light and depths of space that emphasize their desire to be someone else. Song uses a similar technique as a way of exploring her love triangle. Every time something important happens, it’s backdropped by a reflective surface that suggests another layer of possibility.
Nora and Hae Sung stare at each other on computer screens, on video calls that glitch as a symbol of failed connection, and see themselves in these shimmering screens too. When they are together, in fleeting moments of bliss, they gaze into each other’s eyes as if searching for one another and, perhaps, a semblance of harmony. When they are alone, however, they simply study themselves. The first thing Nora does at her writer’s retreat is investigate herself in the bedroom mirror. Later, she stares at her reflection on a computer screen as she tries to write. We see a similar motif when Hae Sung arrives in New York. On a rainy afternoon, he spends most of his time sulking indoors, his disappointment seen through translucent walls, windows, and doors, as well as the glimmer of puddles on the street. It is an achingly gorgeous montage, capped off with a shot of his silhouette drifting across a mossy pond.
Past Lives is a film about time, missed opportunities, and enduring connections, and Song ably juxtaposes private reflection with romantic longing. Mirrors comment on many things, from beauty to vanity, but by delving into themes of inyeon, Song finds her own unique way of using this familiar cinematic trope. Her entire production design is filtered through this concept of inyeon, spelling out her character’s feelings with small details, filling in the negative space with touches that symbolize Nora’s belief in reincarnation: another life where dying vines can sprout new leaves. In every scene, a single brush can spark a new outcome, a new world, and maybe even a new romance. Maybe not in this life, but possibly in the next.
Hae Sung’s arrival in New York, awash in rain, fog, and mist, is sprinkled with reflections that remind audiences those possibilities are still in play but will have to wait until the weather clears. Sheets of rain suggest clouds of doubt, while his reflection in the hotel window hints at new prospects on the horizon. Teo Yoo’s broad shoulders, chiseled chin, and soft, sensual eyes are blurred in the downpour. In Past Lives, reflections are often obscured and unobtained. They don’t show what is but tease what could be. Under a glaring sun, these images become sharper, clearer, more tactile. Hae Sung’s puppy-dog eyes radiate from a shop window; Nora’s smile glows from a taxi windshield.
Song pulls from a deep well of influences to form this wholly unique backdrop, taking cues from European art cinema and American independent film when Nora and Hae Sung go for a walk. Shot in long, meandering takes that recall Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995), we watch as they stroll along the Hudson River. A brisk wind rustles the trees. Boats pass by in the background. Cars honk in the distance. Birds flutter across the morning sky. Life is once again in motion for two people who have been at an eternal standstill.
They pass by a bridge that symbolizes the connection between their worlds: the flight Hae Sung took to New York in hopes of rekindled intimacy. Everything in the background is there for a reason, as if Song is conducting a 40-piece orchestra of mundane objects. While other directors might stage this for maximal glamor, Song mobilizes every element for heightened context and character development. When Nora ponders their future, they sit next to a spinning carousel, a comment on the circular rhythms of their relationship, how they have come around to each other before twirling back to their separate, unknown fates.
Regarding his use of objects in films like L’Avventura (1960), L’Eclisse (1962), and Deserto rosso (1964), director Michelangelo Antonioni said that he would arrive to his locations in a “virginal state,” without any idea of how he was going to frame a scene until the day of shooting, at which point he would draw parallels between his muses and his landscapes. As a result, ordinary objects and landmarks emphasize extraordinary isolation. A volcano is not just a volcano in L’Avventura, but also a visualization of a failed eruption. We spend two hours searching for Monica Vitti’s heroine but find hot air instead. A factory is not just a factory in Deserto rosso, but also a manifestation of a wronged woman’s mind.
So too, in Past Lives, a bridge is never just a bridge, nor is a carousel simply a carousel. These are vital pieces in Song’s melodrama, all of which build to a truly heartbreaking ending, which is also the film’s opening: Nora, Hae Sung, and Arthur sitting together at a bar. Arthur looks as deflated as a dog in a shower, as Nora and Hae Sung speak in Korean, a language he cannot understand, with a passion he cannot fathom. Nora and Hae Sung have a connection that Arthur and Nora will never share, a history Nora’s husband acknowledges would make for a fine story and that, in a different telling, would require him to play the villain. Rather than harp on this meta-comment, Song’s camera zooms past Arthur, literally pushing him out of the frame.
“It took me coming here to realize that Arthur is your inyeon,” Hae Sung says. “Maybe in another life we can be inyeon.” The camera gazes at their reflection on the wooden bar, then pans up to their faces. They stare into each other’s eyes with immense sorrow. With this penultimate scene, Song gives us a sincere look inside the mind of two people who cannot find true connection. For cinephiles, it is also a masterclass in mise en scène, speaking volumes without saying anything at all.
A Rembrandt is not a Rembrandt without those charcoal backdrops, nor is a Sargent a Sargent without those vivacious brushstrokes bringing movement to models. Song’s ending would not be effective without those background details, those lights in the bar that invite literal and metaphoric reflections, the spaced-out seating that never lets these characters get too close, the tender and melancholy music on the jukebox that is impossible to decipher yet pierces through the conversation all the same. There is so much more to the frame than just people, a concept that auteurs once seemed to grasp but which now seems almost extinct. That’s what makes Past Lives so special—it looks to the past to bring hope to the present.
Asher Luberto is a film critic for L.A. Weekly, The Playlist, and The Village Voice.
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