Midsommar ★★½

ADDED TO "2019 RANKED" :) 

In which Ari Aster ostensibly wants to make a serious and substantive picture delving deep into a myriad of themes, but seems far more interested in making a 2.5 hour tech-demo (impressive) stuffed with chaotic cult symbology (less impressive). It’s odd, aloof and challenging, a series of flaws and empty air pockets hidden behind an ostentatious smokescreen of undeniable talent. It’s a hard movie to think and write about, harder than any I’ve encountered (this review has taken me two weeks and two viewings to get a handle on), but I’m giving it a crack. 

If I’d seen Hereditary without prior warning of some of its twists and turns, it likely would have caused serious damage to my mental health. Beyond the relevant-to-me elements of the plot, that film carried such a palpable and pervasive sense of pure dread and despair that I often refer to it as “one of the best movies I don’t like”. It’s as dark and disturbing as any movie I can think of, and as such I went into Midsommar scared before the movie even started. For a little while, my expectations were met. 

In a vacuum, the first ten minutes are masterful filmmaking, a punishing sequence of quickly-rising anxiety that efficiently sets up the movie’s themes while working brilliantly as a tight mini-film in its own right. After an instantly foreboding shot of a wintery American town, harsh cuts and piercing phone rings throw us off balance and into the story. Following the protagonist Dani as she contends with the possibility that her sister may have just killed herself and their parents, a contention that includes talking to and worrying about her aloof boyfriend, Christian. It’s an opening that impresses technically, establishes themes and serves as an incredible acting reel for Florence Pugh, who perfectly conveys the hazy emotions of someone trying to ignore the horrid inevitable. Alas, her family’s fate is inevitable, and Dani’s resultant primal screams tap into the same sense of staggering grief that was so potent in Aster’s previous film. It’s gripping, gruelling stuff... but you’ll recall that I specified “in a vacuum” before lavishing such praise. While Hereditary isn’t a perfect movie, there was something so raw and deeply-felt in its depiction of grief, something that seeped through every inch of the film and soaked the audience in earned misery. Midsommar’s tragedy is largely superfluous and often irrelevant, achieving nothing narratively that couldn’t be done in a much simpler and less distracting fashion. Intense anxiety would be equally-efficient reason for Dani’s numerous panic attacks and fragile emotions, and would have almost as much (AKA: little) payoff, but ol’ Aster would rather construct another sequence of suspiciously specific familial death. Honestly, I’m starting to wonder if the dude’s just a NIHILISTIC GRIEF FETISHIST, GETTING OFF ON THE TERRIBLE TRAGEDIES HE METICULOUSLY ORCHESTRATES--- 
Ahem. Anyway, it’s a strong opening, and aside from some clunky dialogue, the film maintains its quality for some time. It’s only when the characters get to Sweden that the carefully-commenced threads start to unravel or disappear altogether. 

While Aster is cursorily interested in the dynamics and thematic potential of Dani and Christian’s unhealthy relationship, it’s not long before his priorities shift to convoluted cult threads and hanging out with underdeveloped side characters. He throws so much lore and symbology at the audience (maypole dances, “joyful” suicides, another deformed child, period-blood and pubic hair rituals that are displayed for all to see despite the cult’s pretence of innocence) yet struggles to establish a cohesive internal logic. The community’s core belief system (and thus, their motivation) is never explored, which traps the script in the middle of a Venn Diagram of too literal and too ambiguous. 

As for the characters, Dani is the only interesting and sympathetic one of the bunch, and only because of the constant conveyer belt of cruel circumstances she’s subjected to. Christian never deepens beyond his initial characterisation, while Pelle is a character ripe for exploration and moral complexity that receives neither of those. The biggest wastes of screentime are Mark and Josh, who trap their fine actors in flat obnoxiousness and lack of any real depth, plainly included by Aster for the sake of shallow ideological posturing and having some people to kill off in the third act (it’s okay to include characters for such reasons, but either make them engaging or not so obvious in their purpose). Aster cares less about these characters than he does aestheticising their gory demise, an attitude more at home in trashy B-grade horror than the prestige picture he’s actually making.

It’s an awkward contradiction in a movie full of them, including the contradictions of Aster’s direction, which manages to be both frequently brilliant and deeply counterintuitive. The brilliance starts with his strong choice of technical collaborators, from Lycian Johnston‘s razor-sharp editing and Bobby Krlic‘s dynamic score to a host of talented people’s detailed design. His most arresting work is with cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who immaculately realises the inventive images in Aster’s head. The sun-soaked aesthetic that adorns the majority of the film is both genuinely brave and beautifully realised, even though I gravitated more towards the darker America-set sequences. His use of mirrors in these early moments is strikingly effective, such as twisting and blurring Dani’s head in the anxiety-ridden opening or the efficient staging of an awkward apartment visit. That scene begins with a long, static take, with Christian’s friends sitting on the couch with a large reflective surface behind them. When Dani enters the room and engages in strained smalltalk, we see only her darkened reflection. Aster uses the window to film two sets of characters in two seperate compositions all at the same time, emphasising the distance in their relationships in a striking, economical way. It’s a neat trick that makes a point every time it’s used. 

And yet, despite the smorgasbord of skilful and substantive images on display, I can’t help but take issue with Aster’s directorial style. My brain jumps to the word “sterile” to describe it, but it’s too creative and expressive for that, so perhaps clinical is more fitting. But crucially, Aster’s form isn’t clinical in the rich and immersive way that a David Fincher film is, for instance. In fact, my experience was often the opposite. In excess, his coldly calculated zooms and rigid compositions can prevent what they’re capturing from feeling lived-in and real, sucking all the energy out of the proceedings. This works well for some intentionally awkward interactions in the opening stretch (eg. the aforementioned scene in the apartment), but regularly flattens more overt moments of comedy or drama and fights against atmosphere. While Pugh is consistently excellent (even when the script fails to convincingly chart her emotional state and behaviour), the work of the talented supporting actors becomes suffocated by Aster’s rigid mise-en-scene, clunky dialogue and self-conscious rhythms, to the point where their characters start to become as dull on screen as they are on paper (Pugh’s performance is often the only tangibly human thing to latch onto at all). 

All these flaws add up to a two and a half hour horror film with little focus, intensity, humanity or immersion. After the tear-inducing opening, I mostly felt nothing (aside from the occasional chuckle, of course). I was never pleased or moved or transported or terrified; merely a passive observer of Aster’s dread-filled brand of doll-house filmmaking — ornate, meticulous, fake.

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