Ari Aster is still horror’s least empathetic filmmaker

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It’s an exciting roadmap for a film, threading Scandinavian design fetishism, ‘European roots’, cynical sensitivity to cultural insensitivity (enlightened centrism), overexposed images dramatising the domination of the natural in both concept and order by linen and whitewashed halogen faces, and the pernicious conservatism of certain strains of bourgeois hippiedom. Staging the conflict between professionally polite monsters who weaponise serenity, and chaotic selfish nerds – imagine what could have been had almost any other director taken this on?

The disorienting light of the midnight sun is used to full effect, with a deep focus that sharpens the edges of everything in scope for the uncanny divisions of the von Trier-ish tableau (the difference being von Trier’s eye for the dynamics of space and composition). Similarly because time is understood to be suspended here, Aster employs an unbroken durational metre not to achieve hypnosis but rather a kind of exhaustion that makes every image last an hour and every new one announce itself as another hill to climb, another identical day to get through. Handheld cameras in other films are derided for only ever bringing quick, nervous shots, but Aster works strictly in the mode of quasi-slowness, of ‘directorial control’ as a form of audience-directed battery.

This wears us down quickly and drags before its early climax (the trip sequence on arrival), as the sense that we have already seen this hill, that we have already been to it and moved on, is underscored by the identical symmetrical shot compositions, tedious slow pans, and joyless mannerisms that numb before the ache. Which is curious, that the retrograde tricks that won Aster praise for in his last film are now turned against the audience for a kind of ambient belligerence. The difference in that one is that it has a joyful wackiness that here only confirms what the viewer already knew would happen the moment they saw the poster. So in pace, in image, and in action it has always already taken place – in other films, and now in Midsommar too.

His aestheticisation of violence, there designed to shock, shifts further into a mode of arthouse denial that now has the human body as bleach wood furniture. Drawing a parallel between Scandinavian design principles and Marinetti’s fascist aesthetics that for him found their expression in the war in Ethiopia gestures toward provocation with a purpose, but Aster’s noncommittal form leaves it weightless instead; anaemic shocks to tedium. This is part of the broader missed opportunity in Aster’s promised genealogy of upper middle class aesthetics, for those who know enough to fear a field of smiling blondes. By the time our living characters sit just waiting to die, we have reached the same submission.

So how does this cry for help express the thematics outlined above? It doesn’t – Aster, again, likes what he likes in the works of others, wants to make his own thing, and crosses his fingers hoping for the best. He is perhaps the least thinking filmmaker currently working, as cinematic form to him is treated as an obstacle, an obligatory commitment to some idea of an auteurist past that must never be broken, whatever the subject matter. A comically redundant upside-down shot of the road approaching the commune is only the beginning. That complete disregard of why, this already answered how, is so completely depressing that to watch his films is to witness the death of thought; liberation from language as an expressive, signifying media to its reduction in the endless quotation of something someone once said long ago. Artists work within language, to extend and even break it to see what will happen next, but Aster maintains the rigidty of the accepted past from the perspective of the couch, from the position of inheritance.

He calls it “a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film,” but even its advocates know it’s not. We all know that it is a horror film that uses a shallow and hypothetical grief to mobilise gore, we must give him that. Because to think that maybe he means it is a far more damning conclusion than anything that could be covered here.

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