I don’t make a habit of talking about my mental health online. But for the sake of context for this article it should be known that I was officially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder last year; specifically Bipolar II. Since then I’ve been in almost constant treatment, been on many different medications, and was hospitalized for four weeks for the second time in my life after a suicide attempt earlier this year.
One of the ways I cope with the familiar depression, and the consistently unfamiliar manic periods, is to dive deep into the things that give me comfort: my relationships, my cat, and my pop culture writing. Through this writing, I’ve come to learn what the creative, cultural, and societal views, both good, and in this case, very bad, are of mental health in the media.
Now, before we get started, when I say this is a bipolar reaction, that doesn’t mean that this article will read like the bipolar experience, the way that some critics have, bafflingly, proclaimed that Ari Aster has accomplished with his sophomore horror Midsommar. No experiments here; on this site we think spontaneous prose is just typing.
If you have already seen Midsommar, and read Louise’s review, you will know that we here at No But Listen were not impressed with Aster’s current “Best Horror Movie of All Time”. It actually pains me a little to be snide about the director as I adored his debut feature, Hereditary, but one classic doesn’t make you a sacred cow. Midsommar is an overlong masochistic no-thrills ride, but it could have been so different if Aster had the courage to further investigate why the film’s main character, Dani, was at the titular Midsummer festival in the first place.
The solution can be found with the film’s most glaring error. Midsommar begins with the news that Dani’s sister, who her very sensitive and neglectful boyfriend, Christian, reminds her is bipolar, kills their parents and then herself in a ghoulish, and painstakingly shot, murder-suicide.
I realize that if I want to find realistic portrayals of bipolar disorder the horror genre isn’t the best place to look. Considering the whole point of this type of story is to frighten you, it makes sense that mental health would be one of the bloody tools of the trade. Yet, a large portion of the genre uses these tools as a means of investigation. If I’m looking for a good scare, via an exaggerated view of mental disorders, I don’t need to go far. I could just watch Lights Out, or Split, or any James Wan-related horror because all of them are about trauma of some sort.
Then there are films like The Hole the Ground, The Babadook, Let the Right One In, The Little Stranger, and Aster’s own Hereditary – films that use the conventions of the genre to look at things like grief, abuse, class envy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression through their metaphorical monsters. My point is that Ari Aster has already proved that he’s good at making this type of horror movie. Sure, Hereditary was about the demon Paemon finally possessing the male body it always wanted, but I’ll bet when you think about what scared you about that film it has something to do with the family drama and inherited illness that run rife through the whole story.
This is why Midsommar is so disappointing. Aster isn’t just repeating the same tricks: it is yet another film in which the characters have no real control over what happens to them, with the choice not to investigate the death of the bipolar sister and her parents, he has actually regressed as a filmmaker.
Think I’m being too harsh? Too sensitive? Are you afraid I’m going to kill you if you disagree? All because I’m bipolar? It looks like Ari Aster does. Artists have a responsibility when it comes to the attitudes toward the subjects they put in their art. By using Dani’s homicidal-suicidal sister as nothing more than a plot device, and giving nothing more than her bipolarity as explanation for her actions – it is nothing less than ignorance. His reticence in exploring why this happened makes the whole plot seem unimportant, and by extension, a cheap reliance on ugly stereotypes about people with mental illnesses.
A few years ago, Lights Out caught some deserved criticism for its portrayal of a mother with depression (though she could be bipolar, as she is described at one point as being manic), but even that film did more than Midsommar. Even in its own heavy-handed way, it tried to investigate the topic of the horror found in someone with severe mental illness – Midsommar doesn’t even try. Dani’s sister is nothing more than functional, we are given no information about her other than that she is bipolar, a drama queen, and has been fighting with her parents. Aster tries to force some connective tissue later in the film with a couple of visions of Dani’s family, but it’s half-hearted compared to whatever she feels about Christian at any given time. No-one is asking why this sister killed herself and her parents – or why she spared Dani. Aster knows, but he doesn’t care.
In the end, I’m left simply asking: why? Why, in 2019, in a movie that is going to be seen by a shit-load of people, is mental illness in general and bipolar in particular still being portrayed in this way? We are not killers, we are not out to hurt those we love, and we are not fodder for some hack filmmaker’s artistic wankfest by very virtue of our illness. People with mental illness are more likely to be on the receiving end of violence, rather than being the perpetrator of it. Aster’s hopelessly ham-fisted depiction of the contrary plays into the widely-held belief that people are dangerous because of their mental illness. And, in a movie seen by thousands and Aster held up as a master storyteller with an understanding of his craft, that matters.
It’s films such as Midsommar that contribute to the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of bipolar disorder. By presenting bipolar as the only explanation for a violent crime, Aster connects the two – and then just leaves the audience with that ugly, misrepresentative connection. That the film does nothing with it is even worse. Even if Aster got it wrong, I would rather he got it wrong by trying to get it right, if he had made an actual attempt to explore the connection between mental illness and violence. If Aster had dropped the boogeyman of bipolar disorder from this movie, had the crime just be, would much have changed? The answer is no. And yet, he still felt the need to connect the two – and back up a harmful myth about people like me in the process.
Oh, and for all of you that believe that this film isn’t a rip-off of The Wicker Man, compare the endings and you’ll have another reason to believe that this auteur is full of shit.
By Kevin Boyle
(header image via The Film Magazine)