Past Lives is a movie obsessed with fate, the potential magic in everyday interactions, the possibilities of magical thinking. But in Nora’s journey, the film seems to suggest that the greatest, most breathtaking romance we might hope to have is the one we have with our own life. In an age where we’re doomed to browse through the lives of others, to constantly fantasize about infinite possibilities and impossibilities, the biggest heartbreak might be the realization of a long road behind you, of paths chosen and commitments made, that conspire to make life feel narrower but maybe also more grounded, more real.
That hard won acceptance is foregrounded by the dreams the young Nora articulates when we first meet her in Korea, then going by her Korean name Na Young. “Koreans don’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature,” she tells her classmates, as a way of explaining why her family was moving to Canada. Later, when she and Hae Sung reconnect in their 20s, Nora talks about aspiring for a Pulitzer. Twelve years after that, when they finally reunite in person in their mid 30s, she settles for aspiring for a Tony—still a long shot but already a dream right-sized by reality. To live the life you’re living is to grapple with the fact that that might mean a life that’s ordinary but also deeply your own.
We never hear Cat Power’s cover of “Stay” in Past Lives. Instead, the song that welcomes viewers into the movie is Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” a cut off the classic 1967 album Songs of Leonard Cohen. “Let’s not talk of love or chains and things we can’t untie,” Cohen sings. “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye.” Past Lives similarly reveals the emptiness of fantasizing about magical fixes, reminding us about the beauty in a life lived presently.
At a crucial moment in the film, Nora’s husband voices out his insecurities about their love story’s relative mundanity, when compared to the potentially extraordinary narrative if Nora were to reunite with her childhood sweetheart. “What if you met somebody else at that residency?” he asks her. “Our story’s just so boring. We met at an artist residency, slept together because we both happened to be single. We realized we both live in New York so we moved in together so we could save on rent. We got married so you could get a green card.”
But the best stories don’t always make the best realities. “That’s not how life works,” she reminds him. “This is my life and I’m living it with you.”