Past Lives review: “This time-spanning romance is an exquisitely judged wonder”

“Films should be voyeuristic,” Mike Leigh once opined. “What else is a film if you’re not snooping into somebody else’s lives?” Past Lives’ opening gambit makes the audience party to some unbridled people-watching unfolding in a New York bar. These unseen eavesdroppers are fascinated by the three’s-company dynamic of a trio of drinkers: an Asian woman, an Asian man, and a white guy. From across the room they try to unpick the structure of the group. Who knows who? Who, if anyone, is the third wheel? Of all the bars in all the towns in all the world, how did they end up walking into this one?

The scene doesn’t outstay its welcome. A title card soon whisks us back to 24 hours earlier. We’ll head back much further still given the narrative structure that encompasses three distinct periods in the protagonists’ lives. While the bulk of the film is set in the present day, those past time strands layer up immense wells of feelings that threaten to fully overflow when we return to that bar scene, and the complicated, likeable trio of individuals that we’ve come to know.

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