Thursday, August 01, 2019

Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

Got to get away

Midsommar, Ari Aster's follow up to his terrific (at least for the first three-fourths) Hereditary, improves on the earlier work this much: instead of situating his narrative in relatively familiar Utah he moves his story to an exotic faraway land (well Sweden) where the notion of a possibly malevolent conspiracy can be more easily swallowed. Yes xenophobia, though arguably much of horror literature and film sprouts out of fear of the Other.

Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh) is having a bad day to put it mildly: her anthropologist boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is thinking of leaving her but doesn't have the courage to let her know; her bipolar sister is thinking suicidal/homicidal thoughts; Dani herself (if we're to believe her boyfriend and his friends) seems too wound up to enjoy much of life, clings to Christian too tightly to allow him to breathe much less enjoy his life.

Enter Christian's classmate Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) who proposes a trip to his home community in the province of Halsingland (Sweden) for the midsummer--a special celebration that happens only once every ninety years. Dani learns about the outing and wants to come along; Christian reluctantly (and to his friends' dismay) agrees. 

Do we know where all this is going? You bet.

Arguably the film's best scenes occur early on, when the American visitors are wide-eyed and slack-jawed and the community at first blush seems like a wonderful place to live. Aster drops little details here there without comment, for us to uncover and freak out quietly to ourselves or miss completely: the camera gliding over a series of runes and painted images (at one point we see the drawing of a woman mutilating her genitals--shoutout to Bergman's Cries and Whispers?); a bear hunched in a wooden cage (you know that won't end well); allusions to events later in the film (Pelle explains that the stages of human life are like the seasons of the year, with winter ending at the age of 72. Dani: what happens at 72?). We're understandably perturbed, but the sunlight is so relentlessly bright and the Swedish landscape so breathtakingly beautiful (actually the film was shot in Hungary) we can't quite convince ourselves we're being threatened.

Or rather sunlight, landscape, and people are so unfailingly smilingly radiant we know where this is all going.

Pugh's Dani starts out extreme--in the first ten minutes her life has become so horrifying you wonder if anything worse can happen. Aster's answer: "yes and no." Dani is not so much being victimized as seduced--selected out of an elaborate (if unexplained) vetting process (though one wonders what would have happened if she had lost the maypole dance contest--or was that rigged?). Arguably the story isn't 'bad things happen and worse is yet to come,' more like 'bad things happen and you've nothing left to lose.' 

That's a character trajectory I suppose--Rosemary's Baby without a baby (or to be more precise not her baby); the lack of a personal offspring diminishes the dramatic stakes considerably. Aster claims he wrote this story while undergoing a breakup, and you can see where he tries to weigh things more fairly--Dani Ardor is a victim not just of circumstances but of her own intense surname sorry feelings, while Christian (Allegorical much?) is less than forthcoming with his own sentiments. But there's this uneasy sense you have watching events unfold that Aster at some level does blame the woman, or at least sets things up so when push comes to shove the woman may yes be fully justified but she still does what she does (because well if she doesn't there's no movie). Christian--or Aster--ends up masochistically enjoying his martyr status, with a bizarre sex scene (that may or may not be intentionally comical--at this point Aster seems to have lost control of his film's tone) inserted for our gratuitous enjoyment. 

Throw in long lingering shots of gore and mutilated flesh, so prolonged you eventually work out how the prosthetics were applied. Throw in CGI effects which at times feel suitably eerie (especially when they waver in time to Dani's breathing) at times feel like a lovely lily heavily gilded. I did say Aster improves on Hereditary (though he hasn't improved on that earlier film's jawdropping family dynamics); he has yet in my book to create a fully satisfying horror. 

Critics have noted the influence of Robin Hardy's 1973 The Wicker Man and while I'm reluctant to use one film to bash another--O who am I kidding?--I do think it instructive to compare their dramatic strategies. 

Our attitude towards Dani and the community develops linearly: we feel sorry for her and sorrier thereafter; the community for its part starts out creepily happy and only gets creepier. Anthony Shaffer's script for the earlier film proposes a more complicated protagonist: Police Sergeant Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) landing his seaplane off the coast of the Hebridean island of Summerisle to investigate a child's disappearance; all well and good and veddy veddy official. Howie's investigative approach however raises eyebrows as he questions first the townspeople's veracity then their lifestyle. Sex out in the open? Casual nudity? Children instructed in phallic symbols and nonchristian rituals? Howie comes off not just as a prude but an arrogant one, dismissing the locals as 'all raving mad,' and insisting on the existence of "the true God, whose glory, churches, and monasteries have been built on these islands for generations past." Spoken to 70s audiences when the popularity of alternative religions was on the rise, the words are a provocation, and so is the man; you instinctively feel for the islanders and against the uninvited intruder. 

In the end Howie's self-centered paranoia--that it's really all about him and his Christian faith--is affirmed; that's the film's true dramatic arc, not the revelation that the cult has sinister intentions (this and Midsommar belonging to a particular subgenre of horror after all). Shaffer--whose works include the classic Sleuth and screenplays for Murder on the Orient Express and (better yet) Hitchcock's Frenzy--proves far more skilled at misdirection and timing, at choosing the perfect moment to reveal his secret wicker construct. Aster may be the better visual stylist, with a talent for the odd unsettling shot (early on the camera flips over to watch Dani and her friends' van creep across the Swedish landscape overhead)--his screenplays still need work. Nice try, shows improvement, better luck next time. 

First published on Businessworld 7.26.19


Melany Heger said...

Great review! Concise and poignant.

Noel Vera said...