Midsommar (2019)

Written and directed by: Ari Aster

Midsommar_(2019_film_poster)[1]Ari Aster’s  Hereditary had a lot going for it. It features memorable acting performances, and visually and conceptually horrifying scenes. It also weaves a complex mosaic of horror motifs together to create something new. Nonetheless, my review of Hereditary was not particularly positive. Essentially, I felt all of Hereditary’s strong points failed to blend. After keeping viewers at the edge of their seats through a series of horror happenings, Hereditary ends witha big reveal that’s too vague to feel like a reveal at all.

I ended up liking Midsommar better than Hereditary, but not because it corrects the former film’s flaws. Instead, in Midsommar, Aster doubles down on his strengths, creating a work that is enticing and terrifying enough that viewers should not be too put off by its vague and meandering qualities.

Midsommar is largely set in a mysterious Swedish commune. It’s worth noting that this a choice that allows Aster to explore a theme of “ethnic otherness,” without risking seeming bigoted or insensitive. The Swedish context also allowed Aster to put together an overpoweringly beautiful visual experience, that combines folkloric art with idyllic shots of cliffs and meadows.

The film does not start beautifully, however. Many of its early scenes are shot in (perhaps too much) darkness (the literal matches the figurative). We are introduced to protagonist Dani (Florence Pugh), who appears to suffer from some sort of anxiety-related mental illness while simultaneously facing a family tragedy.

Shortly after Dani, we are introduced to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his three graduate-student-aged friends: Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper)  and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). Christian’s friends try to convince him that dating Dani is not worth the emotional toll, but Christian insists that staying in the relationship is the right thing to do. This is not to say that Christian handles his relationship perfectly, however. When his friend group plans a trip to Sweden (to visit Pelle’s commune), Christian doesn’t feel comfortable either including or excluding Dani, so he awkwardly avoids telling her until the last minute, at which point he invites her to join them .

In the film’s first act Aster sets up viewers to expect a relationship drama. He raises questions such as “What responsibility do people have to care for loved ones whose needs can be mysterious and overwhelming?.” In these early moments, Aster sets up Christian as a flawed-but-loyal male protagonist, and while Mark serves as his outwardly selfish and peer-pressuring foil. Mark, however, rendered palatable via his somewhat goofy disposition.

Based on the film’s first act one might expect Aster to continue to strive to get the most out of Mark as a character, and to centre his story around Dani and Christian as co-protagonists. Both Christian and Mark’s prominence fades, however, as the commune and its inhabitants come to take centre-stage.

Christian’s other two friends, Pelle and Josh, also find their way into the script. Pelle’s status as an ambassador figure between the North American and Swedish characters gives him sustained prominence, whereas Josh, who seems a bit redundant early in the film, is given brief prominence in its middle. One can argue that the three North American men: Mark, Josh and Christian function as some sort of trio out of a fairy-tale fable, where each represents a character flaw that stems from our society. 1) Mark’s story teaches us not to be selfish 2) Josh’s story teaches us not to be so career driven that one misses ones other responsibilities  3) Christian’s story… well I think the worst thing that can be said about Christian is that he is overly passive and thus fails to be a good support system for Dani. The problem with Aster’s handling of these characters, however, is that it is not consistent. Mark and especially Josh aren’t given sufficient stage time to give their characters the charisma they undoubtedly could display. Christian meanwhile, is written inconsistently in a way that doesn’t make sense. Aster clearly wants viewers to notice that Christian forgets Dani’s birthday, but he doesn’t reconcile this with the original-version of Christian who clearly stands up for Dani, despite his friends’ suggestion that he break up with her.

Midsommar has a lot of arguably-present themes. It can be seen as a story, for instance, that challenges us not to judge other cultures without looking for our own moral shortcomings. This message, however, is a difficult sell given that the flaws of the North American characters appear far subtler than the horrors they are faced with. More broadly, the film could be seen as promoting self-empowerment, a call for people to question their support systems and consider drastic change where it is necessary for their mental health. But if this is a moral agenda, it’s one that film seems to advocate for with no regard for proportionality. Aster’s moral-narrative resembles (and was perhaps inspired by) Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal (2017), but Aster’s commitment to stunning horror, robs his work of the emotional nuance that makes the older film morally compelling.

Aster’s proportionality problem goes beyond morality and extends to some of his image choices. In one scene, viewers are made to watch a car drive upside down. It’s a surprisingly unique visual, and I suppose it represents Dani’s disorientedness, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling out of place and low-key motion-sickness inducing.

Ari Aster is a deeply enticing filmmaker, but as with Hereditary, Midsommar has more appeal if one thinks of it as a collage of lots of stunning (and sometimes excruciatingly violent)  images, rather than a satisfying narrative. Midsommar has it all: black comedy, cinematography and charismatic figures. Having it all is not necessarily “enough,” but in the case of this film, it produces a product that if not perfect, is undoubtedly bedazzling

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Hereditary (2018)

Written and directed by: Ari Aster 

   Hereditary               Last fall, commenting on some of the horror highlights of 2017, I noted they had a quality which I described as “thorough horror.” This is to say that these films were rife with disturbing details, which either were mere compliments to the main horror (It) or were complete red-herrings (The Killing of a Sacred Deer). Hereditary feels like a film made in a similar vein. The good side of this is that it regularly reinvigorates viewers with shots of eerie excitement. The negative side is that, unlike the aforementioned movies, thorough horror is not a mere trait of Hereditary, but its premise.

In order to explain this matter further I will have to spoil a little of the film, not too much, but perhaps more than I’d like. Since surprise is particularly important to the experience of watching a horror film, consider yourself warned.

 

Hereditary opens with a funeral eulogy, as miniaturist artist and mother of two Annie Graham (Toni Collette) speaks on the life of her mother, a woman who was distant from her family and whom we latter learn struggled with a mental illness. When Graham and her family return home we get the sense that her son Peter (aged roughly 16) (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (13) (Milly Shapiro) did not feel close to, or at least can not be outwardly emotional about their grandmother. We further learn that Charlie never cried as a baby. Finally, we learn she is into art projects, one of which involves decapitating a pigeon corpse.

When I said I would have to spoil things I’ll say this much: the grandmother is a red herring (to a degree at least), and Charlie, the disturbed grand-daughter is certainly a red herring. Can I say certainly? It’s hard to say with the plot of this film: anyway, Charlie is not one of the film’s antagonists, and the grandmother’s funeral feels like the first five minutes of a Simpson’s episode (as in its there to be interesting, but is almost unnecessary for the ultimate plot trajectory).

Another oddity in the film’s development is its use of a dollhouse motif. We regularly see Annie at work. The instant appearance of the dollhouse in the film sets up the audience to figure it is part of the logic of the film’s horror. Annie, we are lead to believe, is intentionally or unintentionally doing some sort of voodoo work. This (as far as I could tell), is yet again a red herring. The logic of the film’s horror has nothing to do with dollhouse voodooism.

Now you may say, why do you keep throwing the term red herring around like it’s a bad thing? Horror movies are mysteries in a way, and red herrings are an essential part of the mystery genre. I agree on this point, and thus should qualify, Hereditary is not a bad film due to its rifeness with red-herrings. It can be appreciated as a collection of vignettes: a bit with a séance, a bit with a cult, a bit with sleepwalking, etc. What frustrated me about Hereditary, however, is that a) these vignettes were not quite vignettes (alone they did not have beginnings, middles and ends) and b) they did not feel like they were contributing to a thorough story. Sure, it matters that Peter and Annie have deep issues between each other, but this never seems to add up to anything, and only marginally matters when the film’s final confrontation takes place.

It’s hard to say what it would take to fix Hereditary since lots of its individual components are strong. The dialogue is believable, the horror/occult elements are creatively introduced, and the concluding scene is visually, if not narratively, satisfying. Perhaps, its problem, however, is that it tries to both be a thorough horror film, while also maintaining a subtle affect. Perhaps horror films don’t need to make sense, they can be collections of beautiful chaos. It’s hard, however, to be beautifully chaotic, when you constantly interrupt your nightmare scenes with realist depictions of mourning family dynamics. Another way to put it, is that horror movies can have two possible agendas: 1) to scare, or 2) to leverage horror as a mechanism to tell a witty story. Aesthetically, Hereditary took approach 2, but its aspirations seem more in line with agenda 1.

Then again, I could be missing something. I, for one. still find the title confusing, unless the writers felt simply having a family in your story justifies it being called Hereditary.