Movies

Ari Aster’s Mouths of Madness

Josh Larsen

Writer-director Ari Aster has only two films under his belt—Hereditary and the new Midsommar—yet he’s already established a signature visual motif: that of a character’s open mouth, howling in despair. Whether it’s personal tragedy or cultish horror that leads to the exaggerated expression (often it’s a combination of both), Aster’s films ask: after a character has been ripped open by trauma, what spiritual forces will enter the wounded space?

The first instance of howling in Midsommar takes place during its lengthy, pre-title prologue. Dani (Florence Pugh) sits on a couch with her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), wailing in response to horrible, life-altering news she’s received. A short time after, seeking a fresh start, she decides to tag along with Christian and some of his friends to Sweden, where they plan to attend a midsummer festival in the small village where one of those friends grew up. It turns out the village is actually a commune and the festival involves a number of strange, increasingly disturbing rituals—including a dancing contest Dani joins to determine the May Queen. Yes, shrieking and groaning are involved.

In the Bible, wailing is a common motif. Consider the lament offered up by Old Testament prophets like Amos and Jeremiah. And of course there is Job, whose personal agony is closer to what Aster’s characters experience. It’s easy to imagine Job with his mouth agape as he “tore his robe and shaved his head,” having learned of the deaths of his sons and daughters. Satan is the direct culprit of Job’s anguish, just as the characters in Hereditary are tormented by a literal demon. In the Bible as in Aster’s films, our misery can be at once earthly and spiritual.

In the New Testament, Mark 5 offers three accounts of Jesus meeting individuals enduring despair and mental distress, akin to that of Job: Jairus, a synagogue leader whose daughter is dying; a lowly woman who “had been subject to bleeding for 12 years;” and a demon-possessed man who would “cry out and cut himself with stones.” Jesus ministered to all three, even though his healing of the possessed man was denounced by those who lived in the region. Perhaps letting someone suffer can seem safer than meeting them in their frightening need.

In Midsommar, Dani is in need—mentally adrift in a post-traumatic, fugue state. Her boyfriend Christian, who should be offering support, instead becomes increasingly distant as her anxiety increases. This leaves a void that the villagers—with their beautifully embroidered frocks and welcome smiles—eagerly try to fill. At first, they seem to offer Dani exactly what she is seeking: caring community. “I have always felt held,” explains Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), the friend who grew up in the commune. But this is a distortion of the sort of holding—the unconditional love—that Christ offers. How do we know this? Follow the howling. (Spoilers ahead.)

In the Bible as in Aster’s films, our misery can be at once earthly and spiritual.

One of the first rituals that Dani, Christian, and the other outsiders witness is a double suicide, in which an older couple from the commune willingly jumps from a cliff to their deaths on a stone table below. The man, however, misses the table and snaps his leg instead. As he screams in pain, the other members of the commune wail along with him, crying out as a dedicated executioner walks over to the injured man with a giant sledgehammer to “finish the job.” The sobbing continues in the background, perhaps as some sort of consolation. Yet I couldn’t help noticing that their cries also drowned out the lament of the dying man.

Something similar happens later in the film, after Dani makes a devastating discovery and falls to the floor in open-mouthed horror, succumbing to a complete breakdown. Eerily, young women from the commune surround her, once again echoing her cries. She looks at them in confusion, unable to decide if what’s happening is disturbing or cathartic. Are they being empathic? Making fun of her? We can’t quite tell.

As Christians, how do we meet those who are suffering from trauma or burdened by mental illness? Are we like milquetoast Christian in Midsommar—easily unnerved and eager to slowly back away? Or are we like Christ, sitting with those who suffer in their misery, offering love with no strings attached? The bleeding woman in Mark 5 could have been easily ignored—she’s the one who furtively touched Jesus’ cloak as he rushed to meet Jairus’ daughter—yet he paused to heal her, saying, “Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” The delay might have cost Jairus’ daughter her life, except that Jesus is sovereign over death as well as illness. “Why all this commotion and wailing?” he asks the gathered mourners at Jairus’ house. “The child is not dead but asleep.” And indeed, she rises.

In Midsommar, death reigns. The community that the commune offers comes at an awful price. Follow the rules and rituals, and then they will “hold” you, as Pelle described. The film leads up to a sacrificial rite that the commune enacts every 90 years, involving multiple murders of outsiders and the willing self-sacrifice of a handful of their own people in a gigantic bonfire. As one of those victims screams in agony amidst the flames, the villagers once again join in as a chorus—this time even writhing about, as if they were suffering burns themselves. There is no consolation or empathy at work here; instead, something like mockery is in the air.

Confidently crafted and deeply disturbing, Midsommar puts us face to face with mouths of madness, with characters who have sunk to the lowest pits of despair. The good news we can bring is that through Christ, our howling is met with holding. And this holding comes without cost, only the promise that “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Pagan rituals no longer required.

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