Thursday, July 4, 2019

Ari Aster's Exploration of Grief--Midsommar review (2019)

Dani and Christian take a solstice holiday in Ari Aster's Midsommar (2019)
I had the good fortune of seeing an Ari Aster double feature last night, with a re-screening of Hereditary (2018) accompanied by the premiere of Aster's second feature film, Midsommar (2019).  On the whole, I'm a fan of Hereditary, and watching it again, I unsurprisingly noticed more details and became more sympathetic to the grief-stricken Annie and her family than I was the first time I saw the film.  To some extent, Annie and Charlie are mere victims of a group of people "hellbent" on maintaining the patriarchy by bringing this low-level demon, Paimon, into the world.  Toni Collette is still mesmerizing in her grief, and I really started to sympathize with Alex Wolff's Peter in a much more visceral way this time around.  Wolff gives an extraordinary performance.

I also got into a bit of an argument with this guy sitting next to me, who kept insisting that Annie is entirely unreliable, and the only character worthy of our identification is Steve.  Of course, I think Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is by far the lamest character in the film, just politely downing some pills with his scotch rather than actively doing anything of import!  Yeah, I still dislike that character, but the guy next to me swore that Steve is the only one who actually knows how to grieve, and he's the biggest victim, mostly of Annie's machinations.  Please.  I didn't stick around to hear his take on Midsommar, but I bet he didn't like it that much, since spectators are yet again compelled to identify with an "unstable" female protagonist.  If he was trying to cling to some male POV, then he's pretty SOL unless he identifies with the wonderful Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who is always, always on protagonist Dani's side.

Dani (Florence Pugh) is the heart of Midsommar and we are aligned with her POV
Ari Aster is capable of bringing out these incredible performances from his female protagonists, and Florence Pugh's Dani is a revelation.  Her journey is ours.  I happened to encounter Pugh in Carol Morley's wonderful The Falling (2014)--her breakout role--and while we do not get enough of her character in that film, one can understand why the other girls, including Maisie Williams' Lydia, are obsessed with her.  Initially, Dani is painted as insecure, tiptoeing around her boyfriend Christian's (Jack Reynor's) delicate feelings, concerned that she might scare him away.  She beautifully embodies this giving and generous woman who chooses a bro who doesn't really appreciate her.  In fact, Aster makes it a point to represent Christian and his bro friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) as dickheads, with Pelle standing out as someone who is especially sensitive and kind in comparison.  Pelle has invited the guys to his Swedish village's Midsommar festival, and after Dani suffers an incredible tragedy, Christian reluctantly invites her along.  Grumble, grumble say the bros, especially Mark, who clearly just wants to get laid by some beautiful Swedish women.

Christian, Dani, Josh, and Pelle observe the beginning of the 9 day feast and its accompanying rituals
I'm a huge fan of folk horror--HUGE!  So the elaborate occult rituals and all the details involved in this special solstice celebration--one held every 90 years according to Pelle--gave me such pleasure.  Sure, there are moments that seem pretty over the top and hearken back to Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973) big time, but Aster really doesn't handle any of these ritualistic scenes in quite the same exploitative fashion as the earlier film.  In fact, the pagan rites--intertwined with notions of nature and community--seem no less strange than a variety of different practices which are a part of "acceptable" religions; which, I believe, is exactly Aster's point. Christian and Josh, anthropology doctoral students, see the commune as alien, something to be studied and investigated, and do not really perceive the inhabitants as human.  Don't even get me started on Mark, who Aster unfortunately caricatures as this unenlightened neanderthal horndog. Yet, as the film really is filtered through Dani's perspective, her attitude toward the commune and her fellow American guests, gradually, but assuredly, evolves.  Our experience of the film as "horror" largely depends on if our perspective changes along with hers.

Some of the Midsommar rituals are not without a little ultraviolence
One of the reasons the film is not that horrifying is that its images are bathed in the glorious sunshine of summer, and the lush landscape rich with green grass and wildflowers fills the frame with pastoral beauty.  Even when the rituals' participants are tripping on some type of hallucinogen (and that happens a lot), the landscape softly undulates.  For anyone that's every tripped on mushrooms, LSD, or their ilk, the scenes where some of the guests freak out are hilarious.  The effects Aster use are essential to both our identification with Dani's experience, and add to the otherworldly quality of the commune.  At one point, I could not stop staring at this flower on Dani's headdress, that just kept opening and closing, opening and closing.  Mesmerizing.

The film has some graphic moments of violence, especially near the beginning as Dani acclimates to the community and its rituals.  Pelle and his family are distinctly "othered" as they dance and gesture in their all white clothing, wreaths of flowers in their hair.  Once Dani dons their clothing and ornaments, she meshes with the other inhabitants of the commune, baking pies for the feast, and participating in the dance to designate who will be crowned the May Queen.

Pelle speaks of his own losses and encourages Dani to stay
The real turning point of the film is the heart-to-heart talk Dani has with Pelle, where he explains that after he was orphaned, the commune became his family, and he always feels like he is cared for and loved, that he "felt held."  He says he wants that for Dani, and really, the audience wants that for her as well.  His words continue to echo as we watch Christian flirt with Maya, some local girl who sets her eyes on him "to mate."  As Dani absorbs the warmth and intimacy of these Swedish people, wrestling with her grief throughout the film, she finds a place of comfort and support where she would least expect it.

The Hagar women feel Dani's pain
Sure, some of the film's outcomes seem inevitable, and I wasn't surprised by the film's conclusion as much as satisfied with the fates of all those involved.  Reviewers have been touting the film as a sick "breakup movie" and "relationship revenge," but I see it rather as a journey where Dani finally finds herself.  Once lost and clinging to her boyfriend as a life line, she grows and evolves, working through her stages of grief until she comes out on the other side of all that pain, surrounded by a loving and supportive "family"--finding a new "home" far, far away.  I think Aster's film is quite beautiful, but I can imagine that my take isn't the most popular.  In comparison to Hereditary, Aster equips Dani with emotional depth without demonizing her or the cult that embraces her.  In the end, Dani's smile mirrored my own.  Highly Recommended!