2nd Ari Astor (after Hereditary)

What a thoroughly mean film this is. It takes a special type of privilege to make a film this thoroughly, relentlessly cynical and cruel and think it's profound. It has no compassion for its characters, never once offering them any real interiority but instead giving them bizarre moments to react to dumbly, like obnoxious wooden dolls. In the Aster universe, everyone is out to get you. No one can be trusted, not your family and especially those who seem to take a vested interest in you; those are the worst, for they are only using you for their own perverted ends. And this starts right from the go, with one of the most unpleasant pre-credits sequences perhaps ever committed to cinema.

Now, unpleasant has two levels here. One is the more thematically obvious, which is the fact that it's a family murder/suicide and the grieving survivor's response to it. That's not my issue. My issue is how Aster shoots and narrates the scene, which is with a gloating enjoyment of the tension generated by the event, and then with a hideous emphasis on the dead bodies of those involved, including the perpetrator with a tube taped to her face. We then cut from this to Florence Pugh utterly beside herself with grief. It is stylishly put together, but the result is the pornography of pain, a cynical and hideous exaggeration of emotion to assault the audience. Yet it has no meaning behind it. It's never developed, and we lurch to the Swedish cult, who ululate at the suffering of others in what evidently Aster thought was an ironic counterpoint to the emotional repression of the outsiders, but it just ends up being meaningless, because we have no emotional connection to our characters. They begin as unpleasant and privileged and end that way.

I don't mean that they should be despised simply because they're clearly affluent and intelligent. Many a filmmaker has made films about characters who are in positions of great economic privilege but are still empathetic- think of Visconti's output. I mean that they should be despised because they are obnoxious and self-absorbed, and they maintain an attitude of casual cynicism because they've never had to face anything of real value traumatically, bar Dani. But even with Dani, we eventually fall out of emotional sympathy because she is so poorly developed. And that's nothing in comparison to the Swedish cultists themselves, who appear as little more than enigmatic and brutal cyphers. We never learn about them more than the surface detail of their rituals, which are all painted as horrific because they violate societal notions of the sanctity of life, with little room for empathy. Unlike Christian and co, we are not anthropologists. The viewer is reduced to a colonialist ethnographer, greedy to watch the new torture laid about by the fascinating savage. Like Hereditary, the horrific metaphor feels poorly bolted on to the point of superfluous, but it's magnified by a thousand by its pure callousness towards the Monster. Oh, and their depiction of disability is nauseating.

Visually, it's a lovely film, and the score is fine. But there is no getting away from the fact that this is a cheap piece of exploitation masquerading in the clothes of high art. And for that reason, it's even worse than some of the REALLY scuzzy films from the 60s and 70s, because at least they knew they were trash. This is the work of someone who has never really comprehended the values of societal relationships, and is comfortable to smirk at the audience from behind the camera.

So, in short; obnoxious, borderline racist, offensive about disability and mental illness, overlong and underwritten. Do better, Aster.

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