Augustine Frizzell is intimately acquainted with the power of romantic letters. The director of Netflix’s The Last Letter From Your Lover first met her now-husband, filmmaker David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Green Knight), back in 2001 when they briefly dated before going their separate ways. Eight years later, the two reconnected for dinner. There was something there, but he was based in Los Angeles, and she was in Dallas — so they wrote.
“He sent me an email and naturally I had to respond,” Frizzell told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the movie’s July 23 release. “I wrote back and then he wrote back in and then we just continued that correspondence. And then we started making mixtapes — on CDs at the time — we'd burn out and then send them in with packages. We included letters. I was very much in love with him and very nervous that if we met in person, he might have just been like, ‘Oh, I thought we were just like good friends, sorry.’ I think the reason why we were able to develop such an intimate relationship from afar was the letters, and being able to put our emotions out, and talk about things that we might not otherwise talk about.”
That can’t-eat-can’t-sleep-can’t-wait-to-touch-you energy is on full display in her latest film, adapted by Nick Payne and Esta Spalding from Jojo Moyes’ 2010 novel of the same name, The Last Letter From Your Lover takes place over parallel timelines. The first tracks the star-crossed romance between socialite Jennifer Stirling (Shailene Woodley) and Anthony O’Hare (Callum Turner), a journalist sent to interview her aloof husband Lawrence (Joe Alwyn, who’s really made a career out of playing villains) as they summer on the French Riviera. The second narrative arc brings us forward to the 21st century, as journalist Ellie (Felicity Jones), herself recovering from a bad breakup, discovers the letters between Jennifer and Anthony, and becomes consumed with tracking them down with the help of hot newspaper archivist Rory (Nabhaan Rizwan). (You can probably guess where that goes.) Eventually, the two stories collide in a predictable, but ultimately satisfying climax.
Confession: I knew this movie would be for me, regardless of it being good or not, before I saw it. Anything that combines period glamour and unabashed horniness with a bout of sudden amnesia— sign me up! Throw in a journalist angrily eating a croissant out of spite on a deadline, as Ellie does before being allowed to enter the archive room, and I’m yours for life. But the kissing was a very welcome surprise. The Last Letter From Your Lover has great kissing. There’s kissing in a park, kissing in a club, kissing in a coat room, kissing in apartments, kissing on a train — and several near-kisses, which to be honest are the sexiest of all.
“When we were shooting, there was this ongoing joke,” she said. “Every time there’d be another kiss, I'd be like, ‘On the billboards, it's going to be like, The Most Kissing Of Any Movie Ever!’ So, I definitely had that in mind. It is the most romantic thing, kissing.”
As my colleague Kathleen Newman-Bremang has pointed out in the past, kissing is a crucial element missing from too many recent TV shows and movies, which often equate sex with sensuality. Instead, Frizzell wanted to portray desire — what happens when two people want something so much it hurts. To be clear, there still are some sex scenes in this movie. But they’re fleeting, and carry far less significance than the quieter moments that precede them. In a world where people are turning to Netflix for softcore porn substitutes, repressed sexual energy is a potent weapon when harnessed correctly.
“There's this thing that happens when you're first with someone and you've fallen in love with them — at least there was for me,” Frizzell said. “David and I were just disgusting to everyone else who was around us. I couldn't be close enough to him often enough. I just needed to be physically there, and I needed to touch him. And it was like, you're two magnets and you're just drawn together. This is what I wanted the movie to feel like: That feeling of you've met the person that you're so drawn to that you cannot move away.”
Frizzell’s career thus far has been all about playing in the gray spaces in between labels. Her feature directorial debut, Never Goin’ Back, showed the messy and raunchy intricacies of a friendship between two teen girls — before that became popular. Her next gig was the dick-filled premiere of Euphoria. In that context, a textbook romantic drama like The Last Letter From Your Lover would appear to be an outlier, a more conventional project.
But there’s still something distinctive and surprising about this movie, even if the plot goes exactly where you think it will. Frizzell brings cinematic heft — gorgeous, saturated shots and candlelit twinkles — to a genre that’s usually dismissed as empty calories.
“You look at some of the great films of all time, you’ve got Casablanca and An Affair To Remember — we don't have that often anymore in cinema,” Frizzell said. We look back on those movies as classics, and so we don't demean them as just ‘chick flicks.’ It’s interesting how that's kind of changed. I feel like it's not a bad thing that we've found other ways of framing a woman's story. But on the other hand, I don't think there's anything wrong with the pursuit of love, or with wanting love and enjoying love, whether it be in one's life or in cinema.”
Still, I’m curious if Frizzell feels like she needs to justify her desire to take on a project that feels less overtly bent on subverting assumptions about women. As a woman director, does she feel an obligation to make movies with a strong commentary or social message? Can she just make a movie about romance and kissing, without stressing an underlying feminist message?
“I think it has to do with both the need for these films to exist and the absence of people making them about women, so when given the opportunity, we tend to take it,” she said. “We're still fighting for equality in a lot of areas, and those types of movies shine a light on that struggle. It also has to do with being taken seriously as filmmakers. Something like The Last Letter is more emotional than intellectual, and we women have had to justify our emotions for many years, often denying them in order to be taken seriously 'on a mans' level,' particularly in the workplace. Making something more intellectual is a way of saying we have more to offer than just our emotions, which is true! However, I do think both things can exist, and in an ideal scenario they work together.”