Paola Cordova breaks down the masterpieces of filmmaker Ari Aster, and what makes them so uniquely special.
If I were to use a singular word to describe what it is that makes Ari Aster’s films so good in the most disturbing way possible, it would be the word “uncanny.”
What exactly constitutes the “uncanny”? It’s a term that was famously explored in the field of psychoanalysis for years and, in the context of the arts and literature, refers to things that are unsettling to us not because they are alien but rather, the opposite. If something is familiar or similar to us but has a couple of elements that make it essentially different, it raises a primordial fear buried within our minds of something being hidden within the familiar. The unheimlich, as Sigmund Freud would develop in his work by the same title in 1919, refers to something that is simultaneously alien and close to home. The term in German is in and of itself its own antonym, its own contradiction, an overlapping of terminology that leads one to understand the semantic rootings of what the uncanny truly is. We are our own contradiction, and our deepest fears are hidden in the deepest corners of the subconscious mind, and the fact that these hidden thoughts could come to light is altogether deeply frightening.
Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) are both films that make your gut churn in the worst way possible, eliciting feelings of disgust and fear as they slowly burn through two hours of entertainment playing out before your eyes. This might sound like I am taking a knock at Ari Aster, but if anything, I am doing the contrary: his horrific, uncanny feature films are some of the most beautiful and truly terrifying experiences to behold. The two feel deeply genuine, personal, and allow a third party viewer a cathartic opportunity to realize their greatest horrors within their gorgeous sets and Bergman-esque closeups. Both films explore different facets of the uncanny, with Hereditary largely taking place within a family, a home, and their friends, and Midsommar in sunny, candy-colored fields that appear completely harmless until the horror story unravels.
Firstly, let’s discuss the exploration of the family in Hereditary- a deeply uncanny film particularly because of its revelation of the nature of intimacy and emotion in a deeply dysfunctional context. Aster does not grant the film too many flashy, paranormal, gory moments until the end, but throughout it is a feeling that I can only describe as wading into a bog full of rot, littered with perfectly preserved human corpses a la Come and See (1982). The family’s reality initially feels unfocused, blurry, like it is hiding something in plain sight- disturbingly resembling our own but setting off alarms in our heads that something does not sit right. When the sweaty, greasy teenage boy drives his eerily silent sister having an allergic reaction in a deep panic through the streets, it’s something we can all relate to. Cut to a second later when her head gets blown off by a lamp post on the street in a way we do not physically see but rather understand from a loud thud and the horrified expression on the boy’s face- a manifestation of the uncanny. When Toni Colette’s character transforms from being a loving mother throughout the majority of the film to being a possessed creature banging her head on a cellar door until it literally falls off of her body, leaving behind a bloody stump, the same feeling of horror is evoked.
The beautiful home within which Hereditary develops is made out of wood, decorated in art deco fashion in greens and browns that might have in any other setting appeared warm and familiar. Set in an idyllic corner of the woods, the home appears unthreatening and even cute, with a small beautiful tree house right outside it. Inside the house lives a family that might have also, in many other situations, appeared regular- a middle-class mother, father, daughter, and son with nothing particularly off-putting about them. What offsets the situation is the idea that something lurks within, true to the Freudian concept that the scariest things that we can think of come directly from us. The house, as much as the family, are plagued by what Toni Colette’s character cries about in desperation at the beginning of the film, the monsters of mental illness that run in the family that she feels live on in her children, particularly in her young, reserved daughter. The uncanny element of the film can be understood in the title even, which itself indicates that the undoing of the characters and their fate is something that they have inherited from their own grandmother/mother. Charlie (the aforementioned young girl who is brutally and accidentally decapitated in a car accident) carried within her a literal demon that was brought into the family through her grandmother’s involvement in a hellish, nightmare cult- showing that her fate as much as her brother, mother, and father’s comes, literally, from the familiar. Ari Aster here explores one of the most widely set fears of any regular person: what if we were our worst enemy or deeply trusted them and we didn’t know it? Well kept domesticity has its own layers of (literal) hell within it, and the truth is shocking to behold.
Midsommar, on the other hand, is unsettling because of the fact that there is hardly any physical darkness within it. The majority of it unravels in a candy-colored palette, fields full of smiley-faced, tranquil individuals dressed mainly in white and flower-patterned cloths. Swedish midnight sun and aesthetically pleasing pageantry illuminate the most bloody and vile acts- starting with a woman throwing herself off a cliff to bash her face in. These horrifying scenes where the daylight illuminates every detail of the gore and destruction to an extent leaves you wishing perhaps the darkness could cloak some of it to make it less overwhelming to the senses.
The events that happen around the characters can be said to be completely external to them, except they aren’t. The familiar sunshine and colorful landscapes that might otherwise appease the common viewer are filled with a physical manifestation of Florence Pugh’s character’s (Dani, the protagonist of the film) trauma. After having lived through a gruesome murder-suicide in the family, with a boyfriend who does nothing to help her emotionally recover and begrudgingly sticks around uselessly, she bottles up her pain and buries it within her. Her means of processing her pain culminate in the iconic ending, where she, wearing a flower crown, looks upon her boyfriend, who is burning alive (upon her request), and smiles. Midsommar can be called a nightmare, played out in summery daylight, but it could also be interpreted as Dani’s ultimate fairytale. The uncanny here plays its role in its fundamentally contradictory elements, both visually and thematically.
Aster continues to shock and horrify us in innovative ways that are executed flawlessly upon the screens from where we watch his movies. Playing with horror as something that is so deeply internal speaks personally to his experiences, but also to a more universal one in general, finding that the most terrifying things come from the slow burn destruction that comes from a hidden place in our minds. Our subconscious is our greatest betrayer, and we hope to see what else he can bring to the table in what he has announced as his next project (a four-hour-long nightmare comedy as he describes it).