Ari Aster's 'Midsommar' Will Delight And Disturb
'Hereditary' director scores another indie win
"The Wicker Man" (1973)
"Modern Romance" (1981)
Last year Ari Aster’s "Hereditary" made my top 10 films list and his new film "Midsommar" will be getting a slot on my 2019 list.
When something is truly fresh and original it can be difficult to find words to describe it. That’s the case with Aster’s "Midsommar." So I asked the director to describe it.
"I would describe the movie as an operatic breakup movie," Aster said by phone as he was walking through New York City. "And I also have described it as a fairy tale. And so I think if you walk into it expecting either of those things you'll have some sense of what you're walking into."
Well that’s a bit like walking into "Psycho" and expecting a film about embezzling money. It doesn’t quite prepare you for what Hitchcock delivers. But then misdirection is part of the experience.
So yes, "Midsommar" is about a break up and it does step into folklore to create its backdrop. But it is also an unnerving film about grief, loss and a consummate communal experience. It’s a delicious slow burn that looks to a group of young people who visit a kind of pagan Swedish cult where the sun always shines and everyone’s smiling yet something feels off.
Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor) have been together for four years and a recent trauma has put added strain on an already troubled relationship. She needs emotional support and he's not able to provide what she needs. Christian and his friends had been planning a trip to the hometown of Pelle (Vilhem Blomgren) and Dani decides to come along in the hopes of getting her mind off her grief. They arrive at an idyllic setting where everyone dresses in white and the sun shines all day but there are hints of strange rituals that create an underlying sense of unease.
A new breed of filmmaker
Aster joins a recent crop of filmmakers that includes Robert Eggers ("The Witch"), David Robert Mitchell ("It Follows") and S. Craig Zahler ("Bone Tomahawk," "Brawl in Cell Block 99," "Dragged Across Concrete") who display a confidence of style in building tension and dread. Each filmmaker in his own way defies conventions and resists the trends of fast cutting, shakycam, and spoon feeding the audience easily digestible stories. These filmmakers challenge audiences and shake them up in exciting ways.
Aster confessed that he couldn't pinpoint where that confidence of style comes from but noted, "I spent 10 years making short films and sort of finding a style and finding my footing as a filmmaker and I grew up watching movies and loving movies and studying them and one thing I love about filmmaking is that it sort of gives me an opportunity to sort of enter into a sort of dialogue with other films in a certain way while also hopefully saying something and doing something personal."
Aster's first feature "Hereditary" gave us the horror equivalent of the slow food movement — it asked you to take your time to savor every ingredient, and to just let things come at their own pace. Aster revealed a great sense of craft and patience as he played out a tale of how grief and loss destroy a family.
"Midsommar" also serves up a tale of grief and loss but with a very different dynamic at work.
"Whether you're making a film in total darkness or in broad daylight the goal is always to make a beautiful film and so I was very happy to be able to do something different even if I'm sort of dipping my toe into the same thematic pool," Aster said.
Both films are very personal to him although he would not specify how.
"The beautiful thing about genre filmmaking is that you can take a personal story and sort of push it through this filter and out comes something else," Aster said. "So ‘Hereditary’ was definitely a film that was very much about grief and loss and trauma and about you know sort of the corrosive effects that you know trauma can have on a family structure and a family dynamic. And this is very much about "co-dependency and we begin with a couple that is in a dysfunctional co-dependent relationship and they find themselves in a community that sort of represents a more functional but no less co-dependent relationship not only between the community members but also between them and their world. And I would say that the grief that our main character played by Florence Pugh is carrying around is sort of this low hum that kind of exists under the movie like you know underneath everything until it finally finds a way to express itself and takes on maybe a more symphonic presence at the end."
One of the surprising things about the film is that although it's almost 2 ½ hours long, it never drags or overstays its welcome.
"I love a long movie," Aster said. "I like movies that sort of luxuriate in the worlds they've built and allow me to sort of kind of lose myself in them. I guess this is my attempt to contribute to that tradition."
And this film does luxuriate in the atmosphere it creates. Aster creates a seductively beautiful landscape and yet he also manages to keep us constantly on edge and loving it. The reason it doesn't feel long is that you feel like you are in the hands of someone who knows what he's doing and that every detail, every shot, every pause is there for a very distinct purpose. So you succumb to the film, trusting it will take you on an amazing journey and it does.
He discussed the diverse influences he had on this project.
"I had my production designer watch the films of Sergei Parajanov, ‘The Color of Pomegranates’ and 'The Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors’ were specifically two films that I wanted to return to and sort of look at for inspiration as far. As the colors in the film, the color scheme, my cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski and were sort of pursuing the three-strip Technicolor look and so we talked a lot about Powell and Pressburger particularly ‘Black Narcissus’ and then just to get excited about the operatic structure of the film I returned to a film I loved by Larisa Shepitko called ‘The Ascent.’"
It's not often that you hear young American directors referencing Russian filmmakers and perhaps that's why his films have such a different pace from most of what Hollywood churns out. "Midsommar" does feel like an exhaustive emotional journey for Dani as she tries to find a way to cope with grief and loss.
Then there were the breakup movies.
"So I went back to a lot of my favorite breakup movies," Aster said. "And this film really has nothing to do with them but they were movies that I was thinking about just to get excited about what I wanted to do on this one. For instance, I really love Albert Brooks's ‘Modern Romance,’ which I think is just the best of all breakup movies. And there's a great Allan King documentary called ‘A Married Couple,’ which is sort of a miraculous chronicle of a relationship breaking down. It's amazing that it's a documentary and I wonder actually if any of it staged because it's just amazing to watch."
Although he made no reference to horror movies, Aster does see his films as fitting into the genre.
"‘Hereditary’ is definitely a horror film," Aster said. "This one in some ways is. I mean it's certainly tied to the conventions of the folk horror sub-genre. If anything it's kind of agreeing to the rules of that genre in advance and then kind of proceeding in a kind of circuitous way toward this inevitable end. So anybody who has even the most basic relationship to the folk horror genre will kind of know where this movie is going and hopefully we get there in a way that feels emotionally surprising. That was certainly the goal for me."
What audiences might find surprising is that despite the elements of horror, this film is funny. Very funny but not in the smug, self-reflexive way of a "Scream" movie. Instead, the humor comes in a more provocative and disturbing way.
"I see a lot of humor and in ‘Hereditary.’ It's gallows humor but I think a film without humor is a film wasted," Aster explained. "I definitely see this film as being a dark comedy in a lot of ways and I even see even more in that in the overall trajectory and the shape of the film than individual moments although I do hope that there are many individual moments that provoke laughter and are funny. But I get to the very end of the movie and I find myself chuckling."
Although I did not initially see the film as being about a breakup, Aster's description of it as such does make the end even more perversely funny.
On a certain level, the less you know about the film the better so I will not reveal any more about the specifics of the story. But I will say Aster is a bold filmmaker with a knack for dark comedy and building a sense of dread. If you want unconventional horror delivered in a uniquely confident and gorgeous style then this is the film for you. It's a film to savor and delight in even as it disturbs.
And it's exciting to be at the halfway point of the year and to have films like "Midsommar," "Us," and "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" already populating my 10-best list. It makes for a very exciting cinematic year and Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time in Hollywood" is still ahead.