Midsommar ★★★★★

The grief artist, Ari Aster.

A director's second feature starts to give us clues about who they really are. Expanding from one point to two starts to give us an idea of where they might be headed and enables comparisons, as far as those are productive, to start occurring. While we lack the sense of trajectory that a third point on the plot would provide, certain things begin to be apparent with Midsommar. Aster is keenly interested in the suffering of women in a way that doesn't rely on titillation or sadistic fantasy. The decay of the human body is a point of visual fascination. Group dynamics are fertile ground for him. Occultism and witchcraft feature prominently. Above all, the soul-destroying power of grief is what animates his works thus far, and it's a phenomenon that he understands perhaps more than any living filmmaker.

Midsommar feels like something that would have been written in ancient Athens. These characters just never stood a chance. Choices are made by Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) throughout the film that affect its events, but the outcome is written in the first ten minutes. It's a combination of the inborn nature of Dani and Christian with events that seem manufactured by a capricious god, though Aster is anything but capricious. Christian happens to be in the midst of the game of relationship musical chairs that most people seem to play up into their thirties until sheer boredom and fatigue leads to an outcome when the music traumatically stops with Dani as his partner. These are two people who have been together out of inertia that are now suddenly thrust into the aftermath of a particularly brutal murder-suicide. This is stuff that will shatter decades-long marriages; a college-era extended fuck buddy arrangement is a shield made out of paper against something like that, and things deteriorate from there.

This is where Aster really plants his flag. Trauma and grief have a way of turning a person into a wrecking ball. None of what happens to Dani as her world burns down around her is her fault. Her entire family is eliminated in one of the most traumatic ways possible in one night, leaving an already shaky young person with a burden that most find impossible and simultaneously robbing her of any form of support. What do you do with that? Dani's answer is to lean on Christian, to the point of starting to panic whenever he leaves her presence, a defense mechanism because she has nothing else to grasp at. This is, of course, suffocating, and because of bad timing Christian is in a situation where he either endures or takes away a drowning person's only piece of floating driftwood. It's a situation born out of fate that punishes both Christian, performing out of a sense of obligation and generalized decency, and Dani, who can instinctually tell that the support is never fully heartfelt and thus finds no solace. It's one of the great injustices in this world that loss turns you into a pariah; few really want to be around the aura of death that's radiating off the recently bereaved, and it's hard to blame them. Everyone gets their share, and it's hard enough to go through your own pain without taking on someone else's. This leads to isolation and further pain for the person at the center, and it can eventually collapse in on itself and that's that. Dani needs something to grab onto, and in this she's blameless. Others around her, who never really had much cause to be invested in her lot, don't want to be dragged under, and they're blameless as well. Tragedy will ensue anyway.

The inevitable doom that this all feeds into works well with the beautiful setting of an idyllic Swedish meadow bathed in midnight sun. Nature, the great indifferent god, is stunningly displayed through wildflowers, trees and grass. Aster gets a chance to make something visually beautiful and deploys cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski to capture the absolutely wonderful light of the setting and paints an indelible landscape. The visual effects are kept on a leash, and thank god Aster appears to have a familiarity with how mushrooms work, because this is one of the more convincing depictions of what things look like once the hallucinogens take hold. The beauty and the mystery of the visual playground pry your eyes open, which is a great setup for Aster's unflinching camera, a viewpoint that does not turn away when a hammer falls on a skull or when flames blacken skin. Midsommar does not feature violence in onscreen quantity, but those moments that it chooses to show are concentrated. What he chooses to show, you are going to see clearly and in great detail until it's burned into your retinas. Aster has quickly grown in his mastery of visual psychology, which is an exciting prospect for a filmmaker that already had an intuitive grasp of that.

I haven't been as hyped for the arrival of Florence Pugh as a lot of folks have recently, and I still think I'm not quite on board yet. But she does anchor things here, and like Toni Collette before her she is a delivery system for pain. Her performance doesn't quite rise to Collette's in Hereditary, but the best performance of 2018 is hardly a low bar to clear. We don't really know much about Dani as a person for most of the film, but then there just might not be a whole lot of person there yet in the early 20s, and the severe nature of her trauma has defined her anyway. It doesn't matter all that much, since she's brought to a place where her pain is perfectly suited to warp the environment around her, where it can lay waste in the physical world in the same manner that it does in the mental. The way that the members of the commune perform each other's emotions is an incredibly effective narrative device, and watching Dani infect the women around her in the penultimate sequence is an unforgettable scene. Women try to calm her down by performing calmness, but are no match at all for the depths of Dani's anguish, and instead become a pack of wailing mourners on their way to transforming into Furies. It's a masterstroke, which is further paid off in the madness of the film's final scenes. Florence Pugh has got enough in her to be in the center of that tide of grief, rage and sorrow and to start the whirlpool, and for that she's got my respect.

One of the few available opportunities to achieve true catharsis in a movie theater. Now there's an achievement.

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