Saturday 20 July 2019

IKEA nihilism: "Midsommar"

The writer-director Ari Aster broke through internationally with last year's Hereditary, a horror movie praised to the heavens and beyond by critics dizzied by the high altitude of the Sundance film festival. Preceded by what felt like unprecedented hype, the actual movie finally landed on our screens as a rattly old bag of bones, with a shift into arrant nonsense for a final act and a tongue-in-cheek tune slung over the end credits that suggested Aster was taking the business of making a name for himself far less seriously than any of the pop-eyed and breathless cheerleaders providing him with glowing poster quotes. I emerged from Hereditary generally indifferent, feeling American cinema had landed itself either another semi-skilled conman or a new gold-standard in emperor's new clothes (some going with Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn still on the loose), and that there was no urgent need for either of these with the world and its movies in the state they were in. Aster's follow-up, the sneerily comic pagan horror Midsommar can at the very least lay claim to the year's scariest running time: a full, Roger Corman-defying 147 minutes, hardly dispelling my initial suspicion that here was a filmmaker that has been altogether recklessly indulged. Audiences - who awarded the widely five-starred Hereditary a desultory D+ on the tracking website CinemaScore - seem to have rapidly seen through Aster's wind-up act. If critics haven't yet, it could just be they're still sitting through the movie.

The new film starts with a dead end: a relationship between two mismatched young souls going nowhere at no great speed, only in part due to Aster's insistently sluggish pacing. The fragile Dani (Florence Pugh) is shown popping pills even before a gruesome family tragedy that leaves her utterly numb; her wavering beau Christian (Jack Reynor), whom we learn has been looking for the exit sign for the best part of a year, decides now is not the right time to call it a day. Either as a last resort or a last stand, he instead invites Dani to accompany him and his pals on a pre-planned trip to a festival in the Swedish countryside, possibly hoping some fresh air and Scandinavian health and efficiency will do them both good. Perhaps inevitably, the boys tail off in pursuit of the drugs and pussy they'd be chasing if Dani wasn't around; and Dani herself finds the whole experience less healing than scarring. Ha and, indeed, ha. It's here that the film runs into the exact same issue that sank Hereditary for this viewer. Aster has now completed two features, running to just over four-and-a-half hours in total, and not once has he filmed a fully credible location, or action that would pass a basic psychology test. Following the ookily loveless family home in which his debut unfolded, with its furnishings from Habitat's Domestic Ominous range, Midsommar pitches us up on Ari Aster's Rec Ground of Randomly Generated Weirdness: a place where white-clad sylphs, creepy elders and disfigured outcasts go through baffling, often grisly rituals (quick, bury some eggs and meat in the ground!) in the haziest of soft focus. Just what we need right now: a filmmaker who, at every bloody turn, nudges the suggestible in the ribs to point out the oddness of foreigners.

What intelligent observers appear to be responding to in Aster's filmography is the considered worldbuilding - the pitch-meeting buzzword that has done more to damage American movies since the millennium than any other. I don't doubt you could admire the symmetry of Aster's framing, the art direction that parks an angular IKEA barn on every corner of this foreign field, but one could surely admire it more if these elements weren't just framing a big fat nihilist nothing; and a big fat nihilist nothing that doesn't get any more convincing for being set out over two-and-a-half hours rather than, say, the eighty minutes of the not incomparable The Wicker Man. Aster takes a tediously long time to fill the screen with straw men, paper dolls and gingerbread houses, then expects us to act shocked or horrified when these makeshift props start to crumble before our eyes - we're asked to buy into an essential hollowness. (Thus can a filmmaker benefit from Hollywood raising a generation of fantasy-addled minds, ready to believe in anything - even that the cuckoo Hereditary bore comparison to the grounded realism of The Exorcist.) And so we trudge round after characters who keep being set up for a fall, and haven't the sense to realise it: Will Poulter's Mark is doomed the moment he pulls out a vape pen (currently the movies' cheapest shot), but even the generally sharp Pugh can do nothing to turn the film around, stranded by the inconsistency of a character who thinks nothing of watching people throw themselves face-first onto rocks, but gives into a full-on conniption fit when the boyfriend she's long suspected of pulling away from her actually does so. As for the morbidly insincere feminism of the film's closing moments: frankly, I'd rather trust Eli Roth - whose films have at least been upfront about their sociopathy - with my daughters' good care.

Aster knows he's peddling flim-flam, which is why he keeps overcompensating: framing one set-up upside down, treating others to wobbly effects that suggest he's shooting on tabs of LSD rather than digital, allowing many more (an endless maypole dance) to run and run simply to provoke some response, even if it's just the colossal boredom that seems most likely. Some of that may be born of insecurity - the desperate need to do something different at a time when it can feel as though the horror genre has used up all its best effects - but equally there's something knowingly objectionable in the way Aster toys with his characters' hurt in a bid to get a rise out of that (largely adolescent) demographic who might consider "sick" a compliment. His response to any suggestion that horror might have exhausted itself is to push towards the extreme, abandoning the centre ground of plot and character logic that have served the genre so well for so long. (Hence the nonsense of Hereditary's final act; hence the fact Christian and co. don't even consider leaving this campsite once bad shit goes down.) What also gets left behind in this movement is the humanity, poetry and weird beauty of a Wicker Man: for all the claims of "elevated horror" attached to Aster's debut by people who hadn't one clue what they were talking about, this filmmaker has disrupted the genre only as much as a troll sending vicious Tweets to someone who's suffered some personal tragedy. You might say Scandinavia is the perfect destination for such trolls - hell, it's been fertile ground for Lars von Trier over the years, although von Trier's trolling has been funnier and more revealing than Aster has managed. Yet American movies aren't going to get any better while critics continue to give snickering malcontents like this dude the time of day; as for Aster's reported plan to release an even longer cut (further indulgence, or textbook trolling, or both), well: call me triggered, but he can stick it where the midnight sun don't shine.

Midsommar is now playing in selected cinemas.

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