“I have nothing left to give”: Anxiety in mother! and Midsommar

As I have discussed in a previous post, horror seems to the genre that directors are turning to to discuss important issues that may be seen as taboo. One topic in particular is mental health and in particular, anxiety, has be woven into the genre but in a way where it is more than a character worrying about monsters. Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 mother! and Ari Aster’s summer smash Midsommar both explore anxiety through the eyes of a female protagonist thrust into the centre and horror of a cult. They have a lot of similar traits but are shown in completely different ways. Both protagonists are 20-something white women in volatile relationships who are trying to create homes for themselves and find their purpose.

Both films are essentially about place and belonging. Home is integral and is the (literally in mother!) heart of the story. This is more explicitly so in mother! as we see the titular character (Jennifer Lawrence) renovating her house right before it descends into chaos at the hands of her husband, Him (Javier Bardem). Aronofsky’s brilliance as a director shines in this film as we never leave mother’s side. The house becomes a metaphor for mother and the anxiety that she feels is felt by the house itself. As the camera follows her, we get a literal female gaze of her home from being a place that she has literally and figuratively built to the remnants as it bursts into flames and destruction. mother’s anxiety comes from the claustrophobic portrayal as the home becomes increasingly invaded. It’s a heavy film that builds all of its emotion like the foundations of the house. We never leave the house because mother never leaves the house. She is physically and emotionally trapped by the relationship she is in. Building and renovating the house gives a false sense of control but Him has been pulling the strings the entire time. When she falls pregnant and becomes increasingly stressed, the shots become longer and strained. The film is an unflinching look at the invasive nature of anxiety and the struggle that it brings. It’s a not-so-subtle allegory for the Bible but it elevates this experience and becomes an unhinged tale of manipulation and control resulting in a climax that spirals out of Him’s control and becomes bigger than the vision he planned. This is due, in part, to mother’s reluctance to go along with his plans and the insistence she has on keeping her baby to herself. She is the closest creation he has to perfect, but in the end it isn’t enough. Her fears are realised and much like the house, she succumbs to the loss.

Midsommar by comparison is a much more straightforward film. The second feature by Ari Aster (full review can be read here), has a simple linear beginning, middle, end but that is where the simplicity ends. Following Dani (Florence Pugh) as she ventures to Sweden with her estranged boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor) and his friends to partake in a Commune’s ceremony, Midsommar also provides an unflinching portrayal of anxiety through its protagonist. Damaged by the tragic loss of her family, Dani’s life is forced to a standstill as her boyfriend becomes emotionally distant and she becomes more isolated. After he reluctantly offers her a space on their trip to Sweden, Dani accepts in the hope of finding adventure and distraction from her life. Unlike mother!, Dani’s anxiety was already ingrained as her sister’s bipolar grew more severe as time went on. Her opening scene sees her debate whether to actively respond to her sister’s troubling emails which in turn then results in the tragic murder/suicide of her sister and parents. If mother! showed an implosion of anxiety, Midsommar is an explosion. Dani’s anxiety gradually blooms during her time in the commune as she embraces the traditions unlike Christian and the others. In a similar way to mother!, the camera shakes with the anxiety as Dani experiences her panic attacks. When she is in the Commune, her anxiety is sympathised with in a way that seems alien to her. She becomes comfortable and relaxed in a way that we do not see beforehand. Much like the mural that is presented at the start, Dani’s journey is like the seasons as we start in the harsh winter in America to the open Spring in Sweden. Using pathetic fallacy may seem on the nose and perhaps it is, but in this film it enhances the experience and adds texture. The environment becomes reflective of Dani’s experience. The drug trips are a great example. When she takes drugs at the Commune entrance with Christian, she experiences a bad trip paralleling her confusion and alienation from the others. Compare this to the dance competition later on where she becomes open among the other women and begins speaking Swedish shows a completely different person.

It’s no surprise that we are seeing an increase in films that explore mental health so explicitly. With more people being open about their experiences, it has become an important talking point and naturally films become reflective and reactive to the social climate. Films like mother! and Midsommar provide a different perspective by adding those horror elements and unflinching narrative. The results are, ironically, a realistic portrayal of the inner struggle of anxiety by turning the characters inside out, their emotions become the visual canvas for the films. By no means am I suggesting that mental health has never been explored in films but it’s interesting to see it being explored in such a unique way that doesn’t see the protagonist immediately thrown into a psychiatric unit. The characters of mother and Dani are deeply complex. They have their own needs and desires and struggle with remaining an outsider to their peers. mother! shows a failed attempt whereas Midsommar goes down a route that is more successful but not in a way that would be deemed acceptable by those who did isolate her in America.

Both directors also wrote the scripts and their visions show a consistency with their own portfolios. Aronofosky is more experience and tends to write from the perspective of the outsider striving for success whereas Aster’s debut Hereditary follows a female protagonist who struggles to feel motivated when she emotionally finds herself spiralling downwards in a similar way to Dani. Both scripts are claustrophobic with Aronofsky opting to create a claustrophobic setting with an isolated cast. Even their names are unknown as they become known by their societal expectation whereas the characters in Midsommar are assigned their societal roles by the Commune at the end of the ceremony.

In conclusion, it’s clear that these are films that have a lot to say about society as a whole and what really makes an individual an outsider. Can an outsider ever truly fit in? Even then, is fitting in even the best solution? As shown in mother!, fitting in equates to chaos. The Commune in Midsommar hides its unspeakable actions behind the guise of ceremony and Dani becomes accomplice to this by accepting the events that occur. I am interested to see whether both directors further this narrative in future films and to see how mental health is portrayed in films in the future in general in a social climate that is becoming more and more uncertain each day.

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