BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 24 MAR 23

Editor’s Picks: The Will-They-Won’t-They Appeal of ‘Past Lives’

Other highlights include Ira Sachs’s sexy tragicomedy and an overdue English translation of an East German literary classic

BY Chloe Stead in Opinion | 24 MAR 23

Frieze Editor’s Picks is a fortnightly column in which a frieze editor shares their recommendations for what to watch, read and listen to.

Past Lives, Celine Song

If there’s one thing you should know about me, it is that I will watch any film or television show – even five seasons of the completely preposterous Bones (2005–12) – if the main characters share chemistry. In Celine Song’s directional debut Past Lives (2023), Nora (Greta Lee) and Hae Sung (Teo Yoo) have oodles of it. They are childhood sweethearts who reconnect 20 years after Nora’s family emigrates from South Korea. There is only one tiny problem: Nora also has a not insignificant amount of chemistry with her husband (John Magaro), a fellow writer with whom she lives in New York City.


Playing on the South Korean term In-Yun – the idea that all the encounters we have are a result of thousands of past lives – the film is in some ways a classic will-they-won’t-they romantic comedy, but one that takes a much more complex and realistic view of what happens after you meet your ‘soulmate’. Premiering at Sundance at the beginning of the year before making its way over to the Berlinale, Past Lives hasn’t had a full theatrical release yet, but if it plays well with audiences this summer, I could see it receiving a raft of Oscar nominations in 2024, including best picture, best director and best actress for the utterly charming Lee.

Passages, Ira Sachs

Bronchitis kept me in bed for most of this year’s Berlinale, but I still managed to bag a ticket to see Passages (2023) in the film festival’s closing weekend. Directed by Ira Sachs, it focuses on the relationship between Thomas (Franz Rogowski) and Martin (Ben Whishaw), a long-standing couple whose relationship is tested when filmmaker Thomas begins an affair with a woman that he meets at a wrap party (Adèle Exarchopoulos).


All three actors give excellent performances, but it's Rogowski who really shines, playing the toxic Thomas with just enough charisma to make it believable that not one but two intelligent people would spend the film’s 90-minute runtime forgiving his many indiscretions. Amidst ongoing conversations about actors going ‘gay-for-pay’ – from Harry Styles in My Policeman to Brendan Frazer in The Whale (both 2022) – the knotty and extremely sexy Passages is a strong argument for the magic that can happen when queer people get to tell their own stories.

Siblings, Brigitte Reimann

Although her books have never been out of print, East German writer Brigitte Reimann has been overlooked in the English-speaking world. Penguin’s recent publication of her 1963 classic Siblings, translated into English for the first time by Lucy Jones, aims to change this. Set in the German Democratic Republic, the novel opens with a blistering argument between Uli, a talented but frustrated engineer, and Elisabeth, an idealistic artist who runs painting classes for factory workers.

Brigitte Reimann
Brigitte Reimann, Siblings, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Penguin Random House. Portrait of the writer, c.1960s. Courtesy: Getty Images; photo: Köppe

Although neither sibling is a party member, Elisabeth is a true believer and horrified to learn that her adored brother is planning to flee to West Germany. As Kevin Brazil points out in his review for The Times Literary Supplement, Elisabeth’s loyalty to the system doesn’t seem ‘entirely misplaced’. ‘While English-language novels of the era … were busy tracing the descent of women artists into madness under the pressures of sexism and impecuniousness,’ he writes, ‘Reimann’s heroine spends her state-employed days painting and listening to jazz.’ But as illuminating and rare it is to read an account of day-to-day life in the GDR from somebody sympathetic to the regime, it’s the intensity of the relationship between these two suffocatingly close siblings that kept me hooked until the last page.

Main image and thumbnail: Celine Song, Past Lives, 2023, production still. Courtesy: A24

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.