Short Film Review: Munchausen.
Ari Aster’s hyper-stylized silent short explores the darker side of a mother’s love.
Munchausen, from the director behind Midsommar, captures much of what was promising and frustrating about that work. Together with the excellent cinematography of long running collaborator Pawel Pogorzelski, Aster creates beautiful shots and captures evocative imagery. The story has a nice twist that nicely complicates the narrative. But like Midsommar, Munchausen can be frustratingly unsubtle and slow paced.
A mother (Bonnie Bedelia) watches her son (Liam Aiken) pack his belongings for college. Despite her pride in her son’s accomplishments, she longs to keep him close. As the final day before enrollment approaches, she desperately looks for a way to postpone their parting.
Aster and Pogorzelski are a fantastic team when it comes to composition. Each set is just the right amount of busy that feels realistic but also deliberately constructed. Their collaborations make you want to pause frequently to find little details that may prove meaningful later.
The style of the film is reminiscent of both 60’s family sitcoms, old silent films, and a dash of summer stock theater. The colors are vibrant and the lighting is often warm and bright. As the camera deftly moves through tableau’s of vintage Americana, we get jagged digital cuts. I wasn’t sure at first if they were intentional, but they seem to jump out when we witness moments the mother finds painful, so I assume they’re planned.
My biggest complaint with Midsommar was that everything felt unsubtle. Munchausen is much the same, though I think a few of the wrinkles Aster weaves in make this short less egregious. The over-expressive gestures of the cast felt blocky, too deliberately recreating old silent film mannerisms. This is coupled with a plot that moves inexorably towards a climax you know is coming – it’s in the name of the film.
The twist helps to defuse the feeling of oversimplification. After it, the lighting and the tone shift. A soundtrack of cheerful music with a few off notes now becomes ominous. We get some delightful close shots of Bonnie Bedilia who deftly switches style from expressive pantomime to a psychologically fraught reserve. There’s still a bit too much kitsch in the acting styles, and the story’s B side still relentlessly heads towards the outcome foregrounded by the movie’s title, but it’s got some subtext to help it.
I appreciated quite a bit about Munchausen, though I can’t say that I enjoyed it. The first half is a bit too wooden in its stylized presentation, though it has gorgeous cinematography. The twist shakes things up, but then the story settles again into a fairly predictable arc. I actually would have loved for a second twist to again recontextualize what we were seeing. The able cast has moments, but I found the pantomime to be hard to sit through.
I can see why Aster got his shot in Hollywood. He and Pogorzelski really craft some great shots, and the exploration and dark reimagining of a common feeling like empty nest syndrome is loaded with potential. I don’t think Munchausen gets all of that potential, but this is a solid short film for those who already enjoy Aster and Pogorzelski’s work.