You can almost hear the musical score when thinking about old silent films from the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. They have that peppy melody to really shine a light on the optimism of what could be before some sort of hardship or tragedy arrives with a somber tone to lead our emotions along a roller coaster of hijinks and reflection. But we never mind that slow, deep transition of sound because it’s always followed by a miraculous recovery, joyous occasion, or happily ever after. We get through the sadness because there’s always a rainbow around the corner. We laugh at the bad luck because we are readying ourselves to guffaw at the turnaround, smiling at our hero as victory is finally achieved.
Well it seems writer/director Ari Aster sought to discover what happens when this template gets subverted. What if he started a film with the melancholy of new beginnings only to watch them blossom? What if he gave his character everything he could ever want with nary a stumble, but then revealed how this luckiest man in the whole world wasn’t his lead? What if that success was actually another’s misfortune? And what if that misfortune brought a pain so deep that she’d be desperate enough to do anything to make it go away: including transferring it onto the single person of which you’d hope she’d only wish happiness? Aster answers these questions within his short film Munchausen. He wields a silent era comedic aesthetic and lets tragedy reign.
So we watch Liam Aiken pack for college while his proud mother (Bonnie Bedelia) looks on with a mixture of excitement and sadness. As he advances through the years with awards, opportunities, and love (Rachel Brosnahan), she reminisces about the good old days when he was hers and hers alone. Aster moves from scene to scene with close-up cuts transitioning from one locale to the next, each change in scenery accompanied by that infectious score working its damnedest to earn a sigh of relief and a smile of contentment. But with every memory his current self conjures in Mom, her attitude dips further below her emotion threshold. Soon her son’s flawless existence can be exposed as mere fantasy—an embellished lie to justify a horrific response.
Aster keeps our attention because of the cinematic tools he’s utilizing. We watch under the assumption that Act One’s fantasy promises Act Two to be a nightmare. Our ride is upon the music and Bedelia’s expressive performance with moments that resonate universally. But her feelings possess the power to turn love into an obsession wherein guilt arrives only too late. Suddenly the hopes and dreams of a child and his parents turn into a life ravaged by suffering because of selfishness. One misstep driven by a lapse in judgment and impulse turns a cause for celebration into one portending death. But whether or not what this mother does was intentional, nobody can control the uncontrollable. We therefore hold our breath waiting for another reversal that may never come.