Geeky Cinephile Musings…
I don't pontificate, I blather.

It Takes A Village: Ari Aster’s Midsommar

midsomnarI find it interesting that the only two times that I’ve come out of my little writing sabbatical to post on this blog in the past two years were both for Ari Aster films.  Not Jordan Peele (Us), not my beloved Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), but for this young newcomer who arrives straight out of the gate with Hereditary and follows it with Midsommar.

I’d seen the trailer, so I knew there were Wicker Man similarities, and The Wicker Man (the original, the ORIG.IN.AL!) is one of my all-time favorite films.  But Aster has shown us that he can be unflinchingly brutal at times with both content and imagery, so I knew this was going to be more like The Wicker Man on meth.  Plus, apparently Jordan Peele said that it was some of the most disturbing cinematic imagery he’d ever seen.

Praise indeed! All right, let’s do this!

All three of us!!

(There was only three of us in the theater.  Myself, Ashley, and Tracy.)

There are definitely Wicker Man type images and storylines, but this film also reminded me of Irreversible (Gaspar Noe).  The gore in the film is surprisingly restrained compared to a lot of action films nowadays, but it’s so excruciatingly realistic that it leaves an indelible impression of having been more than it was.  Fun fact: Aster is an admitted Cronenburg fan, which gives you a good idea of the realism he puts into his prosthetics.  When I mention Gaspar Noe, perhaps I better mean Benoit Debie (my favorite cinematographer).  Not only are there a few loop-de-loops of the camera with the sky, there is a roller coaster ride of a tracking shot when the group is driving to the village.  The camera is upside down and in front of the car’s path so that it feels like you’re flying down the road, only the road is above you.  All three of us groaned as we twisted and turned for what seemed a solid two minutes.  It was a good precursor of the unrest and unease to come—my stomach did about a thousand flip flops before the film’s end.  There were also some delightful crane shots that slowly pan over the village at various times throughout.  The hallucinogenic effects were spot on—the flower breathing in her crown!!! Whoa!! The colors are just exquisite—whites so bright they could blind you, with a slight feathery effect—not crisp at all.  There is richly golden, afternoon sunlight shining on so much blond hair, you wouldn’t believe it.  There are riotous flowers bobbing all over the screen—it’s a fairyland, truly…except the fairies slam sledgehammers into your face when you don’t succeed in killing yourself by jumping off the ceremonial cliff.

Oh wait. Jumping ahead too soon? Oh okay, I’ll go back to techie stuff for a bit.

Aster has such an effective use of background sounds in his films—Hereditary has this super deep, rumbling, boom of a bass note that repeats throughout, which does a stellar job of making you feel unsettled, and although I didn’t necessarily notice that particular same trick here, (and I didn’t take notes in the theater, dammit!!!) I DO remember that same sea-sickness happening during Midsommar—there were definitely constant sonic undercurrents that served to keep you feeling unwell.

Both cinematically and ideologically, these two films are light and dark.  Hereditary is literally very dark—shadows abound, almost the entire film takes place in a large, often unlit, heavily wooded home, and the film was shot on a soundstage, where everything could be controlled and manipulated.  Midsommar, as I mentioned, is all lightness and colors and was shot almost entirely outside, subject to weather and the sun’s whims.  In Hereditary, the deeds are done in secret, in the corners.  In Midsommar, the deeds are done in wide open spaces, completely showcased.  In both films, the final scene is a close up on the protagonist’s face, and you’re wondering what sort of fresh hell will happen to that character after the end, but whereas you cannot really be sure if Peter (Paimon) is pleased with his newfound power, Dani’s face is unmistakably triumphant.

And let’s talk about Dani.  Dani is someone who perhaps suffers from mental illness. I won’t bother trying to diagnose her, which would be ludicrous, but she does seem to easily crumble (repeatedly, dear GOD REPEATEDLY) in a spectacular way.  Her sister, who commits parricide and suicide at the start, effectively orphaning Dani, obviously struggled with mental illness as well.  This extreme sensitivity carries over into Dani’s relationships, from Christian (her boyfriend), to just about anyone she comes across. At one point Dani laments on the phone to a girlfriend that “maybe I’ve told him (Christian) too much about my fucked up family, maybe I’m too much drama in general, maybe, blah blah blah,” while her friend sympathetically tries to keep up with the diatribe, mouthing platitudes like, “If he doesn’t understand that, he’s not right for you.”  That conversation offers a little insight into how Dani can suck a room dry when she wants to—she’s barely listening to her friend and more just talking AT her.  This factor is helpful in terms of sympathy for her boyfriend, Christian…because otherwise you’d HATE this guy.

Christian wants to break up with Dani, but he’s too chickenshit to do so, so instead he employs gaslighting tactics to keep her feeling guilty and unsure of herself and moans about wanting to break up with her to his friends but won’t actually follow through.  In fact, instead of breaking up with her, he pulls a complete switcheroo and INVITES her on their boys trip to Sweden without asking them first!! WTF?!? And when he IS with her, she’s an afterthought, if she’s even a thought at all.  He talks over her. He doesn’t consider her.

Real catch.

This film offers a fascinating perspective on family and what it means to support someone.  In the beginning of the film Dani loses her entire family and falls apart.  You then get to witness Christian awkwardly holding her while she screams in the fetal position (almost an exact replica of the scene where Steve is trying to comfort Annie after the loss of their daughter in Hereditary, right down to the fact that both scenes were shot in a dark room in front of a window showing a late afternoon sky…yes, I really noticed that.) You’re watching Christian try to comfort her, and although you feel for him and the emotional toll their relationship takes on him, you also feel for her that her only source of family and support is a person who wants desperately to separate himself from her and her (holds his nose)…issues.

In contrast, when she starts to break down and scream in anguish in the village after seeing Christian engaging in a sexual rite of passage with a rather forward redhead, the other girls do not let her collapse.  They grab her and hold her firmly in place.  They don’t let her run away.  They don’t cuddle her.  They instead look her dead in the eyes and begin to scream right along with her. It is breathtaking to watch Dani go from her usual safe space of completely self-absorbed in her trauma, to traumatized but wondering what the fuck these girls are doing, to actually SHARING her grief with her supporters and even becoming empowered in the midst of her breakdown.  What starts out as a collapse turns into a kind of fire breathing group chant.

Pelle tells her about his own childhood, how he was orphaned as well.  He tells her that this village saved him.  They are his family.  He tells her that he thinks she doesn’t really know what it feels like to be truly supported by people around her.  He asks her if she feels Christian is supporting her.  “Do you feel held by him?” This conversation, along with her growing confidence at being around these villagers who welcome her with open arms, opens her eyes to Christian’s shortcomings.  She begins challenging him rather than placating him.

And this is the crux of what’s interesting to me.  As we go about our technology fueled lives, we are more and more becoming tiny islands, barely able to see beyond ourselves.  The village that used to raise the children together has all but disappeared.  In our world too, displays of emotion are uncool and a hassle to those around you.  It’s a sign of weakness to feel so much, unless you’re a successful artist—then you’re occasionally given a pass.  But these villagers offer something Dani has lost (or perhaps never had, given her remarks about her sister in the beginning)—a real family and an honest support group.

Now, granted, this newfound family is not without its issues…everyone having to commit suicide by throwing themselves off a cliff at the age of 72 is a start.  And burning people alive.  And skinning people.  And putting pubic hair and menstrual blood in their crush’s food. But who are we to judge when we’re putting small children in cages at this very moment?

Ultimately Dani finds a support unlike any she’s perhaps ever known.  Her victory at finding herself makes her radiant.  Who knows what she’s ultimately getting herself into (aside from surely dying at the age of 72), but for now—she feels supported and whole.  Aster has described this movie as a breakup film.  And all breakups eventually have people coming out the other side, changed.  Empowerment is Dani’s transformation, and it’s the village that brings her to it.

Some Unanswered Questions:

1) Had Pelle already picked Dani as a mate through knowing her via Christian?

2) At one point Pelle is explaining how they view life in several stages: spring, summer, fall, and winter.  He says that summer time goes from age 19 to 36.  This would put all of the main characters in their “mid-summer.”  Wonder if that means anything?

 

 

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