Midsommar (2019)

Dir. Ari Aster. Starring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, William Jackson Harper

Upon being shown the living arrangements for the young people of the Hårga, Mark (Will Poulter) is aghast at how open they are. Everyone sleeps around the perimeter of a single square room. By now we’re at least an hour into the picture, and we have a pretty good idea of who everyone is. Mark is the whiny jerk that just about any group of guys in their twenties still carries around with them in the unthinking way people carry too many keys on their key rings. Speaking of, Mark’s question is predictable: What if you want to jerk off? The answer is clear enough: just make Midsommar!

They say you’re vain if you can’t pass a mirror without looking at yourself in it; what do they say you are if you can’t pass a mirror without shooting into it? As the outsiders near Hälsingland, the camera turns. Now the sky is beneath the ground, and the car appears untethered by gravity. This (puts on a corduroy jacket with patches on the elbows) is symbolism, and what it symbolizes is—ready? you sure?—the world is upside down. Everything is topsy-turvy. Things aren’t right, you see. I mean, I hope it’s clear enough for you. There are cuts in which the actor is totally still but the cut shows that time has passed, or they’re in a different place (Pugh is the focus of one, Harper the focus of another). Even the credits show up in a weird spot, like fifteen minutes into the picture, and even then they appear somewhat shrouded by the falling snow.

In In the Loop, one character cuts another down to size with a trenchant remark I’ve never forgotten because it is so apt in so many situations. Jamie demands that Michael turn off the opera he always listens to. “It’s just vowels!” Jamie shouts, before really getting to the heart of the matter. The only reason you listen to opera, he says, “is because it’s bad form to actually wear a hat that says ‘I went to private school’!” The mirror shots, the upside-down camera, the editing, the credits: the only reason you do this stuff is because it’s bad form to actually wear a hat that says “I got really great reviews on my breakout feature!” Aster is veering dangerously close to Bogdanovich territory here, but at least before Bogdanovich’s ego took the form of an ascot that has been trying to strangle him to death for the past four decades, he made three genuine masterpieces. Aster has yet to make one, has yet to include a single really frightening scene in either of his features, and yet is hailed in multiple corners as one of our great horror directors of the moment. (People I typically trust—Justin Chang, David Sims, Tomris Laffly, Peter Bradshaw, A.A. Dowd, Matt Zoller Seitz, etc.—are far more sympathetic to his work than I am.) Where (topically) is the abominable majesty of the Wicker Man, prefaced by the absolute terror of Edward Woodward? Where is Leatherface, swinging his chainsaw in the glow of the morning sun? Where is the shadow of Nosferatu running up the stairs? In other words: where’s the standard?

All of this is immensely frustrating, because Aster is a movie buff who I think really studies other pictures, and he’s shown that he’ll be entirely capable of composing his own masterful shots once he grows up a little. Once we actually get to the enclave where the Hårga live, Aster spends more of his time on landscapes and interiors, of lengthy shots that track movement in the grass or the way that people enter buildings (almost always menacingly, because they are quiet and still). At that point the damage has been done, though. The character development that I think the first forty-five minutes are supposed to be about has been wasted on developing our opinion of the guy behind the camera instead. The men come through more clearly. Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) is clearly a creep because he is too nice and too respectful of Dani (Pugh). Mark is a tool. Josh (Harper) is ambitious and singleminded, cold to the touch, the only one in the group who seems to have any clue what will happen at the festival that Pelle has invited them all to attend. Christian (Reynor) is a deadbeat, the guy who’s been dating the same girl for four years and is never going to break up with her but is also definitely never going to propose. There’s a version of this movie where the signifiers of the Millennial who is trapped in this liminal stage between college student and real adult—for heaven’s sake the guy is in a graduate program and, upon leaving for Hälsingland, still hasn’t chosen a thesis—but the movie never really explores that possibility. Christian just is a bad boyfriend, and he just is someone who doesn’t really care that much about Dani, and he just is a hanger-on to Josh’s research, and so on. This is a good performance for Reynor, who tamps down much of his charisma to get into this part, but the character himself is a non-entity. How vacant he is, and how vacant Dani is too, sinks the interpretation of the picture that I wish I could be more open to: the one where this is an extended satire about breaking up, complete with last-page punchline like Philip Roth does in Portnoy’s Complaint. I like that interpretation! But this movie is too dizzily distracted by the trappings of the generically violent pagan people to ever get into the characters beyond the inevitability of their fates, and the steps they are destined to take in order to meet them. I was reminded more of the neck-craning stupidity of characters in Jurassic Park, or of the communally goofy high school acting classes in Fame, than titillated by what could have been an arthouse-aping John Tucker Must Die. 

Then again, it could be worse than playing this Millennial stereotype, a guy who is basically a human pair of sweatpants. Reynor could be playing a woman named “Dani Ardor,” which is the name you give the main character in a bodice-ripper or, even worse, the naughty girl in your Thomas Hardy fanfiction. (The pagans killing Christian at the end skips funny and goes right to cute.) Ari Aster is a very vocal Ingmar Bergman fan—I’ve read in multiple outlets about how he screened Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata during the Hereditary shoot—which honestly might be the only reason this movie is set in Sweden as opposed to some other perma-bright Scandinavian country, or why Pelle’s brother, who is sacrificially burned alive in the last scene, is “Ingemar.” (Boy, am I relieved Harold Bloom is dead.) Say what you will about Bergman’s penchant for sleeping with his stars, his inability to maintain his marriages, whatever, but watching his movies about women, like Cries and Whispers and Autumn Sonata, like Persona and The Virgin Spring, or, heck, Brink of Life and Summer Interlude, those are real people. They act like women. They remind me of women I known. They interact with each other like women might interact with each other. I could imagine a woman like the one Toni Collette plays in Hereditary, one who has reached a breaking point with everyone she can see and begins to reach out to what she can’t see as a search for answers, or escape. I cannot imagine someone like the woman Florence Pugh plays in Midsommar. I’ve seen her on television before, wiping her teary eyes with the arms of her oversized sweater, overcome with emotion in an airplane bathroom, devoid of any women friends and reduced to following around her distracted boyfriend. Does she exist, or is she, like “Dani Ardor,” just a list of qualities that a man staples onto a woman’s face in close-up? Dani Ardor is pure fantasy, the kind of fantasy that nice guys (you know, the Internet kind) dream up because they know that they’d be better boyfriends to them than those hunky lunkheads the Dani Ardors of the world inevitably wind up with. I cannot believe in her as a character, and thus I cannot believe in her as the protagonist of a breakup. I can believe her as the May Queen, I guess, but then again, blankness is the stock-in-trade of any May Queen. She is a symbol. Dani Ardor is a symbol too, but if she symbolizes something, it’s something in her maker, whose fingers and pretensions linger like a drooping boom mic over the movie.

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