Thursday, July 04, 2019

MIDSOMMAR: New Film by Ari Aster

After Midsommar, Ari Aster’s latest journey into modern horror, many critics will be calling the director's talent as visionary, despite the fact that this latest shows that his vision at times is clouded and his tastes easily given to excesses — a Dario Argento for our times, some might say. This is a mantle Mr. Aster might be proud to wear, but in reality he still has to prove himself. This is only his second feature. As a newcomer he was crowned an auteur after his first feature, Hereditary, a little gem of a horror film about grieving, hit the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and went on to conquer both critics and audiences. Grief, and our human reaction to devastating loss also happens to be a major theme in this latest feature.

After a terrible family tragedy, Dani, an incredible Florence Pugh, convinces herself that she wants to go with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his college pals to a remote village in Sweden, at the invitation of a Swedish exchange student friend of theirs, to witness a once-in-a-lifetime summer festival. Since the group features anthropology majors this is the perfect summer vacation for them to advance their thesis. For Dani it is a chance to get away and work on her strained relationship with Christian.

The village is an idyllic place bathed in the perpetual sunlight of the Scandinavian summer, and beautifully photographed by cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski, who captures the green earth, the white dresses, the rosy cheeks, and the welcoming smiles with such earnestness that you would never think there is anything wrong in this Arcadian paradise. But make no mistake about it: the villagers harbor a clear, twisted agenda here, subtly foreshadowed by the sight of buildings with odd, twisted Expressionistic roofs, and revealed with unspeakable horror when the village stages an "ättestupa," a ritual where an elderly village couple, after being celebrated for their old age, jump to their deaths in what has to be one of the most horrific suicides/senicides ever filmed. From the point of view of the tropes of horror film, the scene works perfectly because its setup has been so carefully calculated.

This ritualistic suicide sets into motion a series of events where the visitors become grossly embroiled in the grisly events of the village. Without giving anything away, allow me to divulge that you are in for a slow ride with a few calculated bumps along the way. At 147 minutes the film is way too long for its own good. The montage of the film is pristine, but actually shaving it down to a manageable size would have made it as close to ideal as possible.

Despite its many flaws, Midsommar is a feast for the eyes and ears, although it ends up feeling like a celebration that has gone on for too long. The film starts showing its faults, and Aster begins to run out of tricks. At times the mise-en-scène is quite inventive: the upside-down shot when the group first arrives by car to the village demonstrates the inverted, topsy-turvy world in which they have just entered. Another shot, early in the film, in which Dani is talking to Christian, she looking at the camera, while he is reflected in a mirror is not only cool, like Diego Velázquez's great painting Las Meninas, but visually shows how their relationship is clearly not on the same plane.

Finally, Ari Aster reveals how much of a film geek he can be, usually a good thing, yet here it works against him. Visually, Midsommar harks back to a number of movies I'm convinced the director loves. For starters, both the original version of The Wicker Man, featuring Christopher Lee, and its 2006 remake with Nicholas Cage play a huge part in the conception of the narrative, and its visual palette. Midsommar feels like a remake, and if you consider the fact that there is a film called Midsummer (2003) whose IMDB logline reads as follows:  "After ... friends graduate secondary school, they head off to a Swedish cabin for midsummer as previous years. Strange things happen" then the film is very much a remake. And like last year's reworking of another horror film, Luca Guadagnino's take on Dario Argento's Suspiria, this film also goes off its hinges when it leaves behind the world of verisimilitude, and enters into the plane of over-indulgence and its end result, which is always excessive length.

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