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What does grief look like?

The agony of losing a loved one is at once one of the most universal of human experiences and one of the hardest to concretely define. It is a pain that cannot live in words or gestures, a pain totally unique to each individual, a pain so vast yet so entrenched in the minutiae of daily life. A concept as overwhelmingly nebulous and personal as grief might seem impossible to capture in any context, let alone the fleeting frames of a moving image, but cinema has nevertheless striven to reproduce that pain, squeezing and flattening it into a two-dimensional film print. 

Grief has taken nearly every conceivable shape on the big screen — rivulets of tears, maudlin pop songs, murderous monsters — but few forms come close to embodying the true anguish at its core. In the aftermath of suddenly losing my best friend Gwen to a car accident during my senior year of high school, I found myself seeking out a representation of my grief, unable to contend with my hideously explosive reaction to her death and the resulting emptiness. I felt like I did not respond correctly, nor was I mourning the right way. My feelings were refracted and reframed into more palatable expressions onscreen, particularly in the female characters with whom I sought refuge. The women would weep or, more frequently, drop into catatonic states at the outset, their emotions crystallizing so quickly that their make-up was inscrutable. They cried, they compartmentalized, they carried on. Their grief was small enough to fit in a jewelry box.

My search went on for nearly a year and a half before I finally encountered a film that could fit every ugly, unvarnished corner of a woman’s grief — Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” After finding her daughter’s dead body in her car, protagonist Annie does not react like a typical female character. She screams primitively, hunched over on her hands and knees, inconsolable. Her sobs are not so much cries as guttural sounds of total agony, unaffiliated with any particular emotion. At one point, she shrieks “I just want to die” before lapsing again into screams. Her grief transcends the mere hysteria that might color a female character’s response in a lesser movie: Her grief is tremendous, so intense that its permutations are violent and senselessly destructive. She is undergoing something traumatic beyond measure, an intergenerational ritual of undoing that deprograms her to the point of incapacitation.

“Hereditary” was the first movie I saw that accurately encapsulated what it was like to go through that pain. Like Annie, I screamed before I cried, a scream so piercing that it drew every member of my family to my bedroom. I lost my motor control, my spatial awareness; I fell down in the hallway, wailing. I wanted to die if only to escape that awful, crushing feeling of having to relive — in every second, in every breath — the moment of knowing. Grief is a pain strong enough to shake the stars from the sky; Ari Aster conveyed that by letting his protagonist break instead of bending.

The theme of grief is also prevalent in Aster’s sophomore effort, “Midsommar,” which includes a scene so similar that I was once again transported to that moment of knowing. Protagonist Dani receives a phone call that her sister has killed herself and her parents, confirming Dani’s fears about her sister’s mental wellbeing that had repeatedly been dismissed by her aloof boyfriend. The dread of no response, of sending messages that are going unread, is captured perfectly, as is Dani’s response. Like Annie in “Hereditary,” she falls apart: She clings desperately to her boyfriend, wailing like a child and unable to breathe between screams that spill almost unconsciously out of her. Grief again overwhelms her so completely that it eclipses everything else, filling every inch of the frame.

Ari Aster has quickly made a name for himself by writing and directing two of the most visually compelling and beautifully disturbing films of the decade, but his movies have never scared me — they bring me to tears. Too often, women are relegated to the background of their own stories, forced to internalize their grief and remain an emotional stalwart for others. In Aster’s films, women grieve loudly and openly. They do not cry prettily. They cope badly with their pain. They are triggered and traumatized. They are torn open and transformed by their losses, never once concerned with appearances or control. 

The audience is forced to endure every interminable second of these women’s pain, which makes it all the more true to the actual experience. In Aster’s world, grief looks like the inescapable image of Toni Collette contorted on the floor, writhing and wailing in utter excruciation. Grief looks as painful as it is in reality. For a woman whose grief was too great for words, I am comforted by their pain. Like the village women who give Dani the space and support to finally vocalize every awful feeling still attached to her family’s deaths through primal screaming in “Midsommar,” Aster’s female characters validate my grief in all of its ugly, wounded enormity. I am woman — hear me scream.


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